New documentary recounts the Jewish history of one Pittsburgh neighborhood
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New documentary recounts the Jewish history of one Pittsburgh neighborhood

Film recounts Hill District's multi-cultural immigrant past

Film promotion. 
Photo courtesy of Archives & Special Collections, 
University of Pittsburgh Library System
Film promotion. Photo courtesy of Archives & Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System

Kenneth Love’s newest documentary, “Jewish Memories of Pittsburgh’s Hill District,” recounts the tale of Jewish immigrants who emigrated from Europe in the late 1800s to the first half of the 20th century. These new Americans settled in the city’s Hill District, creating a multicultural neighborhood that included, among other ethnic groups, African Americans, Italians and Eastern Europeans.

According to Love, the documentary is “a film about immigrants” and is dedicated to the immigrants that “have come” and “will come” to our country. It’s also an homage to a neighborhood with a rich Jewish history that until now hasn’t been properly told.

“I’m amazed no one has told this story before,” Love said. “We need to preserve and tell this story for the future. I felt a responsibility to do that.”

Renowned Jewish Pittsburghers, including former mayor Sophie Masloff and Cyril Wecht, recount their childhood memories of life on the Hill. Their stories are intermixed with those of former Pittsburgh Courier editor Frank Bolden and numerous other one-time residents of the community.

The interviews and photos, including those from the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center and the University of Pittsburgh Library System, create a compelling picture of the social and religious lives of Jewish immigrants eager to participate in the American Dream while maintaining their culture and beliefs.

David Busis in front of his pharmacy.
Photo courtesy of Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center

The genesis for the film came from Love’s archives which included unused interviews and footage he had saved from previous projects. Local Jewish historian Barbara Burstin allowed interviews she had done while researching her 1999 film, “A Jewish Legacy: Pittsburgh” to be used as part of the project.

“I had interviewed a number of people that related to the Hill and told him I had this material. He emptied my written and video collection. I’m very gratified he was able to use the footage for this new film, which I think is terrific.”

While the story told in “Jewish Memories of Pittsburgh’s Hill District” is the same universal tale told by countless immigrant groups moving into large cities, it was also a personal saga for Love. The director uncovered details about his family that he never would have learned had he not made the film.

“Unplanned, there’s six generations of my family in the film. So, it became a personal story.”

That personal legacy sits alongside tales of a city long gone, including memories of bath houses where Jewish men would take a shvitz, Yiddish newspapers and movie theaters, laundry hung to dry based on the activity of local steel mills lest they become covered in soot, and kosher delis and butchers.

Pittsburgh tenementsPhoto courtesy of Archives & Special Collections,
University of Pittsburgh Library System

Little known facts, including the contribution of Jewish children to the cigar rolling business are mingled with stories of the vital role that the Irene Kaufmann Settlement played in the lives of both immigrants and the African-American communities.

Linking the various interviews and vignettes is music by Cantor Henry Shapiro, spiritual leader of Parkway Jewish Center. The film features new work by the musician as well as pieces heard in previous documentaries by Love.

In fact, it was Shapiro who Love credits with helping him decide to complete the documentary after Oct. 27.

“I stopped working on the film for two or three months after Oct. 27 because what is the meaning of the film, what does my film mean? Henry Shapiro had some perspective. He helped.” The cinematographer still struggles for words today saying, “I’m still close to it.”

Ironically, it was the massacre at the Tree of Life building that caused Shapiro to not promote his CD “Klezmerati” when it was completed last year. He hopes Love’s film will be a “springboard, and I can begin promoting the music again.”
For his part, Shapiro feels the documentary tells a familiar story that needs to be told. “This is the Jewish American experience. This is probably the first major expression of the Jews that came to Pittsburgh in the first half of the 20th century.”

Love has previously completed 26 independent documentaries and 20 National Geographic TV specials. He said he still has one more film he wants to complete but wasn’t yet ready to tell the details.

The film concludes with the creation of Terrace Village and footage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt visiting the housing complex. According to the documentary many Jewish families moved into the project after its completion in 1938 but it wasn’t long before there was a mass exodus to other areas of the city, including Squirrel Hill.

While the history of the Jewish population was intertwined and vital to the Hill District, the generation that called the neighborhood home is beginning to pass away. Love points out that this might be the last opportunity to capture the memories of those that lived in the community “because many of the people in the film can’t do the interviews anymore.”
“Jewish Memories of Pittsburgh’s Hill District” will premiere on Tuesday, Nov. 19, at the Regent Square Theater as part of the Three Rivers Film Festival. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@
pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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