My father was born in 1914, the second youngest child of Harry and Dora Ruttenberg, a Jewish immigrant couple. There were six children, three boys and three girls. My father was the youngest son, and I think, his mother’s favorite, a blessing my grandmother extended into the next generation as well. I was her favorite grandchild, hands down.
Anyway, this story concerns Harry, my father’s father, my grandfather, who I remember as an old fellow sitting in a chair across the room from my grandmother, smoking cigars and spitting into a green spittoon. He had very little to say to me or to her. She, however, liked to whisper to me about what a mean man he was. Nonetheless, they were married for 50-plus years, and there were the six children.
One day when I was about 12 my father took me for a ride to see the place he was born and lived the early years of his life. This was in Greene County, the most southwestern part of Pennsylvania, a coal mining area that borders West Virginia. My grandfather had picked this spot to settle and open a general store, after walking about 400 miles from Ellis Island/New York, peddling matches to farm wives.
Did I mention that on his long trek Grandfather made a stop in Altoona, Pennsylvania, because he had been informed that there were some landsmen living there? Yes, there were, and in addition there was a young woman of marriageable age, a recent arrival from Lithuania herself, who was rather plain but sweet-natured and possessed her own wagon. Grandfather negotiated a deal that somehow included a horse as well, and was able to proceed to Greene County, no longer on foot but with a wife, horse and wagon.
This story – the peddler who settled down and opened a store – was quite common, and in fact became the history of retail business in America. Think of Sears-Roebuck, Gimbels, Neiman-Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, to name a few. My grandfather did the same thing but he did not become a merchant king doing it. He did however, establish a certain notoriety, a certain distinction, even.
The store, Ruttenberg’s, opened in competition to the mining company’s store. Ruttenberg’s beat them out by selling better dry goods, tools, and fresh farm foods at lower prices. Grandfather made money by the fistful. His customers knew him and liked him. Without any rancor, just as an honest shorthand moniker, he was called “the Jew.” True! My father assured me this was only because Grandfather was in fact, Jewish.
It was another time, an era when political correctness could never have been imagined.
Also to my amusement, and the point of this little historical piece, is some geography. Greene County is mountainous. Ruttenberg’s stood at the top of considerable elevation.
Take a look, my father said to us on that day we visited. A dusty inclined plane, nothing there but greenery.
What is left is a road sign, and a designation on local maps.
“Jew Hill,” is all that remains. PJC
Judith Robinson is an editor, teacher, fiction writer and poet. She lives in Pittsburgh.