The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

Poale Zedeck Synagogue

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

As mentioned yesterday, Our Lady of the Pentacle and myself have secured tickets for several tour events here in Pittsburgh. Several of these events are on offer from Doors Open Pittsburgh, a non profit outfit which is a regional analogue of organizations back in NYC like Open House NY. Our Lady and I are still finding our footing here, and there is so much to learn, so why not take part in a few historic tours, and experience the cultural resources of this amazing American City? Don’t worry, I’ll be bringing all of you along for the trip.

We thereby found ourselves visiting the Poale Zedeck Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section on a Sunday morning. Representing the institution was a fellow named Abbie Mendehlson (not sure if that’s correct spelling, but there you are), and after a brief introduction in the ‘meeting room’ of the Synagogue we entered the main room. A ‘meeting room’ in Jewish tradition is a non consecrated space which is used for a variety of purposes. Kids practice their Bar Mitzvah dealie in the meeting room, the faithful gather to ‘davan,’ community groups discuss the issues of the day – that sort of thing. Also, you don’t have to heat or air condition the big chapel room when it’s only a few people so…

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The cornerstone for this building says 1881. Now, that’s fairly recent if you’re talking NYC, Boston, or… Philadelphia…, but remember that in Pittsburgh you still had cowboys and native peoples riding in and out of the woods to sell fur pelts in 1881. Conversely, at the same interval as the cowboy thing, a 40 family group of recently emigrated Hungarian Jews were organizing this institution.

For you Goyem: there’s basically three branches of Judaism – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed. This synagogue is part of the Orthodox interpretation. Full time yarmulkes, kosher house, strict observance of the ritual calendar described in the Torah and Talmud, all that. The “frums” that follow the Hasidim and Lubavitcher pathways are considered to be “Ultra Orthodox.” The Frums are here in Pittsburgh as well, I’d mention. There’s other variants of the faith, incidentally, most notably the Sephardic ones.

Me? My Dad would drive me over to an Italian Pork Store (a Salumeria) on Avenue N in Old Mill Basin on Saturday mornings to pick up ham and others deli meats for the week, and I accidentally said “Oh, Shit” in stead of ‘amen’ after screwing up the Haftorah at my Bar Mitzvah, so…

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The modern Synagogue was opened in 1929, and its a beauty. Our host answered questions from the crowd about a wide range of subjects. Special interest was paid to descriptions of the segregated by age and gender sections (a common practice for the Orthodox), and to the stained glass windows. A consequence of the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, which happened in another section of Squirrel Hill, saw emergency Police signal boxes installed throughout the building.

The last Synagogue I was in that used a similar floor plan to this one was on NYC’s Lower East Side, on Eldridge Street. There’s basically two altars – one where the Cantor and others do their thing, and another which directly involves the Torah and the ark.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A massive chandelier caught my attention, and it was set into a dome. I could deep dive into a lot of the iconography here, but am resisting the urge. Suffice to say, if you notice a repeating design motif in an orthodox synagogue, count how many iterations of that repeat occur. That number will have some sort of ritual meaning for initiates. 18’s, 144’s, that sort of thing. I’ve learned to pay attention to and notice this sort of thing over the years.

One of the things I noticed, and asked our host about, was the presence of a design motif on the wall behind the altar depicting grape vines and fruit (with 16 grapes in each twist of three vines) to which he laughed in reply and said it’s just a design.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

On the other hand, a good friend of mine – referred to here in the past only as the “Hermetic Hungarian” – is descended from an Orthodox Hungarian line so I called him up the next day. The first thing he says when I described the motif is “Oh yeah, Hungarian Jews were large and in charge in the Austro Hungarian Wine business. My family used to own several Vineyards there before the wars.” I then hung up the phone without saying thank you. The Hermetic Hungarian does not tolerate pleasantries. Smelt and Spelt eaters like him have zero patience for the western habits of small talk, preferring seriousness and intellectual pursuits instead.

At any rate, the motif is probably something wine related. Saying that, numbers, numbers, numbers. Symbolism.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

We were allowed to visit the ladies section upstairs, which allowed for a wider view of the Poale Zedeck setup. Mr. Mendehlson had another tour group to move through the space, and after a short interval Our Lady of the Pentacle and myself were back out on the street.

We drove around the Squirrel Hill neighborhood a bit afterwards. Squirrel Hill is a nicely kept neighborhood which I’d describe as being ‘upper middle class’ but ‘not rich.’ It reminded me a great deal of the section of Brooklyn that follows Ocean Parkway through the middle of the alphabet avenues – I, J, K, L etc. to Kings Highway.

Back tomorrow.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Buy a book!

In the Shadows at Newtown Creek,” an 88 page softcover 8.5×11 magazine format photo book by Mitch Waxman, is now on sale at for $30.

Written by Mitch Waxman

May 16, 2023 at 11:30 am

One Response

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  1. Thank you for this post. So amazing! My little synagogue in Astoria, Queens – Congregation Sons of Israel on Crescent St – was nothing like this but I believe that in Judaism size doesn’t matter.


    May 16, 2023 at 10:31 pm

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