Following the majority
History'We’re all Jews'

Following the majority

Canonsburg was once home to a small group of Galitzianers who quietly merged into the prevailing ways of their Litvak neighbors.

By the early 1950s, Tree of Life Congregation in Canonsburg was “more a place for nostalgia than worship,” according to community chronicler Arnold Cushner. The congregation held a homecoming in October 1951 to welcome alumni back to town. (Image courtesy of Arnold Cushner Research Collection, Rauh Jewish Archives)
By the early 1950s, Tree of Life Congregation in Canonsburg was “more a place for nostalgia than worship,” according to community chronicler Arnold Cushner. The congregation held a homecoming in October 1951 to welcome alumni back to town. (Image courtesy of Arnold Cushner Research Collection, Rauh Jewish Archives)

Tree of Life Congregation in Canonsburg had a “no dirty laundry” rule.

According to its bylaws, “Any member having a complaint against another Brother, shall not bring charges before a squire until he brings same before the Congregation who shall try to make a settlement.” The president would appoint a committee to consider the case. The parties would agree to abide by the decision of the committee or face the threat of a fine. The case would be recorded in the minutes.

No minutes survive, and so it’s hard to know how often this provision was utilized and whether congregants accepted its rulings or ran to the squire anyway.

The “beit din” provision is a reminder: People disagree. It’s normal, even within a small, homogeneous community. That’s because no community is truly homogeneous—at least no community of humans. And most small communities aren’t so small, either.

At its peak between 1915 and 1950, the Jewish population of Canonsburg was between 240 and 330 people, tying the town with McKees Rocks as the 25th largest Jewish community in Western Pennsylvania. That may be small for a community, but 330 is still a lot of people. Within any group that size, some divisions are inevitable.

The few surviving records for Canonsburg reveal some of those divisions: age, gender, ideology — all of which still persist within our Jewish community today. One important division of that immigrant era has mostly become a thing of the past: ethnicity.

The Jewish community of Canonsburg was largely Litvak, coming from Lithuania and adjoining parts of Poland and Russia. But a sizable minority came from Galicia.

Galicia was a historic region within the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. It covered parts of present-day southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. The Jewish Genealogy Society and the Rauh Jewish Archives are holding Galitzianer Days at the Heinz History Center on Oct. 4-6 to celebrate the Galitzianer ancestors of our community. As part of our preparatory research, we discovered a pocket in Canonsburg.

They first appeared as a group in a January 1919 donor roll published in the Jewish Criterion. It listed contributors to an assistance program for survivors of Galician pogroms. Surnames included Abrahams, Burg, Brand, Buker, Bluestone, Caczkes, Finkel, Karvan, Klahr, Klee, Katz, Morris, Pickholtz, Popover, Shapiro and Spitzer.

It’s not clear whether all these people were Galitzianers, but many were. Thanks to the research of Arnold Cushner, we know that the Klahrs and the Klees were one family with Galician roots. Finkel and Burg have also been confirmed as Galitzianers.

Canonsburg probably represented the fourth or fifth largest cluster of Galitzianers in Western Pennsylvania, after Pittsburgh, McKeesport, Braddock and possibly Donora.

The Galitzianers of Pittsburgh and McKeesport were each large enough to have their own congregations. Those in Braddock, Canonsburg and Donora weren’t.

There were consequences to not having a place of their own. Galitzianers used a notably different prayer book than other Jewish immigrant groups from Eastern Europe.

The bylaws of Tree of Life congregation firmly note, “The Services shall be Ashkanasha.” As longtime local Willie Katz recalled in a 1991 historical essay about the Jewish community of Canonsburg, “Our Congregation subscribed to the liturgy of Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Hungary, etc.”

So what did the Galitzianers do?

To borrow a Talmudic term, they must have “followed the majority.” Even though they accounted for perhaps a third of the community and provided many of its stalwarts, there is no evidence that they created a community within the community. Sam Finkel even led prayer services, presumably according to prevailing Litvak preferences.

(Something similar exists today. There is a group of Sephardim in Squirrel Hill who meet monthly for Shabbat and during the holidays. Throughout the rest of the year, many privately use their preferred prayer books amid the prevailing Ashkenazi service.)

Ethnic distinctions within the Ashkenazi population faded in time. There are many possible explanations, ranging from the Johnson-Reed Act to the Birnbaum siddur.

In an oral history from the late 1960s, an interviewer asked Morris Klahr whether these distinctions mattered to him. He was a Galitzianer married to a Pole. “Were you interested in marrying someone from the same part of Europe as you?” she asked.

“Didn’t matter,” he said. “We were American.”

His wife, Esther, added, “What’s the difference?! We’re all Jews. There was an awful lot of that: There’s a Galitzianer. There’s a Polishe. There’s a Rishishe.”

That was the late 1960s. But even by 1936, the big Galitzianer shul in Pittsburgh understood that surviving in America required a broader vision. In an anniversary volume that year, Bendit Fassberg wrote, “It is, of course, a trite phrase that America is a melting pot of nations… But… The Machsikei Hadas Congregation has been, on a small scale, a melting pot of the Jews. Its leaders were recruited from all kinds of Jews, Jews from Russia and Jews from Galicia; Jews who had learned English in England and otherwise; its members hail from many countries of Europe, geographically, and, religiously, belong to all kinds of persuasions of belief, from fundamentalists and conservatives to orthodox, liberal, etc. And all these different Jews have learned to respect one another, each to tolerate each other’s differences, and to co-operate for the benefit of all.” PJC

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center and can be reached or 412-454-6406.

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