Squirrel Hill genealogist was drawn to Israel from an early age
October 26, 2015 12:00 AM
Israel Pickholtz, a Jerusalem genealogist, stands in front of Congregation Poale Zedeck synagogue on Phillips Avenue during a brief August return to his native Squirrel Hill.
By Rich Lord / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Not once, but twice, war drew Israel Pickholtz to the land that shares his name. Now, as strife worsens again, he’s grown philosophical.
“I know that we as a people will survive,” he said. “I don’t know what the price will be along the way.”
Shortly after Israel’s preemptive strike and victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, at age 19, he signed on to a work-study program at Kibbutz Yavne, near Ashdod. He returned to the United States to earn an economics degree. But after Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in 1973, he went back.
“It was an ideological thing, completely,” he said, as he sat in front of Congregation Poale Zedeck synagogue on Phillips Avenue during a brief August return to his native Squirrel Hill. “That’s where I think the Jews ought to be.”
Mr. Pickholtz’s ideological journey really started when he was 8 years old, and his mother described to him his network of cousins. A flowchart formed in his head, he asked other family members lots of questions, and pretty soon he was the go-to source for intel on the Pickholtz tree. That tree went back through the town of Zalosze, Poland, but had its roots in Israel.
The Handshake and the Fists
Twenty years after an assassination changed the course of Israeli history, emigrants from the Pittsburgh region to the Holy Land live on all sides of the world's most intractable divide.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Rich Lord and Larry Roberts are in Israel this week, supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, exploring the lives of ordinary people in this polarized place. Some of the people you'll meet here believe that familiarity can ease the anger between Arabs and Jews. A few who came in peace now cry for justice. Others are standing firm on land where it often rains stones.
On Sunday, we'll look at Israel 20 years after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who famously shook hands with Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat at the White House in 1993. Until then, follow Larry and Rich here every day as they bring images and stories from Israel's fault lines.
He became involved in pro-Zionist organizations as a teen growing up in Squirrel Hill and attending Hillel Academy, Allderdice High School and then Carnegie Tech.
Back then, relatively few Pittsburghers made Aliya — the Hebrew word for “going up” that is used to describe a Jew’s move to Israel. Supporting the young Jewish state was something best done from the comfort of Squirrel Hill, where the community’s roots ran deep into the 1800s. Compared to Jews in some other cities, he said, “People here were maybe less adventurous.”
Upon his return to Israel in 1973, he joined the army, later serving two decades in the reserves. He also worked for the Dead Sea Bromine Co., while studying genealogy on the side.
Now 67 and retired for seven years, he works as a genealogical consultant to heirs, estates and people curious about their roots. In August, he toured Los Angeles, New York and Phoenix in support of his new book, “Endogamy: One Family, One People.”
He isn’t worrying too much about a long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum.
“The situation is not good. The not-good part of the situation does not affect me for the most part,” he said. His Jerusalem neighborhood, Pat, is right next to the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa. “We live cheek-to-jowl with an Arab neighbor, but that doesn’t seem to bother anybody.”
There are, though, periodic reminders of the crises that drew him — occasionally suspended, never ended.
In November his wife’s son was one of the responders to an attack on Jerusalem's Kehillat Bnei Torah Synagogue, in which two East Jerusalem men shouted “Allahu Akbar!” while they killed four rabbis and injured seven people with axes, knives and a pistol. Mr. Pickholtz said his stepson, a traffic officer, shot one of the killers.
“If we choose to live with that,” he said, “we’ve lost.”
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
email@example.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.