- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - A $100,000 grant from Richard Rauh to the Heinz History Center’s Rauh Jewish Archives has taken 166 families out of boxes and files and put their life stories, photographs, papers, letters and even a few of their voices together in one place.

The website “Generation to Generation” (jewishfamilieshistory.org) was a two-year endeavor to make Pittsburgh’s Jewish history more accessible - a one-stop resource of family ties, businesses affiliations, transactions and services rendered.

It’s not a complete history since it is based solely on the materials housed in the Rauh archives, but what’s there is a rich and interconnected portrait of the local Jewish experience, said Eric Lidji, a writer and archival consultant on the project.

“For the most part, the materials are interesting,” said Susan Melnick, the head archivist of the Rauh Jewish Archives, “but when Eric started doing research (including census data) and put things in context, you could see just how interesting it is as a whole.”

The site includes a series of family profiles, starting with the first person who came to this country, with hyperlinks to show connections among the families - “who was related to whom, who sold their house to whom, who got their start working for whom,” Lidji said.

The site links to burial records from 78 Jewish cemeteries in Western Pennsylvania and to The Fifth Avenue Project, a documentation of the history of wholesale in Uptown.

One exhibit on the site is about how Gene Kelly ended up teaching dance to children of the Beth Shalom Congregation in Squirrel Hill.

“Everybody thanks me for getting this going, but Jewish history needs to be more visible,” said Richard Rauh, an actor, educator and film expert who said his gifts to the Rauh archives have totaled $400,000 over the years. “Jews have long roots here and have done all sorts of things.”

Considering the millions who died in the Holocaust, he said, “it is important to keep these families alive. Some of them were extremely important to Pittsburgh.”

The 166 families include the Reizensteins, whose family member Florence was the namesake of the former middle school in Shadyside; the Goldsteins and Shapiras, from whose union the original Giant Eagle grocery grew; and the Rauhs, who had among their members Enoch, a successful businessman who was appointed to the Council of Nine, the precursor to city council, and his wife, Bertha, who served as the first woman mayoral Cabinet member from 1922 to 1935.

By the time Enoch died in 1919, Bertha was sitting on 30 boards and was involved in so many social betterment agencies that the Detroit Free Press called her “the Lady Astor of Pittsburgh.”

“I don’t know how she could have done all that she did and raise a family,” Rauh said of his grandmother.

Freda Lazier was the youngest of six children and the only one born in America, in 1912, to Lithuanian-born parents. Julius Lazier was a granite peddler in the Hill District and could not afford music lessons for his precocious daughter. She succeeded with a natural voice.

Generation to Generation includes a photo posted to YouTube of her singing “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” in 1936 - an audition for a contest that bandleader Paul Whiteman held.

“She won $200 and bought herself a baby grand that stayed with us forever,” said her daughter, Barbara Alexander Demsky, who lives in New Jersey. “She sang with big bands in the area, with Gene Kelly and Dick Powell and had a show on KDKA.”

After she married Army physician David Alexander in 1941, they moved to Pottstown, Demsky said, “but her happiest years were when she was performing in Pittsburgh.”

Lidji said many Jews gravitated to Squirrel Hill from other neighborhoods - most Jews had left the Hill District by the 1960s - but that others didn’t move households or businesses. A sizable Jewish population lived in Homewood, where the Frank family was the namesake of Frankstown Road.

“Anna Spiegle married Samuel Reingold and they had a confectionery store at 568 Homewood Ave.,” Lidji said. “During Prohibition, he began selling ice cream and then he decided to go into real estate because of the real estate ads he saw when he traveled to sell ice cream.”

Roth Carpet started in Homewood, on Bennett Street, in a building that’s now a church.

“After the 1936 flood, the Roth family rented the basement of a movie theater and started cleaning the rugs damaged in the flood,” Lidji said.

“A lot of the families who donated their histories know their families didn’t have a lot of prominence,” he said, “but they felt their records were important. And they are. More people who are interested in history, especially young people, like the hyperlocal aspect.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1z844vP

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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