Squirrel Hill through the eyes of Harry Golden
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Squirrel Hill through the eyes of Harry Golden

Author chronicled trek through Squirrel Hill community

A clipping from the Oct. 17, 1958, issue of the YH&WHA Weekly, advertising a talk by writer Harry Golden. 
Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project
A clipping from the Oct. 17, 1958, issue of the YH&WHA Weekly, advertising a talk by writer Harry Golden. Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project

Harry Golden was once the most famous Jewish writer in America. The “once” in question was late 1958, when his book “Only in America” became the best-selling title in the country. He followed it with the bestsellers “For 2¢ Plain” and “Enjoy, Enjoy!”

All three books collected pieces from the Carolina Israelite, a monthly newspaper Golden began publishing in Charlotte around 1944. The Israelite actively promoted Civil Rights in the heart of the South. It survived through humor, warmth and nostalgia.

Golden used his success well. He published at least a book a year through 1975, including two about Leo Frank, another about Carl Sandburg, and one about Kennedy.

One of his last was “Travels Through Jewish America,” written in 1973 with his son Richard Goldhurst. The book is a travelogue of the middle-class American Jewish experience, with stops in the Jewish communities of 10 cities, including Pittsburgh.

Golden was sloppy. He bungles facts on every page. And yet, he understands what he is seeing. A child of the Lower East Side, he marvels at frozen-in-time Murray Avenue and immediately gets its significance. Even then, 47 years ago, Squirrel Hill was a rarity.

Squirrel Hill strikes him as being more inward than other Jewish neighborhoods. Its leaders seem content to stay local, rather than pursue national posts. On top of that, he notes, “There are greater internal differences between Jews in Pittsburgh than in comparable cities. These are not divisive differences but still they are differences.”

Such intriguing vagaries fill the chapter. One wishes that Golden would just say what he means. One of these “differences” comes to light through his reporting on Montefiore Hospital. It had joined the University Health Center of Pittsburgh in December 1969. The move jeopardized the Jewish identity of the hospital, prompting some soul-searching.

“And you are worried about the possible extinction of the Jewish hospital?” Golden asks Dr. Yale David Koskoff, a famed neurosurgeon and president of the medical staff.

Koskoff laughs and says, “It is probably insane to pass a law which will deprive a man of two or three years of his freedom for shooting a bald eagle from a Piper Cub. And it is insane unless you are quite serious about preserving bald eagles. The Jewish hospital is a bald eagle. There are few of them and they have a symbolic value past all worth.” After a pause, the quotation continues: “When there is a dearth of doctors, the minorities get a break. There may not always be a dearth. Maybe the minorities won’t be as lucky in the coming decades as they have been in the past, if lucky is what you want to call it.”

Elsewhere, an anonymous Jewish businessman offers an alternate take on self-sufficiency. Efforts to integrate the Duquesne Club in the 1960s had been pointless, he argues. Why threaten the elites, when all Jews really want is “prestige, not power?”

The businessman continues: “The Mellon Foundation gave Montefiore Hospital $200,000. That’s the kind of integration we should aim for. I am not sure whether we can support Israel or our agencies forever. Maybe we will have to ask someone else for money someday. I am willing to make a deal with the Christians. For that $200,000 and their kindness, they can keep the Duquesne Club, which was theirs to begin with.” (The grant was for $500,000, paid toward a 10-year $22 million upgrade of Montefiore.)

Were these differing viewpoints actually more pronounced in Squirrel Hill than the other Jewish communities Golden visited? Who knows? That’s the downside of quoting from secondary sources: you’re always at the mercy of the one quoting. Perhaps a more illuminating record could be found within the Harry Golden Papers at UNC-Charlotte.

Even so, the chapter is a useful snapshot. Outsiders have a way of clarifying certain truths, especially those that locals feel too deeply to articulate. Golden realizes that all these rivers, hills, bridges and tunnels make Pittsburghers feel “less anonymous, more of an integer.” The sense of belonging is even more intense on the neighborhood level.

A strong physical sense of place is what gives Squirrel Hill a “sustaining value” for its Jews, Golden writes. And he seems to suggest that it is also the reason the neighborhood accommodates difference without division. Everyone inside it knows its boundaries. PJC

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at eslidji@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6406.

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