On the 1900 block of Sarah Street on the South Side, there is a building that has "Congregation Talmud Torah" carved above the door. Can you find out anything about the Jewish community here that would have supported a temple? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

On the 1900 block of Sarah Street on the South Side, there is a building that has "Congregation Talmud Torah" carved above the door. Can you find out anything about the Jewish community here that would have supported a temple?

Question submitted by: Jana Shaw, South Side

I know what readers are thinking: "Jews in the South Side? Who knew?" 

But South Siders are probably familiar with this structure at 1908 Sarah, a yellow-brick building with a stone carving of the Ten Commandments mounted on top. And of course you can be Polish and Jewish at the same time. Judging from his 1933 obituary, for example, the founder of Talmud Torah, Samuel Silverblatt, was himself a Polish immigrant.

Still, you're right: The South Side was never a magnet for Jewish immigrants the way the Hill District once was, and the way Squirrel Hill still is. (Silverblatt was a Squirrel Hill resident at the time of his death, though a one-time Talmud Torah president who died the following year, Isaac Davis, stuck it out on Carson Street.) And compared to many other Jewish community institutions, Congregation Talmud Torah is about as hard to track down as the lost tribe of Israel. 

I could find nary a mention of Talmud Torah in the handful of books about local Jewish history I consulted, for example. And the Carnegie Library's architectural records on the building include only a single item: a 2001 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story about the structure. The story dispatches with Talmud Torah's history in a single paragraph: The structure "was built in the late 1920s as a synagogue by Congregation Talmud Torah," the paper reports. "But the congregation quickly outgrew the space and within 10 years relocated to Squirrel Hill. Sometime in the '30s, the building was sold to a printing company."

Even that small amount of information seems dubious. A check of county real-estate records, for example, shows that the printing firm Ad-Lithograph bought the building in 1963 -- decades after the P-G account suggests. (The building later became a photography studio and private residence.)

Why so little mention of the institution? Wouldn't somebody have noticed a mass departure of believers from an area where they had settled? Such developments have been chronicled at length before, after all. 

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Talmud Torah wasn't a "temple." It was a school. 

As David Kaufman's 1999 book Shul With a Pool explains, "In the shtetls and cities of Eastern Europe, the Talmud Torah was but one of several forms of Jewish schooling." In America, the school "would gain in prestige, eventually providing the model for all subsequent forms of Jewish education in America." 

Bear in mind that for a Jewish immigrant, religious institutions could serve several functions at once. They could provide places of worship, sure, but also places of learning social services. And these functions weren't always performed under the same roof, which explains the rise of local "settlement centers" like the Irene Kaufman Settlement in the Hill. 

Talmud Torahs often operated independently, Kaufman writes, and sometimes there would be rivalries with synagogues, since both appealed to young families seeking to raise their children in the faith.  

Stand-alone Talmud Torahs -- the name incorporates the Jewish Bible and the rabbinical writings that followed -- became increasingly common in early 20th-century America. Kaufman dates the South Side school's founding to 1914; real-estate records date its acquisition of the Sarah Street property to 1916. 

The very fact that the founders could buy land was important: As Kaufman points out, the schools often had their own structures and governance -- facts which reflect an increasing amount of economic power and communal organization. Organizers also modeled the education on American public schools as much as on the religious schools of Eastern Europe. "The modern Talmud Torah would be run as a bureaucracy and a democracy, becoming a characteristically American institution," Kaufman writes. In the process, it helped mold immigrants' children into characteristic Americans. 

For Kaufman, Talmud Torahs were a key step in developing the modern Jewish institution of the "synagogue center," the multifunctional community nexus of today. I'm unable to pinpoint the moment the South Side school closed down. Maybe that's not surprising: Inclusion is the American Dream, but it's the exodus that gets all the ink.

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