Every time I read a story, I picture the action. Perhaps you do, too. These mental pictures are often vivid and convincing, but they are essentially make-believe.
With fiction, that’s part of the fun: Words on a page become a mental movie. With any writing based in fact, though, I’m often suspicious of these images. The whole point of journalism and his-tory is to convey reality, not a personal imagined version of it.
Some time ago, I read that the first minyan in western Pennsylvania occurred in Lawrenceville in 1842. Instantly, I pictured this momentous occasion: peddlers crammed into a parlor somewhere off Butler Street, prayer shawls on their shoulders, prayer books in their hands, perhaps a Torah scroll, and the Allegheny River chugging along outside.
This image is completely fictional, and not only because it was imagined. The initial fact isn’t a fact. We’ll call it a factoid: information with the shape of a fact but without any substance behind it. I have found no credible evidence that the first minyan in western Pennsylvania occurred in Law-renceville and little that it occurred in 1842.
And yet this persistent factoid appeared in a century of scholarly and general publications before dying out. Some of those publications still circulate widely online, and that circulation gives the false impression that this factoid is well sourced. In actuality, every use of it can be traced to a sin-gle source with weak credentials.
In the 1889 volume “History of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania,” published by A. Warner & Co. of Chicago, we read: “The Jews in this vicinity first began to meet for worship in Lawrenceville in 1842. Services were held on their Sabbaths and principal holidays at private houses, or wherever circumstances would permit them to assemble.”
There is no citation for this factoid. The volume was published before citations were commonplace in historical writing. Oddly, though, no author is listed, either.
The volume is huge and covers many aspects of Allegheny County history. Each section comes courtesy of an expert in the field: lawyers writing about legal history, geologists writing about natural history. A preface credits all these authors by name.
For the two chapters on the religious history of Allegheny County, experts come from each de-nomination — except for Judaism. No author is credited for the three brief paragraphs on Jewish history. Dr. Thomas Cushing of Barre Centre, New York, is listed as “general supervisor” of the volume. He may have been responsible for compiling these paragraphs — or not — perhaps in co-ordination with a local Jewish correspondent — or not.
Once in print, this factoid could strut around like a fact.
In the 1908 volume “A Century and a Half of Pittsburg and Her People,” John Newton Boucher wrote, “The Jews in Pittsburgh formed their first regular organization when they began to meet for worship in Lawrenceville about 1842. Services were held on their Sabbaths and the principal days observed by them in private houses but later in larger halls such as they could procure.” His use of “about” was a hedge. Between 1889 and 1908, other Jewish community histories had begun using 1844 or 1847 as the date.
The Jewish Criterion published long community histories in 1918 and in 1942. In the 1918 history, Charles I. Cooper repeats this factoid with some skepticism: “John Newton Boucher, author of ‘A Century and a Half of Pittsburgh and her People,’ claims that as far back as 1842 there was Jewish public worship in the Lawrenceville district.”
But in the 1942 history, Ruth Arnfeld extends the factoid. “As early as 1842 group services were known to be held in private homes for those who wished to worship on Sabbaths and High Holidays in the district of Lawrenceville where most of the Jews lived at the time.” She provides no evidence that “most of the Jews” lived in Lawrenceville at that time. She appears to have invented this explanation to prop up a tottering factoid.
Between those two accounts, in a 1930 graduate thesis reviewing late 18th- and early 19th-century Jewish history in western Pennsylvania, Julia Miller repeated the original claim and also unknow-ingly undermined it when she wrote, “Even as early as 1842, however, services were held at private homes in Lawrenceville on Sabbaths and principal holidays. Yet the city directories do not mention a Minyan…until 1850.”
With the arrival of more rigorous historical methods, the Lawrenceville claim quietly drifted away. And yet the 1842 claim persisted. And with it emerged this new claim, that this first service resem-bled our most common impressions of Jewish prayer.
In a 1959 monograph about local Jewish settlement, Jacob Feldman cited the 1889 volume and wrote, “Formal Hebrew religious services are known as ‘minyan’ or ‘minyanim’ and require the presence of a quorum of ten adult (over thirteen years of age) men. These were first being held in Pittsburgh in private homes by approximately 1842.”
