‘Steel City Jews’New book chronicles Pittsburgh Jewry from 1840 to 1915

‘Steel City Jews’New book chronicles Pittsburgh Jewry from 1840 to 1915

When Barbara Burstin began gathering material in the 1980s on Pittsburgh’s Jewish history, she didn’t know how she would ultimately use the information, or even when.
“I knew I wanted to do something,” the Pittsburgh academic and historian said. “What shape it would take was not clear to me.”
Nearly 20 years later, including five years of solid writing, the shape is finally clear.
Burstin is out with her second book, “Steel City Jews: A History of Pittsburgh and its Jewish Community 1840-1915,” in which she carefully mixes Pittsburgh history and its Jewish influence.
The well-annotated book traces the Jewish presence along the three rivers from its earliest days, including the traders who journeyed to and from Fort Pitt, peddlers who settled here in the 1840s, synagogues that rose here, the struggle for religious tolerance, integration into city life and, by the end of the work, the rise of Zionism.
Though fascinated by Pittsburgh’s history in general, and its Jewish history in particular, Burstin said there’s nothing “unique” about the city’s broader Jewish history. It is specific aspects of that history that stand out.
For instance, Pittsburgh’s role in the American Zionist movement especially impressed Burstin.
“There were a number of Zionist groups in Pittsburgh even before the turn of the century,” Burstin writes in the book. “In fact, Pittsburgh was a hotbed of Zionist activity. One Pittsburgh Jewish historian has claimed that the first Zionist chapter in the country may well have been on the Hill in Pittsburgh.”
She also noted the visit by President William Howard Taft to Rodef Shalom in 1909 in what is believed to be the first official visit by an American president to a
“It was a commentary on the pre-eminence of Rodef Shalom and its leader, [Rabbi] J. Leonard Levy,” Burstin told The Chronicle. “He was a major player.”
In fact, Levy, a “peacenik,” as Burstin described him, dabbled in all sorts of activities that earned him praise and sometimes scorn.
He spearheaded the creation of the Pittsburgh Peace, Society, was vice president of the Universal Peace Society, and had the ear of President Theodore Roosevelt, all of which drew accolades.
But his support for greater Jewish settlement in a part of China — Manchuria — drew attacks from Zionists. An anti-Zionist, Levy once called the movement, “the greatest political blunder committed by a section of the Jewish people in two millennia.”
“He was attacked by the Zionists [who said] ‘what are you doing encouraging settlement here?’” Burstin said.
One aspect of the city’s history that surprised Burstin was the level of corruption here, particularly prostitution, and how a citizens group called the Voters League, led by Jewish attorney A. Leo Weil, fought the city in court in 1912 to crack down on it. Then-Pittsburgh Mayor William Magee once excoriated Weil as a “human bloodhound.”
Self-published at a time when local history is not popular with publishing houses, “Steel City Jews” was very much a grassroots effort for Burstin. She even sponsored a contest on Craigslist to design the cover. She got 30 entries.
She will be doing book signings this weekend at Borders East Side bookstore and at the Heinz History Center book fair.
As the book’s title suggests, a sequel is in the offing.
“I’m really envisioning a second book,” Burstin said, one that takes the local Jewish story through the 1930s and ’40s and the birth of Israel. It will not go up to the present, she said.
But she will start work on the project soon.
“I figure by January, I’ll get itchy to begin work,” she said. “I love the creative process.”

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