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Filmmaker Explores Jewish Roots, Heritage in McKeesport

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
September 12, 2016
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Documentary filmmaker Sam Zolten has turned his camera lens on a variety of subjects over the past 40 years, many of them as part of the industrial filmmaking company he operates in Bala Cynwyd, outside Philadelphia.

One of his films --- 2002's "Just Call Me Kade," the story of a transgender boy in Tucson, Ariz., has been widely used as a teaching tool around the country.

Now, the McKeesport native and Temple University graduate is focusing on a much more personal subject --- the story of Jewish families, such as his own, who emigrated to McKeesport beginning in the 19th century.

"It's a labor of love," Zolten said.

Zolten has interviewed more than 140 people for his upcoming feature-length documentary, "Missing McKeesport," and has raised more than $17,000 through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

Zolten, who is working with associate editor James T. Rowland, has eight more days to reach the $18,000 goal necessary to complete the movie.

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The documentary stems from a reunion of "Jewish kids who grew up McKeesport" that was held six years ago at the Seven Springs resort in Westmoreland County. Zolten was originally asked to film the reunion --- little more than a home movie.

He decided instead to ask many of the attendees to sit down in front of the camera for four minutes and "give me their best stuff."

"They shared with me their memories not just of being Jewish, but of growing up in McKeesport --- the sports, the infrastructure, what they did for fun," Zolten said in an interview for Tube City Online's weekly podcast, "Two Rivers, 30 Minutes."

"Fifteen hours of tape later, I thought, 'Oh, my God, what have I created?'" he said.

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As McKeesport grew up in the 19th century around coal mines, riverboats and railroad transportation, and finally the iron and steel industries, it attracted immigrants in waves from England, Scotland and Wales, Italy and Germany, and Eastern Europe and Russia.

Like other immigrants, many Jews emigrated to Western Pennsylvania from Russia and Eastern Europe to find better jobs, and to escape religious and cultural persecution. They brought with them the tradition of peddling --- selling clothing, tools and kitchenware from village to village --- but in the United States, switched from selling from a horse-drawn cart to a permanent store.

In McKeesport, stores with Jewish names once lined Fifth Avenue --- stores like Ruben's, Goodman's and Hirshberg's. Zolten's grandfather owned a furniture store in the 700 block of Fifth Avenue called Meyer's, which sold appliances and furniture, while his uncle Will Zolten owned a novelty and toy store on Ringgold Street.

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But all of those stores are gone --- and so are the four synagogues once located in the city.

"Sadly, with the demise of the steel industry, things have changed dramatically," Zolten said. "We've seen a lot of people who had settled their children in McKeesport have left to other places ... there just isn't the business center that there used to be in McKeesport."

In addition to his own interviews --- which now constitute hundreds of hours of footage --- Zolten said he has received extensive help from the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center in Renziehausen Park.

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When the film is complete --- hopefully in a few months --- Zolten said he plans to debut it at the Heritage Center.

He estimates that he's already put $20,000 into the project already, of which more than $11,000 came from two contributors.

Zolten said that his upcoming expenses include using animated sequences by artist Monika Norcross-Cerminara to illustrate several stories for which film does not exist, as well as $3,000 each to license copyrighted music and archival photos.

You can hear the entire interview here.

Originally published September 12, 2016.

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