I find it very sad that the shooting of October 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life synagogue put Squirrel Hill onto the world map. Indeed, it has taken me some time to mentally process this event, as my formative years took place within the boundaries of this cohesive community. With the exception of one year of graduate school, I lived in Squirrel Hill until I was 28 years old, when I moved to the Washington, D.C. area. The Tree of Life congregation was the site of many life events for me, my friends and my family – happy and sad. I have so many good Squirrel Hill memories from 1956 to 1984 that I wanted to share some thoughts about the positive aspects of this neighborhood rather than focus on the recent tragic events.
Forming Friendships during School Years
I maintain deeply ingrained happy memories of meeting my Jewish friends after school at the corner of Forbes and Murray, the heart of Squirrel Hill, and then heading over to the Jewish Community Center nearby for sports, recreation and comradery. During those years, the Squirrel Hill JCC, opened in 1959, was one of several Jewish centers and until 1974 was known as the Irene Kaufman Center or the Squirrel Hill IKC. At the IKC, we played recreational co-ed volleyball both for its athletic appeal and as a way for Jewish boys to meet Jewish girls outside of the school setting. While not particularly religious in nature, the JCC programming enriched my Jewish cultural roots with wholesome programming, whether physical, educational or spiritual in nature. The IKC was my after school and weekend home away from home.
Regardless of the bitter winter cold, wind and ice or summer heat and humidity, I remember walking what seemed like uphill in both directions through hilly Squirrel Hill to Colfax Elementary School and then to Taylor Allderdice High School. I was very fortunate to get a great public school education and made life-long friends, many who have achieved national prominence in their fields. Although many of my friends were Jewish and lived in Squirrel Hill, I also had non-Jewish friends, some of whom were bussed to these schools from neighboring communities. Despite the current focus on Jewish Squirrel Hill, the majority of this neighborhood has always been non-Jewish.
Colfax is a combined elementary and middle school. Built in 1911, the orange brick building, built in the Tudor revivalist style, seemed vast during my kindergarten through eighth grade years. Times have changed in the school system since these days! One distinct memory I have is being marched naked into the pool area where we were handed one size all blue swim suits before we boys were required to jump into the freezing cold pool. Of course, this swim class was not co-ed.
Opened in 1927, Allderdice was named for a Squirrel Hill industrialist who was the President of a subsidiary of U.S. Steel Corporation. Then and now, Allderdice has been a top performing public high school, winning many awards. Notable alumni include sports figures (such as National Football League Hall of Famer Curtis Martin), entertainers (including theater director Rob Marshall) and several of my classmates who have become celebrated authors, attorneys and Nobel Prize winners. The rigorous scholars program left us very well prepared for college and beyond. After taking advanced placement courses in American and European history, I developed a passion for travel, both in the U.S. and Europe.
My Squirrel Hill Family
Living on Douglas Street, I grew up with my Mom’s family. Grandma Mildred, Aunt Natalie and Cousin Sally resided on the second floor of the house. My sister Sue, my parents and I lived on the first floor of the duplex. We lived in one of the many multi-family homes built in the 1930s, with six bedrooms but just two bathrooms. Each floor had a separate outer door, but the two floors were connected by an indoor staircase, allowing my extended family to enjoy time together in space not very extended. The basement was the home of our white cat, Snowball.
My normal routine involved stopping after school at my Dad’s parents. Grandpa Maurice and Grandma Sophie lived in a house on Hobart Street. Sitting on their front porch, I eventually discovered that despite their limited formal eighth grade educations, I could learn so much from their old country stories from what is now Ukraine.
Maurice and Sophie Schwartz grew up in what is now western Ukraine, in or near the town then know in Hungarian as Ungvar (now Uzhhorod). At that time, Ungvar was contained with the Austria-Hungarian Empire. My Dad’s parents came to the United States in the early twentieth century. Both of my grandparents only attended school through the eighth grade. They met at Kennywood amusement park. Maurice worked at Squirrel Hill’s Rosen Drug store on busy Forbes Avenue at Shady Avenue. Opened in 1934, Rosen’s closed in 1993 after a fire badly damaged the building. In the 1930s, Maurice and Sophie were part of the migration of Eastern European Jews to Squirrel Hill, as the neighborhood became the center of Jewish culture in Pittsburgh. My memories on Hobart Street revolve around Grandma Sophie’s baking and cooking, as we spent most Sundays at their house eating lunch after shopping for the week’s food supply at Giant Eagle and at one of the many local kosher butcher shops on Murray Avenue. At these shops, I remember that just prior to purchase, the chickens were slaughtered in the back of the store.
