Even if you don’t know a word of Hebrew, this book of sermons provides plenty of leads to follow to learn about local Jewish history. The few lines of English at the bottom of this title page contain two good starting points for research: author and printer.
The author, “Rabbi S. M. Neches,” is Rabbi Solomon Michael Neches (1891-1954). He was born in Jerusalem and ordained at its Yeshivas Etz Chaim. He came to Pittsburgh in 1912 or 1913 after two years in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was the first rabbi of B’nai Israel Congregation in East Liberty. The congregation had been formally chartered only a few years earlier and was meeting at the old Masonic Temple on Collins Avenue.
If the weekly listings in the Jewish Criterion are any indication, Neches was an active orator during his stay in Pittsburgh. He usually delivered two sermons each Shabbos — a drash on the Torah portion in English (and sometimes Hebrew, too) during morning services and a talk in Yiddish during afternoon services. He also gave an in-depth scholarly lecture on Sundays and often delivered special sermons just for children.
He was also a teacher. He was superintendent of the B’nai Israel religious school, oversaw the beginnings of the congregational library and led a short-lived Jewish history and Hebrew society created by 20 young Jewish men living in East Liberty.
Neches left Pittsburgh in early 1918 to assume the pulpit at Agudath Achim in Columbus, Ohio. He moved west a few years later and spent the rest of his life in Los Angeles, where he led the Breed Street synagogue and was dean of a yeshiva called the Western Jewish Institute.
Back in Pittsburgh, B’nai Israel hired Rabbi Benjamin Lichter in 1920, affiliated with the Conservative movement in 1922, dedicated its synagogue on Negley Avenue in 1924 and became one of the largest Jewish congregations in the city.
The sermons in Shemen Turak require an advanced level of Hebrew, but a profile of Neches in the journal Nitzachon in 2017 describes the book as “applying Torah ideas to contemporary issues of society and philosophy.” Sprinkled throughout are English phrases such as “State Department,” “homeopathy” and “neo-Platonism.”
Neches hired a local printer for his book. “Glick Print” is Joseph Selig Glick (1852-1922), who came to Pittsburgh in 1889 from Lithuania (also by way of Brooklyn) and ran a publishing house at various storefronts in the lower Hill District. He is best known for two periodicals: a Yiddish literary journal with an occasional Hebrew supplement called Der Volksfreund and a local Yiddish newspaper called Di Iddishe Post.
Thanks to Dr. Ida Selavan Schwartz, copies of both newspapers are available on microfilm at the University of Pittsburgh. In a 1976 article about the local Yiddish press, she noted, “[Glick] wrote most of the articles himself, translated others, ‘borrowed’ on occasion from the other Yiddish and Hebrew periodicals of the time, set the type, printed the paper, bound and distributed his newspapers by himself, assisted by his son Samuel.”
This copy of Shemen Turak was given to the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives by Seth Glick, a descendent of Joseph Glick and a book dealer, like his ancestor. Neches’ name is stamped inside, suggesting it came from his library.
Joseph Glick and Rabbi Neches were kindred spirits of different generations. Both men were pious, intelligent and entrepreneurial. Schwartz described Glick’s two newspapers as being “full of jokes, puns, word play, doggerel, anecdotes, ‘raisins from the Talmud and witty sayings from our Sages.’” According to the profile in Nitzachon, “Rabbi Neches was a master darshan. He loved clever ideas, sayings, and parables.”
Shemen Turak represents more than a meeting of like minds. It represents a convergence of several factors: a scholarly rabbinate, a printer with a Hebrew typeface and an interest in local subjects, and a shared belief that the value of books comes from their content rather than their commercial appeal. The name Shemen Turak is taken from Song of Songs. Roughly translated, the words mean “poured out oil,” and they refer to the virtue of sharing precious information. Bottled oil cannot release its fragrance. PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Sen. John Heinz History Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-454-6406.