On a cool night in October most Pittsburghers awaited history with eyes glued to their televisions. But as the Pirates played the Chicago Cubs in the National League wild-card game, another historically minded group assembled. Less than five miles from PNC Park, the site of the playoff game, a number of local residents traveled to Rodef Shalom for a different historical experience — their own.
As part of the Sisterhood Solomon B. Freehof Book Review Series, Barbara Burstin, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University who has written previously on the history of Jews in Pittsburgh, reviewed her two newest books: “Jewish Pittsburgh (Images of America)” and “Steel City Jews.” At the onset of her remarks, Burstin explained that the two works operate in tandem. The former is largely a collection of photographs detailing the rise of such local businesses, organizations and individuals as Giant Eagle, Kaufmann’s Department Store, Montefiore Hospital, Sophie Masloff and A. Leo Weil. The latter is a picture-less monograph describing local Jewish history between 1915 and 1950.
For her talk, Burstin read each work’s table of contents and shared vignettes from selected chapters. While she recounted tales from bygone years, many attendees nodded along. With each story, Burstin shared a familiar name or place. She described famous families including the Kaufmanns and Rauhs as well as notable individuals such as Rabbi Dr. Solomon Freehof, a past leader of Rodef Shalom. As she charted along overviewing the 20th century’s first half, Burstin praised many of the early members of Rodef Shalom. She described them and the congregation as powerful elements in the city’s Jewish history.
“This synagogue was a major force, and the people who came out of it were major players,” said Burstin. “This is really a pre-eminent congregation.”
In addition to commending Rodef Shalom, Burstin used her remarks to pay homage to other local entities including the Rauh Jewish Archives — a program at the Heinz History Center founded in 1989 to collect, preserve and make accessible the documentary history of Jews and Jewish communities of Western Pennsylvania
“The Rauh is a reservoir,” said Burstin, who claimed that without the Rauh’s vast collection of materials, historians would be unable to write the story of Pittsburgh Jewry.
Similarly, Burstin acknowledged the University of Pittsburgh’s collection of Jewish resources.
Though some of Burstin’s remarks came as old news to her audience, she shared new insights on past conflicts including the handling of Zionism in Pittsburgh.
“The debate was passionate,” said Burstin.
Beginning with the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, the Reform movement had opposed political Zionism. Burstin explained that the Platform declared that because Jews were a religious group and not a nation, Jews should not try and return to their ancient home. However, despite an opposition to political Zionism, some within the Reform movement began questioning this position during the 1930s as both Hitler and anti-Semitism rose in popularity. Burstin highlighted the conflict’s local effects by describing Freehof’s stance on political Zionism. Although he had supported Zionist causes, he was reluctant to fully endorse the enterprise, as many prominent members of Rodef Shalom had opposed political Zionism. Even still, Burstin said that Donald Butler, a close friend of Freehof’s, told her that despite Freehof’s public silence, the rabbi was in fact sympathetic to Zionism and Israel.
Humorously, Burstin described other regional historical conflicts. She said that at one point during the first half of the 20th century tension arose between local socialists and communists. Unlike the public declarations of pro- or anti-Zionism, this political quarrel played out mostly on Saturdays at the shvitz. In silently voicing their positions, the socialists sat naked on one side of the shvitz, while the communists sat naked on the other side.
“It was quite a sight to behold,” Burstin claimed she was told.
Burstin’s remarks were largely praised by attendees.
“It was excellent. It was vital, kept your interest,” said Virginia Johnson.
“She’s a treasure,” Jean Snyder said. “She’s keeping the stories alive. Without her, it would all be lost because who else is doing it to this depth?”
“She’s an interesting lady,” agreed Robert Raphael. “But one thing that she didn’t mention was Bubba Hanna.”
Standing near the exit of Rodef Shalom, Raphael explained that his grandmother, Hannah Sandusky, had served as a midwife around the turn of the century. “She delivered almost all of the Jewish children in Pittsburgh,” he said.
According to a page on the Rauh Jewish Archives website, by the time that Sandusky had retired at the age of 82, she had delivered more than 3,500 babies, never charged for her services, provided blankets and food for families and met Queen Victoria. With such omission noted, perhaps the historically minded Raphael discovered material for Burstin’s next work.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.