Rabbi Aaron Mordechai Ashinsky was the most accomplished Orthodox rabbi in Pittsburgh during the first half of the 20th century. His talent was organizational. He founded the Jewish Home for the Aged, the Jewish Home for Babies and Children, the Hebrew Institute, and the Zionist Institute, and he played a significant role in advancing Montefiore Hospital and the House of Shelter. He was a skilled fundraiser, collecting what would now be millions, not only for those local institutions, but also for war relief in Europe and for the emerging State of Israel. As he was overseeing all these efforts, he was also leading more than half a dozen local congregations in three neighborhoods and informally advising many of the smaller lay-led Jewish communities throughout the region. He spent his days giving speeches, answering religious questions, and adjudicating disputes. He commanded the title “Chief Rabbi of Western Pennsylvania.”
Who was his wife, the Rebbetzin Pearl Ashinsky?
Her biography is usually folded into his life story. Rabbi Ashinsky showed great intellectual promise during his childhood in Poland. His teacher Rabbi Idel Drob admired the young scholar and approved a match with daughter, Pearl. The young couple married in 1887, around the time of Rabbi Ashinsky’s ordination. They came to America and led congregations in Syracuse, Detroit and Montreal, struggling against the existing power structures in all three communities. Rabbi Drob had also crossed the Atlantic, settling in Pittsburgh. When the elder died, in 1901, the young Ashinsky family relocated here.
You could easily flip that story: a young woman from a prominent Polish rabbinic family marries a precocious local boy and uses her family connections to land an important rabbinic post in a rapidly growing city where he soon establishes dominance.
Rebbetzin Ashinsky mirrored her prominent husband. She advanced their priorities among Jewish women. She founded the Jewish Home for the Aged Ladies Auxiliary and the Sisters of Zion society, leading both groups for decades. She also spoke frequently. But I’ve never read her speeches, not even a quote in the newspaper. Her voice does not survive. Rabbi Ashinsky comes to life through his accomplishments and his appearances. His wife is often a name, a face, and a title. Her essence is a mystery.
The other day, I was reading the condolence letters sent to Rabbi Ashinsky after the rebbetzin died in 1942. I hoped they would reveal her personality. Condolence letters are among the trickiest forms of literature, but any time many people write about the same subject, insights can emerge. Adjectives recur, or distinct tones ring out as a chord.
But these condolence letters feel generic. The writers praise the rebbetzin as “a fine woman in Israel” and “a loyal servant of endless patience, devotion and compassion,” but they fail to draw a picture. The most often-repeated word is “beloved.”
One small exception is a letter from her granddaughter, Freda. About her grandmother, Freda writes, “her life was a full and interesting one and the center of her existence was you and your career. Such wifely devotion I have never witnessed.”
She then recalls the homecoming after the Ashinskys returned from a fact-finding mission to the Holy Land in 1925. “I can well remember one time when she was most happy, the time when she shared your glory. When you returned from Palestine I recalled vividly attending a meeting where, to my amazement, she addressed a large gathering of women and with unusual poise described her impressions of the Holy Land. She was happy because at that moment she (felt she) was a fitting wife for her adored husband.”
The two words in parenthesis are inserted with a caret. The revision seems to be a clarification: she had always been a fitting wife, but she only felt like one in that moment.
In those few sentences, an intriguing personality becomes barely audible, like a conversation heard through the walls. There are hints of self-possession and humility, of independence and deference. Better records might have revealed how such a woman navigated her responsibilities. Without a detailed account of her opinions and activities, we are left with platitudes, which are kindhearted but ultimately obscure her humanity. PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-454-6406.