Last month the Holocaust Center opened an exhibit “For You Were Strangers: Jewish Immigration to Pittsburgh from 1880-1990.” The exhibition panels (put together by Holocaust Center educational associate Jackie Reese) captured some of the highlights of the Jewish immigrant experience and the response, particularly on the part of several Pittsburghers — David Glick, Ziggy Kahn and Zena Saul — to alarming events abroad. The result was a fascinating journey into important local history that was informative, captivating and very well received considering the numbers of people who have come to view the display. (The exhibit is up through May.)
The fact that this effort has been so well received underscores the curiosity of Jews and non-Jews about our local history. The Pittsburgh experience with its highs and lows is an important story that the Holocaust Center has started to tell, much to its credit.
I emphasize this because we are at an important moment in our history with an opportunity to do something that we have not been able to do before. I refer to the discussions about the future of the Tree of Life building, which have been ongoing. It is clear that at some future point the building will take on a new life in one form or another. So let me suggest that as part of that new life, space be devoted to telling something about Jews, their religion and the history of Jews in Pittsburgh and their contributions to the general community.
I suggest this for several reasons. First, it is a rich history that can engender pride and inspiration in all who see it. Second, as a certain tourist destination that the Tree of Life building will undoubtedly become, it will allow visitors to balance the narrative of Jewish victimization with a positive one of Jewish vitality and action. Third, given the uptick in acts of violence and inflamed rhetoric against Jews from those on the right and the left, this is an opportunity to counter that pernicious reality with some information about who Jews are, what values and traditions they observe (including the prayers that the 11 innocent victims were chanting in the final moments of their lives) and what Jews have accomplished to better the world around them.
There is no doubt that many of those who denounce and threaten Jews today have never met a Jew and/or know very little about them. For the visitors, younger and older ones alike, learning about Jews, their beliefs, core values and their lives past and present can be a powerful antidote against prejudice, indifference, suspicion. We really can do something more to promote better understanding and help inoculate against this virus of anti-Semitism. That is a worthy mission that will only give new meaning and life to the Tree of Life and help our community heal. pjc
Barbara Burstin is on the history faculty at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.