The author is on the top row, third from the left
The author is on the top row, third from the left

I am a Pittsburgh Jew, a Tree of Life Jew

I am a heartbroken Pittsburgh Jew, raised in Squirrel Hill, and I’d like to share a bit about the community where I was raised. I come from a city of generational roots, rich tradition and Yiddishkeit. I come from a city of steel and Steelers: I am black and yellow. If you live or have lived in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill, the Jewish community becomes part of the fabric of your soul.

I grew up in the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. It is where I had my bat mitzvah and went through confirmation. On the High Holidays, I stared out the magnificent stained-glass windows for hours. I remember the pasty, bland cookies offered at Tree of Life after Ne’ilah service every year with a tiny cup of grape juice. You’ll never hear me complain about them again.

I grew up in Squirrel Hill, attended an Orthodox day school and supplemented my high school education at the School of Advanced Jewish Studies. I went willingly. I was active in NCSY, BBYO and USY. Israel was in my heart from the beginning. Being Jewish was “cool.”

Throughout my childhood, there were two kosher grocery stores just around the corner, a girl’s yeshiva up the street, and a JCC that was the hub for all things including basketball teams, drivers ed classes, swimming, summer camps, and where my mom took Hebrew classes. Walking up the main street in town, there was a strong Jewish presence. Judaism was so familiar, I really didn’t notice or appreciate all this until I left.

On Yom HaAtzmaut in the ’70s, the main streets in Squirrel Hill were blocked off and we marched. Dressed in an ankle-length jean skirt and button-down white blouse, Israeli flag in hand, I walked and sang with thousands. In high school, I went to Israel a couple of times, that’s just what we did. Being Jewish wasn’t something that I opted into; it was in the air of Squirrel Hill. I grew up alongside Jewish peers, in a Jewish hub, and my Jewish identity is, and will always be, in the essence of my being.

I never thought about being Jewish, I was just Jewish. Never a shortage of whitefish, creamed herring and chopped liver at my bubbe’s home. But all of that changed my first year of college, when my roommate asked about the items that I was unpacking: a mezuzah, a siddur, candlesticks. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she said, “You’re Jewish? Well, you look just like us.” I was not in Pittsburgh anymore.

I am a Pittsburgh Jew, and when I landed in the Bay Area, I was a fish out of water. I quickly learned that I had to seek out Judaism, and found it beautiful and frustrating. Beautiful, because I felt unconditionally welcomed in a Modern Orthodox congregation while maintaining my Conservative practice. Beautiful, because the Bay Area Jewish community is always thinking outside the box — finding innovative ways to engage all those who want a Jewish experience. Yet, frustrating because it’s not the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill.

I am a Pittsburgh Jew. I come from the city of steel, an expression of strength. Just like the city’s colors, black and yellow, darkness and light. From this darkness, may we find the light.

Melanie Cartiff Marcus
Melanie Cartiff Marcus

Melanie Cartiff Marcus lives in Piedmont and is a development associate at the Jewish Community Federation of the East Bay.