Sam Zolten (third from left) greets visitors following a screening of his documentary "Missing McKeesport" on Sunday afternoon at the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center. (Photo special to Tube City Almanac)
Sam Zolten was worried that "maybe about 10 people" would attend a screening of his documentary, "Missing McKeesport," on Sunday afternoon at the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center.
In fact, about 100 people filled the seats of the center's Boycott Room and stood in the lobby to see the 90-minute film, comprised of interviews with local residents, past and present, telling stories of McKeesport's Jewish community --- and therefore, the city's history --- from the 1900s to the present.
"I didn't know what to expect," said Zolten, a McKeesport High School graduate who moved away in 1967 and now lives near Philadelphia. "I'm overwhelmed to see so many people I don't know, who aren't Jewish, but who can relate to the experience."
A filmmaker and videographer by trade, Zolten treated "Missing McKeesport" as a personal labor of love. He worked on the film for seven years, beginning with interviews he recorded in 2010 during a reunion held at the Seven Springs resort near Ligonier.
Trying to figure out what parts to keep in the film, and what parts to leave out, was one of the biggest difficulties Zolten faced.
"I also have a four-hour version, and if you want to see that one, see me," he joked.
During a question-and-answer session following the screening, one audience member told Zolten, "This really ought to be on PBS."
"I'm available," Zolten joked.
The DVD is now available for purchase at the Heritage Center, and Zolten will be returning this summer for at least one additional public screening.
Of more than 150 people interviewed, some have passed away since Zolten began work. Those who have died in the interim received the honorific after their names, "OBM," for "of blessed memory" (in Hebrew, "zikhrono livrakha" or "zikhronah livrakha").
Among the more notable people on screen in "Missing McKeesport" are city natives Art Rupe, founder of Specialty Records and a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and photographer Duane Michals.
Also making an appearance is boxer and 1950s television personality "Slapsy Maxie" Rosenbloom.
Rosenbloom's connection to McKeesport? He was performing at the old Holiday House nightclub on Route 22 in Wilkins Twp. when a Jewish family from McKeesport asked him if he had anywhere to go for Passover. He came to a seder at their house.
(Photo special to Tube City Almanac)
The main character in the film, Zolten said, is the city itself. Through their own family stories, Zolten's subjects explain how McKeesport evolved from a river boat and railroad stop, to a major steelmaking center, with a population swelled by immigration from Eastern Europe, Germany and Russia.
Many of those immigrants were fleeing war, famine or persecution in the "old countries." But in some cases, Jews who arrived in McKeesport faced new kinds of persecution. Zolten's subjects describe how many of the best-paying jobs in the steel mills were closed to Jews, which forced them either into professions such as law or medicine, or to become peddlers and shopkeepers.
Indeed, one whole section of Zolten's film explores the McKeesport's busy and prosperous retail district in the 1930s through the 1970s, including the many shops founded and run by Jewish families, including furniture stores like Ruben's, Hirshberg's and Kaplans, jewelry stores such as Goodman's and Morrow's, and clothing stores like Byer's, David Israel and Katzman's.
Like so many immigrant communities in McKeesport, the story of the city's Jews after 1980 is one of dispersal and dilution. In a city that once boasted at least four and as many as seven synagogues serving different communities and styles of worship, none remain.
At one time, up to 10 percent of the city's population was Jewish. In the film's closing moments, Zolten estimates that fewer than three dozen observant Jews still live in McKeesport.
But lest the film end on a negative note, several of Zolten's subjects note various efforts to move McKeesport in a positive direction for the future.
Indeed, one consistent theme of "Missing McKeesport" may be perseverance --- of the earliest wave immigrants who fled persecution in the 19th century, of the later immigrants who escaped or survived the Nazis in the 20th century, of their children who fought prejudice to establish their own lives, and of McKeesport itself.
"Being from McKeesport has been essential to my life," Zolten said Sunday after the screening. "People will tell me sometimes, 'This is too hard to do,' and I'll say, 'I'm from McKeesport --- I'll show you what I can do.'"
Originally published June 24, 2018.