Ask any Jewish nonagenarian in Pittsburgh about the Hill District, and they’ll probably tell you all about the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House. But if you could have asked their parents about the Hill, you might have also heard stories about the Zionist Institute.
The two organizations occupied the same block of Center Avenue and offered similar resources. Where they differed was ideology. The settlement house encouraged “Americanization.” The institute fostered Jewish peoplehood. Built into that divide were all the other Jewish divisions you might expect of that time: Reform and Orthodox, German and Eastern European, American-born and immigrant, elite and working class.
The Zionist Institute existed for a much shorter time than the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House and left a much slimmer historic record. Reading about the Institute in old issues of the Jewish Criterion is like untying a knot in the dark. You can feel the tangle of people, clubs and initiatives, but you cannot always understand how it all intertwines.
Sometimes, a document enters like a flashlight. Carol Goldberg recently donated two issues of the Zionist Bulletin, which appears to be its entire run. Her grandfather, J. B. Bernstein, created the journal in 1915 with his friends from the Zion Literary Society.
The Zion Literary Society was founded in June 1912. Its members were young Jewish men between 18 and 20, and their stated mission was to “promote the welfare of Zionism among the Jewish youth, especially among the high school students.” We have a photograph in the archive, dated June 20, 1914, of the Zion Literary Society and girlfriends visiting the Heinz plant on the North Side. They are an exceptionally earnest-looking bunch of young people. All the women are wearing dresses and hats. All the men are in suits and ties. A few are standing so straight their buttons seem about to pop loose.
The Zionist Bulletin reads the same way. It is opinionated, idealistic, sloppy, romantic and energetic — in a word: youthful. “Never before has it been attempted to publish a journal in the Zionist Institute,” the editors boast on the first page of the first issue. “This fact, however, will be rather an incentive for us in the work than a discouragement.”
The two issues of the Zionist Bulletin contain information not easily found elsewhere in the historic record. They report that playwright Sholem Asch delivered a eulogy for I. L. Peretz before a crowd of 500 people at the Zionist Institute on April 25, 1915. They also report that the Zionist Institute sponsored a “Zionist congregation” called Sharei Zion with a membership of 40 people. It donated all its tzedakah to the Jewish National Fund.
The journal also has a few deliciously intriguing mysteries. What were the boys referring to when they wrote this: “We have recently discovered that the ‘famous’ comparison between the streets of Tel-Aviv and Center and Wylie Avenues, was rather complimentary to the former. There are already modern street cars running on Center Avenue.”
But the biggest revelation is the voice of youth. Anytime the boys write without concern for decorum or caution, the dynamics of the Jewish community shine through with a clarity you rarely find in the more official sources from those days. Here’s one: “Our Reform Rabbis are believers in spiritual Judaism and spiritual Zionism. Knowing how much they possess of the form[er], we can easily understand how much they have of the latter.” Here’s another, referring to local fundraising efforts for European Jews during World War I: “Sh… Sh… The Pittsburgh General Relief Committee is sound asleep.” And here is one of several insults the boys hurled at Dr. J. Leonard Levy, the famed and revered leader of Rodef Shalom Congregation, after he reported on his trip to the Holy Land: “Dr. Levy related that during his visit to Palestine, he discovered that Blindness was prevailing there. No wonder that he spoke with such blindness on the subject.”
These quips probably angered a few people at the time. They are thrilling today. We all appreciate candor as soon as it outlives anyone who took offense to it in the moment. pjc
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-454-6406.