The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pittsburgh cartoonists reflect a city’s pain and compassion after the synagogue shooting

Rob Rogers/Andrews McMeel Syndication 2018 (Rob Rogers/by Rob Rogers / Andrews McMeel Syndication 2018)
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ROB ROGERS spent Saturday glued to the tube, watching coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and growing sickened by details of the anti-Semitic attack in the city that he has long called home.

Rogers used to live in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, and he and his wife still live not far from its Tree of Life Congregation, where 11 people were slain by a lone gunman.

“We go there all the time,” the longtime Pittsburgh cartoonist says of Squirrel Hill. “Our favorite dumpling place is there. One of our favorite movie theaters is there. My art-supply store is there. It is a beautiful, tree-filled neighborhood that makes you forget you are in the heart of a big city.”

Yet Rogers initially wasn’t going to draw a rapid response to the tragedy. As a syndicated freelancer, he faced no imminent deadline in the way he did during a quarter-century at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, before the left-leaning cartoonist was fired in June amid the paper’s ideological shift.

“My first instinct was to wait and draw something the next day or Monday,” Rogers tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “It would give me more time to process the massacre and be thoughtful about it. I didn't want to rush into commenting.

“These are the hardest cartoons to draw — the hardest news stories to know how to comment on,” continues Rogers, whose three-decade career has included commenting on many terrorist attacks and mass shootings. “You can’t use humor — one of the essential tools for a cartoonist.”

The longer Rogers watched the news coverage, however, the more his sense of urgency increased. “I realized it wasn't just a mass shooting but a hate crime of historic proportions,” he says. “I knew I couldn't wait.”

So Rogers came up with many Pittsburgh-themed ideas, yet none struck quite the right note. “I even drew a version of the Steelers logo with the diamonds replaced by Stars of David. It felt too reductive,” he says, noting: “Later, I saw a meme with a similar image. It worked. Oh, well.”

To reflect the anti-Semitic hate, Rogers decided to invoke Kristallnacht as a historical allusion.

“I was a little hesitant to compare this violence to the 1938 Nazi attack on Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues. It is always a risk to reference Nazi Germany or the Holocaust,” Rogers says. “But when I heard that this was the worst attack on Jews in American history, I felt like it was worth the risk.”

Randy Bish, 57, has lived in the Pittsburgh area all his life and worked as the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review cartoonist for 31 years before taking a buyout in 2016. As with Rogers, his connection to Pittsburgh’s citizens runs deep.

“All Pittsburgh’s communities were built by hard-working, decent, honest people who would gladly give their neighbors the shirt from their own back if it would help in any way,” says Bish, who still draws several cartoons a week.

So he created editorial art that reflected a rooted sense of deep compassion — a work that, like Rogers’s cartoon, was soon widely shared on social media over the weekend.

“We were taught by Fred Rogers to love, cherish and respect our neighbors,” says Bish, referring to the late children’s TV host who lived in Squirrel Hill. “One look at the recent photo of the young child offering cookies to a police officer shows the compassion of Pittsburgh’s people.

“There is no place for hate in this town,” Bish says. “In the end, compassion will endure.”