Going Out to Eat in Squirrel Hill
During my Squirrel Hill years, fast food was not an option. Dining out was a luxury and a special occasion to be enjoyed on an infrequent basis. I specifically remember the tasty food when going out to eat was a treat at Weinstein’s Deli. Ben Weinstein opened his Deli on Murray Avenue at Beacon Street. The menu at the restaurant was extensive and included roast chicken, corned beef, brisket, pickles and chocolate cake. The restaurant even served Jewish food that I never understood, like stuffed kishke made from cow intestines that didn’t appeal at all to me.
In those days, Squirrel Hill was fragrant with the delightful smells from the three Jewish bakeries (Rosenblum’s, Silberberg’s, and Waldorf’s) that featured a wide variety of desserts. Opened from 1943 to 1981, Silberberg’s was a Murray Avenue institution, supplying breads and pastries to elegant Pittsburgh restaurants and countless baked goods for bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and local residents. Silberberg’s was known for its coffee cake, sponge cake, honey cake and challah breads. On Murray Avenue, Waldorf’s featured hearth baked breads, cookies, pies, a chocolate chip chiffon cake, chocolate covered almonds and cupcakes. Also on Murray Avenue, I remember Rosenblum’s for its cheese cakes and dark rye bread. These old fashioned bakeries are now few and far between.
The Neighborhood “Amenities”
I spent most of my summers in Frick Park off of Beechwood Boulevard, without adult supervision. I met friends there where we played baseball on the fields, went on the long blue slide in the playground, and kibitzed around. Opened in 1927, Frick Park is the largest of the Pittsburgh municipal parks and extends throughout a number of communities, not just Squirrel Hill. I recall going on hiking trails throughout the park, leaving Squirrel Hill and heading to neighboring communities through the quiet woods. Spending time in Squirrel’s green space was pleasant during a time period when summer activities were less structured and more relaxed than today.
After leaving Pittsburgh, I reflected on how there were so many synagogues within the Squirrel Hill community. On a given day, you would see Orthodox Jews mingling with Conservative Jews and Reform Jews as we walked along the major streets, Shady Avenue, Forbes Street and Murray Avenue. As Pittsburgh’s primary Jewish hub, Squirrel Hill has had a large Jewish population since the 1920s. During my Squirrel Hill years, the community was home to approximately twenty Jewish congregations and several Jewish day schools.
I experienced many life events at Tree of Life synagogue on Wilkins Avenue, including my first wedding officiated by Rabbi Alvin Berkun, attendance at bar and bat mitzvahs and funerals of many relatives. Affiliated with the Conservative movement, I was in awe of the large sanctuary, with its stained glass windows. My own bar mitzvah took place at another large Conservative Squirrel Hill congregation, Beth Shalom, nearby on Beacon Street. As evidence of the tight knit Jewish community in Squirrel Hill, Beth Shalom hosted Tree of Life congregants for Shabbat services one week after the shooting and more than 1000 people came to honor the eleven victims. Clearly this is evidence of the warmth of the neighborhood, despite the harsh winter weather with loads of snow and cold. For me, growing up in Squirrel Hill, deep meaningful relationships were easily formed within the Jewish community.
Years later after moving to the Washington, D.C. area, I enjoyed showing my daughters Danielle and Miriam around Squirrel Hill to introduce them to their Jewish relatives and my Pittsburgh friends. Many of these individuals lived their entire lives in Squirrel Hill, just like their parents before them. In an age of mobility and change, I am heartened to know that this neighborhood retains its character. Even years after I moved away, I walked down these neighborhood streets and had conversations with the friends and relatives of my formative years. For me, this community will always hold a special place in my heart, as it shaped the person I am today.
Saul Schwartz lives in Alexandria.