Despite many hours exploring the hallways and hideaways of the Cathedral of Learning, I only recently considered the symbolism of its floor plan. The Nationality Rooms ring the Commons Room. Many distinct national identities surround a space of shared humanity.
The inspiration for this musing was the discovery of a remarkable collection of letters compiled by the Pittsburgh Conference of Jewish Women’s Organizations. The letters are responses to a questionnaire distributed by the Conference in 1929 and 1930, asking whether the Jewish people should have a Nationality Room in the Cathedral of Learning.
The original plan for the Nationality Rooms snubbed the Jews. Lillian Canter Schutzman of the Conference was appalled by this omission and set out to rectify it. She sent a questionnaire to 100 “outstanding persons,” hoping to compile a catalog of support for a “Jewish room.” Her list included notable Pittsburghers but also some of the most famous Jews in the world: Albert Einstein, Henrietta Szold, Julian Morgenstern and others.
Her effort failed, and it took nearly 60 years before the University of Pittsburgh dedicated the Israel Heritage Room in 1987. The historian David Rosenberg told the story of Schutzman’s campaign and its aftermath in this newspaper on Oct. 4, 2007. In the years since his article was published, though, the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives was given a folder containing 39 actual responses to the original questionnaire.
The collection is fascinating for many reasons, not the least of which is the giddy Pittsburgh pride of seeing “Cathedral of Learning” typed onto the stationery of so many famous people. But what is most interesting, to my mind, is how respondents answered Schutzman’s third question: “Do you believe in a plurality of cultures in America?”
The answers are lofty, indignant, irreverent, cautious, dismissive — and in the case of the Louis Brandeis letter reprinted here, terse and non-committal. “I regret that I have not a definite opinion,” the Supreme Court justice wrote in the margin of a reminder notice.
English novelist Louis Golding: “I believe in a plurality of cultures in America, and even in Timbuktu.” Der Tag editor Dr. Samuel Margoshes: “Yes, I do believe in a plurality of cultures in America. Anglo-Saxon culture has no mortgage on a population of one hundred and twenty millions.” Zionist leader Nahum Sokolow: “Personally, I prefer plurality of culture to the monotony of local genius. But there are local political interests in this problem on which I am not competent to give a judgment.” Harvard Business School professor Nathan Isaacs: “The third question doesn’t mean anything at all to me.”
The questionnaire was issued five years after America restricted immigration. Schutzman asked: What comes next? Do the nations of the world get to bring their contributions to the Commons Room, or must their distinctions remain preserved in the Nationality Rooms?
Rabbi Goodman Rose of Beth Shalom saw no conflict: “Looking forward I hope the day will come when there will be only one world culture. Looking backward, you cannot blink the fact that the national culture of any country, particularly of the United States of America, is largely a composite. I prefer that people should have pride even though they live in the American melting-pot, in their national origins and what they stood for culturally, rather than that they forget their ancestry and be ashamed of their ethnic origin.”
Rabbi Herman Hailperin of Tree of Life considered it historically: “I believe in a plurality of cultures in America. This is not a matter of belief, but a fact of history. The richness of America has been due to the several contributions made by the various cultures of the world. This is true of American history from the very beginning of the Colonial period.”
My favorite answer comes from Rabbi Sol B. Freidman of Poale Zedeck. His tone avoids self-importance, cleverness and stridency, favoring simplicity instead. In any cosmopolitan country, he wrote, a plurality of cultures was inevitable. “Furthermore it gives the various nationalities represented in America an opportunity to know and learn something about the culture of other nations besides their own.”
That is certainly the effect of touring the Nationality Rooms, regardless of the intention behind their design. 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.