Raised in Pittsburgh, Pearl Berg, world’s oldest Jew, has died at 114
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Raised in Pittsburgh, Pearl Berg, world’s oldest Jew, has died at 114

Berg was confirmed at Rodef Shalom and attended Schenley High School

Pearl Berg (Photo courtesy of the Gerontology Research Group, Judy Taback)
Pearl Berg (Photo courtesy of the Gerontology Research Group, Judy Taback)

The oldest Jew in the world has died.

Pearl Synenberg Berg, a supercentenarian who grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1920s, died Feb. 1 in Los Angeles. She was 114.

The Gerontology Research Group, which verifies the birthdays of centenarians, recognized Berg as the oldest Jewish person in the world, the third oldest American and the ninth oldest person in the world.

“She was just a force to be reckoned with,” said Judy Taback, Berg’s 83-year-old niece, who lives in the Los Angeles suburb Westlake Village. “Pearl had become everybody’s mother, everybody’s aunt, everybody’s grandmother.

“To have had her in my life, it was amazing.”

Berg was born Oct. 1, 1909, in Evansville, Indiana, the first child of Archibald and Anna (née Gerson) Synenberg. Shortly after her birth, Berg’s parents, both aspiring photographers, joined a traveling vaudeville show and the trio landed briefly in New Orleans. (Here, the young Pearl met her larger family for the first time, leading to the belief — which she held until her death — that she was born on Feb. 14, not Oct. 1.)

The Synenbergs intended to head north to Detroit, but ended up in Cleveland, said Taback, the family’s genealogist. By the early 1920s, they had settled in Pittsburgh, renting — and later buying — a home at 254 N. Craig St. in North Oakland.

Notice of Berg’s family first appeared in the Jewish Criterion, a predecessor to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, on Dec. 7, 1923, Rodef Shalom Congregation Archivist Martha L. Berg — no relation — said.

By 1924, Berg’s father was advertising his Forbes Street business, Massie’s Used Cars — which he billed as “Pittsburgh’s leading used car company” — in the Criterion.

1924 ad from the Jewish Criterion

On Dec. 4, 1925, the Criterion reported Berg’s election as president of a group called Gamma Ipsolon Pi. On Feb. 19, 1926, Berg’s family threw a party in her honor.

Berg was confirmed at Rodef Shalom — the date is lost to time — and attended Schenley High School, a North Oakland school and historic Pittsburgh landmark built in 1916. It closed in 2008 due to asbestos issues and was later sold.

“Pearl was a beautiful woman, had very good taste and was always well-dressed,” said Gerry Teitelbaum, a longtime friend of the family. “She was short in height — but packed a wallop!”

When the stock market crashed in 1929, ushering America into what became The Great Depression, Berg and her family hopped in their McFarlan — a luxury car built until 1928 in Indiana — and drove across the country to California, Taback said.

Within weeks of arriving in Los Angeles, Berg met her future husband, Mark Berg, a businessman and investor who died in 1989, at age 88 or 89. (His specialty was scrap metal.) When the pair met, Mark had recently immigrated from a town outside Kyiv, in what is now Ukraine, and spoke little to no English, Taback said.

Berg became active in Jewish causes in California, dabbling in philanthropy and volunteering for her local Hadassah chapter. At one point, she served two years as president of the Nordea chapter in Los Angeles.

Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation where Berg was a member since 1938, told the Times of Israel that “Jewish life was always a priority in Pearl’s life.”

Berg was “a lifelong supporter of the state of Israel,” he said.

The Bergs had two children, both boys: Alan, 86 and living in Philadelphia, and Robert, 84 and in Washington, D.C. Berg also is survived by a granddaughter, Belinda.

Teitelbaum, who met Berg decades ago, spent her early years in Pittsburgh and moved with her family to California in August 1948, at age 10.

“I don’t care where I go in the world, when they say, ‘Where are you from?’ I say, ‘Squirrel Hill,’” quipped Teitelbaum, 85, and a resident in Los Angeles’ Brentwood neighborhood.

After Berg’s husband died, she joined a book club and became more involved with a bridge group, Teitelbaum said.

Into her 90s, Berg served as the designated driver among her group of friends, herfamily remembered. An avid letter writer and correspondent, she was involved in her congregation’s Sisterhood and helped pen notes for congregants’ life cycle events or the passing of a loved one — until she was about 105.

Berg also was light-hearted about her longevity, friends and family said.

During a celebration of Berg’s 110th birthday, someone from her temple told her, “May you live to 120!”

“Oh, God — no!” laughed Berg.

“She was very smart, very witty,” Teitelbaum said.

In recent years, Berg’s age drew a fair amount of media attention, her family said. The Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the publication Humans of Judaism all profiled Berg.

Another Jewish member of the supercentenarian study, Louise Levy, died last year in New York at 112, according to the Times of Israel. There are no other Jews among the verified 50 oldest people in the world. But a Jewish sculptor named Morrie Markoff recently entered the supercentenarian club, turning 110 in January. PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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