In a community history in the American Jewish Outlook in 1959, in honor of the city’s bicentenni-al, Jewish Community Relations Council Director Lillian A. Friedberg wrote, “Early records are few, many of them having been destroyed in the great fire of 1845, but we do know that by 1842 a ‘Minyan’ of Jews conducted regular religious services in private homes.” Revisiting the subject in 1972 for the Encyclopedia Judaica, she placed this service closer to downtown: “It was not until 1842 that Jews first met in a minyan for worship in a home near the Point.”
In a 1970 graduate thesis analyzing local Jewish population patterns, Leonard Irvin Kuntz wrote, “By 1842, there were enough adult Jewish males in Pittsburgh for worship services to be held regularly.” He cited the July 1843 issue of The Occident, the first English-language Jewish newspaper in America. That issue in-cludes a list of subscribers, including two men from Pittsburgh. They would have needed eight more for a minyan.
Setting these sources one after another, you can watch this factoid metastasize as each writer rear-ranges the original source into their own words. “Worship” becomes “public worship” becomes “group services” becomes “minyan.” Each of these terms is similar to the others, but not entirely synonymous. The authors from 1889 and 1908 were likely not Jewish. They may have used “worship” in a Christian way, referring to a joint service with some fixed structure, rather than a private “now I lay me” type of prayer.
The later authors were all Jewish. They saw the world as Jews. In trying to understand what made this supposed 1842 service distinct from any Jewish prayer that might have preceded it, they as-sumed it was numbers: Pittsburgh finally had a minyan.
Except, it didn’t.
Feldman was the first historian of the local Jewish experience to rely heavily on primary sources, rather than books, articles and communal lore. Long before digitization democratized historical research, he spent decades paging through newspapers, census schedules, deed books and city directories to compile basic historical information.
By the time he wrote his seminal 1986 book “The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania,” he had conducted granular research about the early 1840s, counting all the individual Jewish people he could find in the available record. Here’s how he describes the scene at the time: “Certainly, this tiny group of Jews couldn’t muster a minyan, a quorum of ten men aged thirteen and over, for the religious services they held in private homes unless a few itinerant Jewish peddlers or visitors also were stopping off in town.”
The 1842 date continued to appear in various accounts of local Jewish history for a while. Then, as Feldman’s book became the standard reference, the factoid finally died.
So what do we actually know about the first minyan in western Pennsylvania?
The November 1846 edition of The Occident reports, “In Pittsburg, too, in this state, we hear that the Jews speak of uniting themselves for the promotion of worship.”
Allegheny County Deed Books show that in June 1847, a small group of men representing pur-chased a burial ground in Reserve Township for the Bes Almon Society.
According to brief community history published in the American Israelite newspaper in 1854 and another published in a now-hard-to-find 1903 issue of Jewish Criterion, the first Jewish congrega-tion in this region was founded in 1848. It was called Shaare Shamayim (Gates of Heaven), and it rented a hall at Penn and Sixth, downtown.
(Based on nothing but a hunch, I suspect that the author of the 1889 volume heard “Penn Avenue,” put the pin too far east, and mistakenly wrote “Lawrenceville.” For what it’s worth, Sixth Street downtown was known as St. Clair Street in the late 1840s. By the late 1880s, Penn and St. Clair was located in the part of town we now call East Liberty.)
By triangulating an 1849 newspaper notice and an 1850 city directory listing, it is safe to assert that Shaare Shamayim dedicated its first synagogue in a room above the Vigilant Fire Engine House on Third Avenue between Wood and Market streets on Aug. 3, 1849.
A few weeks later, on Aug. 25, Shaare Shamayim applied for a county charter.
In its June 1850 issue, The Occident wrote, “We learn from one of the members of that congregation that they are progressing there in all things, and that the number of Israelites is fast augmenting in the western capital of Pennsylvania. We should like to obtain an ac-curate account of their condition. Will some of our friends oblige us?” PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-454-6406.