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What the gunman didn’t get: In Squirrel Hill, diversity made us strong

By Bill Tarrant

(Reuters) – In the 1960s, when I was growing up in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill district, we used to take the trolley up cobble-stoned Murray Avenue heading downtown, passing through a tableau of European-American Jewish life.

There were Silverman’s and Rosenbloom’s, the two bakeries where we bought our dark rye bread. There were kosher butcher shops, delicatessens, synagogues and a Hillel academy, small jewelry shops and clothing stores.

Back then, the synagogues and Hebrew schools bore signs that read “Save Soviet Jewry”. We were all acutely aware that Pittsburgh, then the steel capital of the world, would most likely be hit by one of the first Russian nuclear missiles should World War Three erupt. But the plight of Soviet Jews worried my neighbors almost as much.

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It was no surprise the Soviet Jewry movement resonated in Squirrel Hill. We were, after all, a neighborhood of refugees, though most of us didn’t come through formal programs. My neighbors’ families had fled pogroms in Eastern Europe, or genocide in Germany, or, in my family’s case, poverty in Ireland. We understood in our DNA the need to seek refuge.

The man accused of slaughtering 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill on Saturday, Robert Bowers, appears from social media postings to have had a very different view of refugees. Hours before Saturday’s attack, he accused one prominent refugee group, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, of liking “to bring invaders in that kill our people.” Social media postings attributed to him display a particular animus for Jews.

IRISH AND ITALIANS, TOO

The non-Jewish minority in Squirrel Hill were mainly Catholics, Italian and Irish whose parents and grandparents were also immigrants seeking a better life.

The cultural diversity enriched us all, sometimes literally. We went to each other’s birthday parties, Bar Mitzvahs and confirmations – which meant more envelopes containing money at the end of the night.

Almost all the families on Mt. Royal Road, where we lived, were Jewish. We had the great fortune to live across the street from the Sterns, whose father George owned the Manor theater on Murray Avenue. We saw “Flubber” and “101 Dalmatians” at the Sterns’ house before they opened in theaters.

Down the street were the Alperns, who had a men’s store. The family gave me and my brothers hand-me-down sport coats, ties and slacks, much better than the stuff we used to get at Claber’s, the local Wal-Mart equivalent of those days.

The Friedman’s next door were very close family friends. The mother, Sylvia, was a nurse who had emigrated from South Africa. She was in our kitchen every day after school having tea with my mother. Her daughter, Linda, practically raised my two younger sisters.

We never felt like a minority in predominantly Jewish Squirrel Hill. Indeed, the exotic shops, the men in black hats and sidelocks, the clanging street cars, provided a much more vibrant American lesson in multiculturalism than the one we studied in civics class at school.

(Reporting by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Sue Horton)

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