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TV Review: New documentary details Pittsburgh's Jewish legacy

Wednesday, November 10, 1999

By Sally Kalson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Like all great American cities, Pittsburgh was built by waves of immigrants who came in search of freedom and opportunity. In their quest, they built families, businesses, neighborhoods and institutions that made the region what it is today.

"A Jewish Legacy: Pittsburgh," an hour-long documentary airing tonight and Sunday on WQED/WQEX, examines one strand of the city's ethnic broadcloth, tracing the Jewish community's origins, development and contributions.

"A Jewish Legacy: Pittsburgh"

When: Tonight at 10 and Sunday at 7 p.m. on WQED/WQEX.


It's an epic story fueled by powerful social and economic forces that swept the nation and the world. And for the most part, it's a tale well told through interviews, vintage photos and film footage, evocative music and the rich voice of narrator Theodore Bikel.

Given the time constraints of an hour show, the program could not be all-encompassing. Yet it does two things particularly well: It places the Jewish experience within the larger historical context, and it captures the determination of each generation to make its mark and establish a legitimate place for itself.

Among the program's more interesting tidbits: President Taft's visit to Temple Rodef Shalom, marking the first visit by an American president to a synagogue; the distance that the old-guard German Jews maintained from subsequent waves of destitute Eastern Europeans with their aggressively foreign ways; the tension between Zionist and non-Zionist camps over whether a Jewish homeland in Palestine was the only safe haven -- and the removal of all doubt after World War II; the efforts of Ziggy Kahn at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House to circumvent college quotas for Jews by turning young men into star athletes who gained entry on sports scholarships.

"A Jewish Legacy" is the brainchild of Barbara Burstin, a historian who teaches American Jewish history and Holocaust studies at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Joining her in the effort were executive producer Gary Hines, producer Julie Marocha, editor Frank Coloiero and lead cameraman Mark Knobil.

The final product is largely a reflection of Burstin's interest in the big picture as illustrated by personal stories. Thus, we get a handful of prominent Pittsburghers with deep roots in the community offering their insights.

Rabbi Walter Jacob, rabbi-emeritus of Rodef Shalom, explains the need of the early German immigrants to fit in and the attempts by their modern-day descendants to reclaim some of the Jewish traditions lost through assimilation. Former Mayor Sophie Masloff takes viewers back to the Hill District and her childhood home, purchased by her Yiddish-speaking mother with an "X" on the signature line.

Frank Bolden, former editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, recalls the city's ethnic groups living cheek-by-jowl in the Hill and the nurses from the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House who kept the black community from being wiped out by a tuberculosis epidemic. Hy Richman, labor standards expert, reminisces about his days as a child laborer, squatting on the floor of a stogie factory stripping the stems from tobacco leaves for a few cents a day. Cantor Moshe Taube of Congregation Beth Shalom tells of being saved from the Nazis by German industrialist Oskar Schindler.

Also featured are executive Alvin Rogal, orthodox Rabbi Bernard Poupko and community leader Frieda Shapira.

One of the most moving segments concerns recent Russian immigrants Igor and Lyubov Gindin and their teen-age son, Alex, reveling in the once-inconceivable opportunity to live openly as Jews in a free society. The weakest section focuses on pop artist Burton Morris, whose work is nationally famous but whose comments add little perspective.

In the end, while the documentary is specific in its Jewish focus, its story is reflective of the larger saga common to all immigrant groups who overcame enormous odds to leave something lasting that changed the face of Pittsburgh forever.

As Richman says succinctly near the end: "People forget we got the cream of the crop. The timid didn't come. The aggressive and the hopeful came."

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