History Center preserves city's Jewish heritage

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Tonight as Jewish families light the first candle of Hanukkah, an unlit menorah in a Pittsburgh museum speaks to the meaning of the holiday.

The intricate eight-branch brass candelabra stands about three feet high, each branch formed of S-shaped curlicues. At its center is a star of David. A ninth candle holder offset from the others is for the shamash or servant candle, which is used to light the other eight.

"Tradition says that the eight candles can't be used for anything except to be lit and seen," said Susan Melnick, archivist of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center in the Strip District. The menorah is displayed in the fourth-floor special collections.

The candles commemorate a miracle said to have happened when Jews in second century BC Jerusalem reclaimed and purified their temple after great persecution under Syrian rulers.

The Maccabees were priests who led a revolt against rulers who had killed faithful Jews, and who had desecrated the Jewish temple with pagan sacrifices. According to the story, the rite to rededicate the temple required oil lamps to burn for eight days, but there was only enough for one. But when the lamps were lit, they burned for eight days.

Thus Hanukkah lasts eight days, with a new candle lit each night. It always begins on the 25th day of Kislev on the Jewish calendar, but floats between late November and late December on the Gregorian calendar.

Ms. Melnick doesn't know the age of the large Hanukkah menorah in her collection. It might have come from Eastern Europe with 19th-century immigrants, or been purchased later in the United States. She knows only that it came from the former Machsikei Hadas, an Orthodox synagogue founded in 1900 on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District.

The founders of Machsikei Hadas, like the Jews of the Maccabean era, had known persecution. They were Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors had been expelled from 15th century Spain. Over generations they migrated to Galicia, a region that many armies had conquered over many centuries. It is now in Poland, but then belonged to Austria. Galicia had suffered waves of anti-Jewish persecution. Some who fled in the late 19th century came to Pittsburgh.

The Hill District was then a center of Jewish life. But the Galitzianers started a new congregation to keep their Sephardic traditions. With echoes of the Maccabees, they named it Machsikei Hadas, "Defenders of the Faith."

This menorah would have burned at evening prayer services during Hanukkah, Ms. Melnick said.

Another large menorah in the Machsikei Hadas collection isn't a Hanukkiya, or Hanukkah menorah. That's clear because it has no shamash to light the others, she said. Its lights are electric, and it is inscribed with the Hebrew for "I have the Lord always before me," from Psalm 16.

"It would have been placed in front of the congregation to remind people of the presence of the Lord," Ms. Melnick said.

It stands before the synagogue's ark, a cabinet for sacred Torah scrolls. The ark is topped with an unusual decoration: two carved hands making the sign of priestly blessing. The sign is well known to Star Trek fans because the actor Leonard Nimoy adapted it for Spock's "live long and prosper" salutations.

Machsikei Hadas is the centerpiece of the exhibit, but it has items from across the region, including the red suit that Sophie Masloff wore in 1988 when she became the first Jewish mayor of Pittsburgh. The purpose of the Rauh Jewish Archive "is to collect records, photographs and artifacts representing all aspects of Jewish life in Western Pennsylvania," Ms. Melnick said.

There is a far smaller Hanukkah menorah that a man gave to his son and daughter-in-law in 1937, to celebrate the first Hanukkah of their marriage. Medical equipment belonged to Albert Goldblum, a Hill District physician mentioned in three of August Wilson's plays.

And there are reminders of Jews who suffered persecution beyond the Maccabees' imagination. A simple wood table had belonged to a Jewish family for 200 years when they were forced to flee Hitler's Germany. They left it with a neighbor.

"In the 1980s they went back to Germany -- and she still had the table. They shipped it here," Ms. Melnick said.

Pittsburgh's Jewish community shifted over time. Most Jews had left the Hill District by 1950. In 1953 Machsikei Hadas moved to Highland Park, but dwindled as Jewish life centered increasingly in Squirrel Hill. In 1989 it closed, with all of its records and belongings going to what is now the Rauh archive.

The archive ensures that, even when the lights go out, the story doesn't die.

"When a congregation closes, we try to be there for them," Ms. Melnick said.

on the web

Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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