My Roots Are in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh – And I Can’t Stop Crying

I can’t stop crying.

For most of my adult life, I have lived in North Jersey, in Metropolitan New York City. When your roots are in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, as mine are, however, your roots never really leave you, regardless of where you move. Outside of the New York Jewish neighborhoods, Squirrel Hill will always be for me the most wonderfully vibrant Jewish community in America. To walk in Squirrel Hill on Shabbat has always warmed my heart with memories, love, and spirituality.

The bullet from the active shooter at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill has opened a gaping wound in my heart. Who would have imagined that the deadliest attack on a Jewish community in the history of the United States of America would take place within blocks of the first home and business of my family in America?

I can’t stop crying.

In 1912, Aryeh Malovany, age 13, from Rozan, Poland arrived in Squirrel Hill and went to work as a kosher butcher, the family trade back in Poland. He learned baseball and boxing before he learned English. You could always find Aryeh at Forbes Field in Oakland, right next to Squirrel Hill, rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates or the light-heavyweight champion of the world, Harry Greb, the “Pittsburgh Windmill”.

Aryeh took the English name of Archie Edward Steinberg. Within five years, he was able to establish his own kosher butcher shop on Murray Avenue, the main retail business street in Squirrel Hill, just a few blocks away from Shady Avenue, the site of the Tree of Life Synagogue.

In 1920, Archie married his cousin, Rose Steinberg, daughter of his uncle and aunt, Michuel and Bryna Gurman Malovany, who also in America took Steinberg as their last name. Archie and Rose soon moved into what became their family home on Darlington Road in Squirrel Hill, not far from the residence of Billy Conn, the light heavyweight champion of the world who came within three rounds of defeating Joe Louis in 1941.

On October 7, 1925, Archie attended Game One of the World Series at Forbes Field and saw Walter Johnson, “the Big Train” pitch the Washington Senators to victory over the Pirates. When he arrived home after the game, he asked his mother-in-law, Bryna, “Where’s Rose?” Bryna responded with alacrity, “Rose is at West Penn Hospital! You have another son!”

That son was my father, Melvin “Moshe” Steinberg. Dad loved working with Archie and Rose in the butcher shop on Murray Avenue.

Like me, Dad was a real character. He was also the best friend I ever had. There wasn’t a day in his life when he didn’t tell me a Squirrel Hill story. Sometimes, I was impatient with him, as he would often tell me the same stories over and over again. My son, Neil, with whom I am closer than any other person in the world, will tell you that I have the same fault.

Neil and I would each often meet people who had moved from Squirrel Hill to New Jersey and New York. More often than not, Dad knew these families. The highest compliment he could give such a family was, “They were good customers!”

Dad passed away in August, 2011. There isn’t a day in my life when I don’t wish he still was here to tell me the same Squirrel Hill stories. Right now, however, in a spiritual sense, he is right next to me, telling me more Squirrel Hill stories.

I can’t stop crying.

Archie Steinberg passed away on March 30, 1949. I was born eight months later and was named after him. He was well-known and beloved in Squirrel Hill as the community’s leading kosher butcher, and his good name follows me to this very day.

After my father married my mother, Harriet Jean Miller, he moved to the Pittsburgh suburb of New Kensington, where Mom resided. Mom also had a Squirrel Hill connection. On December 7, 1941, Mom and her friend, Marjorie Fisher attended a movie at the former Squirrel Hill theatre on Forward Avenue, between Murray and Shady Avenues. When Marjorie and Mom left the theatre, they learned that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.

During my childhood years, Dad would take me to Squirrel Hill every Sunday to teach me about my roots. We would drive down Shady Avenue, right past the Tree of Life synagogue, at the intersection of Shady and Wilkins.

We would then proceed to the intersection of Shady and Beacon, the location of Beth Shalom Synagogue, where Dad and Mom were married on August 10, 1947. We next would come to the intersection of Shady and Phillips Avenues, the location of Poale Zedeck Congregation, Pittsburgh’s most prominent Orthodox shul. The Rabbi, Joseph Shapiro was a close friend of Archie Steinberg and gave the eulogy at his funeral.

Finally, we would arrive at our destination, the home of my great-grandmother, Bryna Gurman Steinberg, at the corner of Shady and Nicholson. Across the street was my father’s high school, Taylor Allderdice High School, where Dad sang in the choir. I like to think that I inherited Dad’s voice.

I know I inherited one other thing from Dad. He was deeply emotional and sentimental. So am I. That is a trait of my paternal family. And that is why right now, as I think of my rich Squirrel Hill heritage, I can’t stop crying.

During my college and early adult years, I used to argue with Dad about the extent of antisemitism in America. I would argue that it was largely a thing of the past, while Dad would try to convince me how prevalent antisemitism still is.

The events in Squirrel Hill today prove again how wrong I was. And the spread of white nationalism in America, fueled by the respectability that politicians at the highest levels of America attempt to give it, is a cancer that is virulently devouring the soul of our nation. And how long will we allow purveyors of hate to acquire assault weapons, like the AK-47 that killed today my Jewish brothers and sisters in Squirrel Hill?

I was born on November 22, 1949, and my Bar Mitzvah was on the Sabbath of the Torah portion, Vayeirah, the same Torah portion we read today. So today is my Bar Mitzvah anniversary. On my 14th birthday, November 22, 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated. Today, on the 56th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah, the Squirrel Hill mass shooting took place. I will live with this the rest of my life.

So Dad and Mom are not here, and I can’t stop crying. I am blessed that my son, Neil, my daughter-in-law, Lindsay, and my granddaughter, Quinn are here to comfort me, as is my sister, Barbara. But it will not be easy for them to bring me around. And it will take me a while.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.

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  • Ruth Jaffe Lieberman

    Alan, thanks for sharing your pain. As a Clevelander, these Squirrel Hill jews were our neighbors, our camp mates, even came to our schools and stayed in our homes. Small towns and all that. May your pain turn to strength as you continue your work to speak out for your truths and protect the jewish faith that you show.

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