‘Jewish Pittsburgh’ is a stirring photo trip down memory lane
“Images of America: Jewish Pittsburgh” is a black-and-white photographic odyssey of the history of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and its vast contribution to today’s culture, services and institutions.
The book gives visual evidence of a bygone era, whose main players are mostly gone but whose legacies live on. Accompanying each photo are tidbits and anecdotes about Pittsburgh’s Jewish founding fathers and mothers; chapter introductions with such titles as “Who Are The Jews?” “Destination Pittsburgh” and “Jews in America’s Wars” expand upon the historical backgrounds of the numerous photos reproduced in the book.
For native Pittsburghers, it’s likely that some of the photos will serve as a portal to their own history — such as when I noticed the photo of Richest Delicatessen on the front cover. I had almost completely forgotten about that deli on Sixth Street, but the sign stirred up recollections of sharing corned beef sandwiches with my father, who counted Richest among his favorite restaurants in Pittsburgh.
Other readers will likely recognize many key individuals and families whose names will be forever linked with Pittsburgh, such as photos of the Kaufmann family, who established both the Irene Kaufmann Settlement (IKS), a social welfare agency that gave birth to the Jewish Community Center, as well as Kaufmann’s Department Store.
Still others may be surprised to learn about the origins of some of Pittsburgh’s most respected businesses and organizations and the role that the early Jewish residents, many of whom were immigrants, played in their establishment. For example, Jewish familes founded and still own Giant Eagle and White Cross drug store, which eventually became Revco, then CVS.
The photographs also depict long gone businesses, such as the Frank and Seder clothing store; Caplan’s Bakery in the Hill District, the neighborhood that was the epicenter of Jewish life before it migrated to Squirrel Hill; and the Yehoash Folk School at the IKS, a Yiddish school that has been defunct since the 1930s.
Other facts that may be surprising to readers is that parts of the North Shore were known as Little Jerusalem; that Congregation Tree of Life (now Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha) began as a breakaway group from Rodef Shalom Congregation; and that Pittsburgh had a Jewish professional basketball team a century ago called the Coffey Club.
One of the most intriguing photos depicts Golda Meir posing with the Pioneer Women (now NA’AMAT) in 1934, prior to her becoming Israel’s prime minister.
The book reveals that Pittsburgh’s Jews made their mark not just in business and service organizations, but in politics, sports, the arts and medicine. Prominent families and individuals depicted include teacher and artist Samuel Rosenberg; Emanuel Wertheimer, a liquor distiller and one of the first Jews to enter local politics; and Anne X. Alpern, a lawyer who had many “firsts” to her name, including the first woman to become state attorney general and the first woman on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Jews also founded the Pittsburgh Ballet and the Pittsburgh Public Theater.
The book was thoroughly researched by local historian and Holocaust expert Barbara Burstin. With the assistance of Pittsburgh writer Eric Lidji, Burstin found most of the photos at the Rauh Jewish Archives housed at the Heinz History Center and some others through the University of Pittsburgh and private collections.
“You’re seeing all the important things that people have done; it is an impressive array of accomplishments in a whole variety of fields,” Burstin said by phone.
Though Burstin is not native to Pittsburgh — she arrived in 1973 — she has probably amassed as much or more knowledge about the Jewish community as any lifelong resident. Burstin is also the author of “Steel City Jews,” though she expects that her current book will draw more attention for the simple reason that it has pictures.
“Pictures do tell a story and make an impression on ways the written word does not necessarily do,” she said.
“I realized that there was a need for this summary, this narrative of the community,” she added. “History is important, it inspires and instructs.”
Burstin, who is on the faculty at both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University, refers to Jewish Pittsburgh’s history as “formidable” and “quite impressive.”
“I had no problem filling the pages and highlighting a lot of people,” she said. “When you put all these individual acts together, it really comes up to an amazing record of what one group has contributed to the city.”
“Images of America: Jewish Pittsburgh” will be available for purchase at local bookstores and through Burstin’s website, pittsburghjewishhistory.com. She will speak about her book at an event sponsored by the Lev Society and the Jewish Federation at Greater Pittsburgh at Rodef Shalom on May 26 at 5:30 p.m.
As Burstin noted in the book, “Jews have a commitment to zachor, to remember the past.” Lest they be forgotten, these images serve as meaningful reminders as to how Jewish Pittsburgh came to be and the Jewish men and women who played a significant role in its growth.
For more information or to register for the Lev Society event call 412-992-5249, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at email@example.com.