Forty years ago, Sheila Chamovitz made a movie about Squirrel Hill because the neighborhood was changing. After Chamovitz finished filming, the community changed. Then it changed again and then it stayed the same.
The irony of revisiting a place that alters, adapts and yet remains familiar, Chamovitz, 77, told the Chronicle, is that “it’s like coming home.”
Thanks to Pittsburgh Sound + Image, an organization committed to film preservation, screenings and education, interested viewers can glean that sense and see Chamovitz’s 1983 cinematic elegy, “Murray Avenue: A Community in Transition,” on July 28 at Eberle Studios. The free screening, which also features her 1987 film “Skokie: Rights or Wrong,” is a chance to watch both documentaries in their original 16 mm format.
“I would say it was a crisper better image, but that may not be true now. I mean movies have evolved,” Chamovitz said with a laugh. Watching the two films, which total less than an hour, in their original format on a big screen is “just fun for me.”
Longtime Pittsburghers and city newcomers will enjoy the films, too. Though many of Chamovitz’s interviewees, like Marianne Silberman and Rabbi Bernard Poupko, are deceased, the movie’s eponymous street remains and its current inhabitants’ behavior — whether greeting passersby, checking in on neighbors or gossiping — is similar to what transpired 40 years ago.
“Things change and they stay the same,” the filmmaker said.
But Chamovitz wasn’t certain of that when she picked up her camera in 1981. At the time, she aimed to capture a vanishing world: On April 6, Silberberg’s Bakery closed. Eight months later,
Federman & Fogel Butcher Shop closed. Before the year was up, Marc Haber — then 25 — bought Murray Avenue Newsstand from Eddie Millstone, who had operated the store for 31 years.
“These were places that I went to regularly — they were my regular haunts — I knew the people that owned them, and when they were going out of business, I was very sad. So I filmed it as best I could,” she said.
What Chamovitz documented were immigrants, Holocaust survivors, community members — people who, whether shochets, bakers or newspaper brokers, filled the tapestry of Squirrel Hill.
These people were “characters,” Chamovitz said. They had personality, were funny and made raising a family in Squirrel Hill all the more memorable.
“I think in Squirrel Hill and many longstanding neighborhoods, particularly ethnic ones, there is a sense that everybody is responsible for everybody else in a big way. If a kid falls off a bike in front of my house, I pick him up, I bring him into my house, I clean off his knees and I call his mother,” Chamovitz said. “I think anybody would do that, and I think they would do that now.”
Although much has changed from when Chamovitz filmed Poupko entering Murray Avenue Newsstand and buying what he called his “Yiddish paper: The New York Times,” Chamovitz believes the community remains remarkably similar all these years later.
“I named it ‘Murray Avenue: A Community in Transition’ but I don’t think that’s a great name for it. I think it should be ‘Pittsburgh’s Jewish Community’ because it does feel not unlike what it would feel like if I’m walking down that street today,” the current Oakland resident said. “I would see people I know, they would ask how my children were, they would ask how my brother-in-law was. Everybody is in everybody else’s business. It’s an extended family.”
Though Chamovitz is pleased another generation can see her work on July 28, the film’s had many screenings over the years, she explained.
“‘Murray Avenue’ got shown all over the place for a long time. I always thought these people in North Dakota must have thought we came from another planet. But I don’t think they did when I think about it. I think they were looking at their community and what community gives us: the intimacy, the security, the shelter.”
“That is lost in many places,” Chamovitz continued. “I think part of the magic of Squirrel Hill is that people are here and they stay. It stays pretty much the same.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.
“Murray Avenue: A Community in Transition” and “Skokie: Rights or Wrong” are part of Essential Pittsburgh: Sheila Chamovitz, at Eberle Studios, 229 E. Ninth Ave., Homestead, PA 15120 on July 28 from 8-9:30 p.m. Tickets are available at pghsoundandimage.com.