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Jewish Migration to Pittsburgh

Jewish Migration to Pittsburgh

by Larry Ciptak

from Out of This Kitchen: a History of the Ethnic Groups and Their Foods in the Steel Valley


Pittsburgh was an appropriate setting for the migration of a Jewish population starting in the 1840s. Set apart from other cities, the development of a cohesive Jewish community could be achieved.

During the colonial period Pittsburgh was still considered an unsettled territory, and migrating Jews settled in various cities on the Atlantic seaboard. "Gradually the Jewish settlers began to arrive, coming largely from Bavaria, Baden and Wurtemburg in Germany. They came to extend their markets and capitalize on Pittsburgh's expanding economy," wrote Myrna Silverman in her book, "Strategies for Social Mobility: Family, Kinship and Ethnicity within Jewish Families in Pittsburgh."

Predominantly traders and merchants, Jews dominated in the retail, wholesale, clothing, liquor and dry goods markets. By the 1860's, the majority of retail and wholesale establishments were owned or staffed by Jews, according to Silverman.

The Jewish population was comprised of Lithuanian, Rumanian, Polish, Latvian, Hungarian, Russian, and German immigrants. They did not come en masse; instead, Jews came in small groups or by themselves. Often the husbands came to get established before sending for their wives and families.

The Hill District became the first large Jewish settlement, virtually all of Pittsburgh's 40,000 Jews living there in 1910. However, after that year families began moving from the Hill to Squirrel Hill, East End and Oakland. Eastern European Jews came directly to Pittsburgh to settle, said Silverman. Many of these immigrants became traders and petty shopkeepers, partly due to the supposed belief that Jews weren't capable of performing manual labor, a stereotype that was accepted by even Jewish mill owners.

A self-owned business was the preferred mode of employment among the Jews. They owned and operated ethnic markets and food stores, cigar factories (often in their homes), butcher shops, bakeries and other enterprises, often incorporating kin into their ventures.