It’s not every day that the City of Pittsburgh declares a day in your honor. But then again, it’s not every day that you reach the century mark, either.
“This kid’s been around for 100 years,” said Dorothy Grinberg, who on July 1 celebrated her centenarian birthday.
Joining her in the festivities was the Pittsburgh City Council, which declared Friday to be “Dorothy Amdur Grinberg Day” to “recognize the lasting contributions Dorothy Grinberg has made on the Pittsburgh community over the last century.”
Grinberg was born in Montefiore Hospital, “but not,” she emphasized, “the Montefiore that we know today.” Her birth took place in the original hospital on Centre Avenue in the Hill District, opened just nine years before.
She spent the first few years of her life living just a few minutes away, on Milwaukee Street in the Hill District, then a bustling Jewish neighborhood. When she was still a little girl, her family joined many others in leaving the area in a mini exodus to Squirrel Hill and Shadyside. The Amdur family moved to 517 Shady Ave., which Grinberg considers her real childhood home. There, she grew up, the oldest of three girls, with sisters Miriam and Sylvia.
“There were really no Jewish families around us,” said Grinberg. Despite the new neighborhood’s smaller Jewish population, Grinberg’s family was still mostly observant. “My folks kept kosher, if you please.”
Though they “never, ever spoke Yiddish,” her family observed all the holidays, and Grinberg and her sisters attended Hebrew school at Rodef Shalom Congregation, where Grinberg remains a member and served on the board of the Sisterhood and as a docent for the synagogue’s Biblical Gardens.
She attended the Shakespeare Street Elementary School — now the site of a Giant Eagle supermarket — and later Taylor Allderdice High School, “when it was maybe 3 years old” and the cafeteria food cost five cents. Upon graduation, Grinberg attended the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied psychology and sociology, though she dropped out when she got engaged to Bernard J. Grinberg, a local boy who grew up in Homestead, near the belching steel mills.
“She didn’t think her father should have to pay for school,” said Grinberg’s son, Max. The sentiment was a common one for the time. She would be supported by Bernard, who worked in the family business, a chain of small department stores called Buy-Wise.
In 1937, Dorothy and Bernard were married at Beth Shalom, all movie-star good looks and wide smiles. The couple settled in Squirrel Hill, where — though “his family regarded me as a goy,” she quipped — they kept meat and dairy dishes and she lit candles every Friday night. In time, they had three boys: Richard (Dick), who passed away 10 years ago, Myron (Max Warren), who now lives in Rochester, N.Y., and Robert (Bob), who lives in Boston.
Grinberg said that she lives in “such a totally different world” than the one she grew up in. The rattling streetcars she took everywhere as a girl have vanished, the tracks pulled up so that “there’s not even a vestige of them anymore.” But though “this isn’t the world that was when I was growing up,” she said, “Judaism is still alive.”
Grinberg herself is a part of this continuity.
“I never had a paying job,” she revealed. Though that may “sound weird” to modern ears, it freed her up to serve her community. Grinberg has spent the last 80 years involved in the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women and in 2000, was named corresponding secretary for life. Despite the advent of computers, she never learned to use one, always telling people, “My computer’s up here,” as she tapped her temple. Grinberg continues to hand write all of the personal notes for the organization. When she injured her shoulder a few years ago, she told those around her that she was anxious to heal so that she could continue her work for them.
She received the Anne Copeland Remembrance Award from the Development Council for Israel/Israel Bonds Pittsburgh Women’s Council in 2011. She joined Hadassah and served as president of the Mount Scopus group, and was named one of the Jewish Association on Aging’s “Eight Over 80.”
Grinberg even helped to raise money for the fledgling Brandeis University, selling books to help fund the school’s purchase.
Grinberg’s service to the Jewish community is rivaled only by her deep love for this city. Her home, just a few blocks away from the college where she studied, is filled with books about the city: One full of watercolors of Pittsburgh sits on the coffee table, near the large certificate of congressional recognition from Sen. Pat Toomey honoring her on her 100th birthday.
Son Bob remembered his mother telling him that, as a girl, she paid 10 cents to sponsor a brick in the Cathedral of Learning, then in the process of being constructed.
“I never lived anywhere else,” said Grinberg. “I never permit anyone to make jokes about my Pittsburgh.”
>>The Jewish Chronicle is interested in writing more profiles about the community’s centenarians. If you know of someone who is about to turn 100, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Masha Shollar can be reached at email@example.com.