An early moment in the Sephardic history of Pittsburgh
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HistoryWho is David A. Mendoza?

An early moment in the Sephardic history of Pittsburgh

A plaque at Congregation Poale Zedeck both confirms and complicates the often-told story of our region.

The Mendoza family of Pittsburgh traced its lineage back through England, Amsterdam and the worst years of Jewish persecution in Spain and Portugal. (Photo provided by the Rauh Jewish Archives)
The Mendoza family of Pittsburgh traced its lineage back through England, Amsterdam and the worst years of Jewish persecution in Spain and Portugal. (Photo provided by the Rauh Jewish Archives)

A few months ago, someone came up to me in synagogue and asked, “Who is David A. Mendoza?” I knew exactly why he was asking. I had often wondered myself.

At Congregation Poale Zedeck, along the eastern wall of the sanctuary, above the ark, there is a large circular stained glass window. It features the hands of the priestly blessing inside a fiery Star of David. Affixed to the glass, slightly off center, is a hand-painted plaque. It reads: “David A. Mendoza, in memory of Emanuel & Lucy Mendoza.”

My curiosity — and my friend’s, too, I think — came from the name Mendoza. It is a surname that seemed to swim against the strongest currents of local Jewish history.

Mendoza suggests the world of the “Western Sephardim.” These were the Jews who remained in Spain and Portugal following the conversion decrees and later migrated into northern Europe. They were eventually among the first Jewish settlers in North America. They began arriving in the 17th century and formed communities in New York, Philadelphia, Rhode Island, in cities down the East Coast, in the Caribbean and in Brazil.

They really didn’t cross the Allegheny Mountains to our side of the state. Our story began with later waves. Southern Germans and then Poseners came in the 1840s, followed by Lithuanians and Hungarians, and then Russians, Poles, Galitzianers, Romanians and other Eastern Europeans. The Sephardic population of our region emerged after World War II with the arrival of families from Egypt, Greece, Iran, Israel, Morocco and other parts of the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East.

These migration patterns can be illuminating, but they can also be blinding. The plaque at Poale Zedeck both confirms and complicates the often-told story of our region.

Lucy Levy was born in France and came to the Philadelphia area in 1860, as a small child. She was living in Pittsburgh by 1889, when she married Emanuel Mendoza.

He had emigrated about six years earlier from England, where Mendozas had been living for generations. Genealogist Patrick Comerford traced the family to David de Mendoza (1650-1730) and Abigail David de la Penha Castro (1665-1751). They were part of the generation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had faked conversion and then fled the Iberian Peninsula, joining the large Sephardic community in Amsterdam.

From there, branches of the Mendozas went to the British Isles. One included the clever English prizefighter Daniel Mendoza. Another included the actor Peter Sellers.

Emanuel and Lucy Mendoza were likely one of the few Sephardic families in Pittsburgh at the time. What little is known about their lives is similar to the lives of other Jewish immigrants in the city. They lived in the Hill District and the Bluff. They sent their boys David and Nathan to the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House for activities.

There were differences, though. They also sent their kids to the Rodef Shalom religious school for studies, and they stayed with Rodef Shalom when it relocated to Fifth Avenue in Shadyside. By 1910, they were living on Zulema Street in Oakland, perhaps to be closer. When their kids left home, they moved out to Dormont. But they remained members of Rodef Shalom and were both eventually buried in its West View Cemetery.

A newspaper clipping from 1912 lists David Mendoza among the guests at a birthday party for Celia Hausman. She came from a large Austro-Hungarian family in the Hill District with ties to Poale Zedeck. David and Celia married four years later.

They followed her family to Negley Avenue. There were no permanent synagogues yet in the East End, but there were two growing congregations —B’nai Israel and Adath Jeshurun. Celia Mendoza joined the sisterhoods of both congregations.

She was also president of the Poale Zedeck Sisterhood. The congregation was still on Crawford Street in the Hill District, but changes were underway. It had a new rabbi, who would gradually guide the congregation toward Squirrel Hill over the next decade.

Celia Mendoza held the leadership position for nine years, assisting with that effort to move the congregation into a new synagogue at Shady and Phillips. Sisterhoods have always played a fundraising role. Whatever financial conversations occurred between her and her husband occurred far beyond the reach of the archive, but the result is known: Her husband dedicated the most prominent plaque in the new synagogue — a plaque that casually reflects a mix of Jewish ethnicities, ideologies and geographies. PJC

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at rjarchives@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6406.

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