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November 1, 2018 4:23 pm

In Shadow of Tree of Life Synagogue Atrocity, Historian Revisits Pittsburgh’s Rich Jewish Past

avatar by Ben Cohen


A parade during the 1918 American Federation of Zionists National Convention in Pittsburgh. Photo: Courtesy of Barbara S. Burstin.

“There is a great issue at stake — whether America shall stand for liberty, for justice, for righteousness, or whether it shall be dedicated to selfish class interests. Shall America turn a deaf ear to the pleadings of the suffering, or shall she continue to play her part as the haven of refuge for those seeking the opportunity to live their lives unhampered by tyranny of any kind whatsoever?”

This quote — from an April 4, 1924 editorial in Pittsburgh’s Jewish Criterion newspaper — is cited in Steel City Jews, historian Barbara S. Burstin’s two-volume study of the city’s Jewish community from its roots in the antebellum era through the close of World War II. Its context was the bitter immigration debate of that decade, when Pittsburgh’s Jews found themselves on the opposite side of their own senator, the Republican David Reed, who championed legislation to close America’s doors to new arrivals as communism and fascism descended upon Europe. But the very same questions raised by the Criterion nearly a century ago have been much in the air in Pittsburgh this week, as the city absorbed the shock of last Saturday’s shooting massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue by neo-Nazi assailant Robert Bowers.

Dr. Burstin — who on Tuesday welcomed The Algemeiner at her home in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, just a few minutes walk from Tree of Life — is uniquely placed to reflect on the impact of Saturday’s atrocity on the normally sunny outlook of this community of 50,000 Jews. Throughout the course of a lengthy conversation, she spoke as someone intimately familiar with the community’s history over nearly two centuries, as well as someone who was personally touched by the shooting. One day after we spoke, Burstin was among the mourners at the funeral of her friend and fellow academic, Joyce Fienberg, one of Bowers’ 11 victims.

While antisemitism is historically not an unknown phenomenon in Pittsburgh — with over 50 antisemitic incidents reported this year alone, according to the head of security at the city’s Jewish Federation — Burstin described it as having been relatively “gentle.”

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“Pittsburgh’s Jews were excluded from the most prestigious social club here, so big deal, they formed their own,” said Burstin, who teaches American Jewish history at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.  “They didn’t get into some of the elite schools, but we had good public schools.” Those experiences, she said, “didn’t induce this sense of dread, this sense of the world gone awry.”

“This” — the shooting– “has,” she added.

For the Jewish community, as for the city as a whole, the shooting was “like this dagger in the heart,” Burstin remarked. That pain, she argued, had been further “compounded by the atmosphere in the nation at large.”

Tree of Life, Burstin explained, was Pittsburgh’s second synagogue, founded in 1864 — one year before the Union defeated the Confederacy in the Civil War. “Maybe it’s a stretch, but I look upon this attack as another sign of the division and conflict and animosity in this country today,” she said. “Tree of Life was formed during a time of  tremendous conflict, and now this horrendous incident occurs when we can see a very disturbing reality in America today.”

One difference with our own time that was accented by Burstin concerned the country’s leadership. She recalled that then-President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address in March 1865 “included the words, ‘with malice towards none and charity for all.’ And it seems like today, we’ve reversed that — it’s become ‘with malice towards all and charity for none.’ We have no Lincoln. We have no national leadership that’s determined to respond to this kind of hatred, to denounce it, to promote understanding and unity.”

Burstin was careful not to be overzealous with her comparison nonetheless. “The Civil War was a unique event and you can’t compare the numbers of dead, but it’s the climate of opinion that’s striking,” she said.

The founders of the Tree of Life synagogue were Jews from Poland, Russia, Lithuania and other points to the east of Germany, from where the first generation of Jewish immigrants in Pittsburgh originated. Over 180 years, the Jewish population of Pittsburgh continues to grow, and Jews have flourished as a community and as notable individuals. Burstin is currently writing a biography of Sophie Masloff — the late mayor of Pittsburgh between 1988 and 1994, and the first woman and first Jew to hold that position — who was the daughter of Romanian immigrants.

“Her mother never spoke English, only Yiddish, and Sophie only spoke Yiddish until she went to school,” Burstin said. “She had a lot of strikes against her when she became mayor — she was 70-years-old, she wasn’t college-educated, she wasn’t part of the establishment, but she was beloved throughout the whole community, all over Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania.”

Masloff’s popularity with the city’s masses is presented by Burstin as emblematic of Pittsburgh’s culture of tolerance, and its rejection of racism and antisemitism. Like all good historians, Burstin understands that the study of the past can be a beacon for the future, insofar as we are able to learn the correct lessons. Perhaps the Tree of Life atrocity, she mused, would open a window to “some of the black militants who have pushed Jews away, maybe it will be an opportunity to restart a discussion.”

Burstin elaborated: “If we go back fifty years, a hundred years, Jews and blacks were in coalitions together. Social justice was always part of the equation of what it meant to be a good Jew.”

She also believes that the atrocity will persuade some of Pittsburgh’s unaffiliated Jews to reestablish ties with the organized community.

“Antisemitism makes Jews more cognizant of who they are, they start thinking about being Jewish,” Burstin said.

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