PITTSBURGH — One hundred years ago, the Marcus family gathered in a house on Webster Avenue in the Hill District at the beginning of Passover, holding its first Seder with all members of the family together in the United States for the first time.
This year, they will do the same, with 75 members of the family attending — some flying from across the country — at the Green Oaks Country Club in Penn Hills for the 100th anniversary of Marcus family Seders in Pittsburgh.
The Marcus family back then could no easier imagine a Seder, held in a country club and webcast throughout the country, than the Marcus family of today could fathom sending a 15-year-old girl, alone on a boat, from Russia to Pittsburgh to earn money to transport the rest of her family.
But that, in a nutshell, is 100 years of history.
Jewish families across Pittsburgh gather at Seder dinners for the first night of Passover, a ritual retelling of the story of the Jewish liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt.
The youngest child capable of doing so asks the four questions that inquire why this night is different from all other nights. The family eats traditional Seder foods such as matzo and bitter herbs, symbolizing different themes in the Passover story.
The Marcus family story of a century of Seders in Pittsburgh is hardly unique here, though its record-keeping is unusually good and its Seder is unusually large.
"It keeps us all together," Estelle Comay, 74, of Squirrel Hill said of the 75-person gathering. "I guess we've figured out that we're now in the sixth generation of Marcuses in Pittsburgh. We're still very close — we treasure each other."
Jews began to immigrate to Pittsburgh in 1840, the earliest group coming from Germany, said Susan Melnick, archivist for the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. By the late 1800s, Jews had started to come to Pittsburgh in larger numbers from eastern Europe, as part of the Great Migration. In 1912, the period the Marcus family was coming from Russia, there were 35,000 Jews in Pittsburgh out of a total city population of 554,000.
Jews from eastern Europe generally came to Pittsburgh in that era in search of better circumstances, she said, either for economic reasons or to escape hunger or oppression. They usually settled first in the Hill District and then moved east, to neighborhoods such as Squirrel Hill, which remains the center of Pittsburgh Jewish life.
The Marcus family was no exception.
Esther Eta Mirkiss was a widow running a store in Russia in 1907 when she decided to send her 17-year-old daughter Goldie, the oldest of six surviving children, to America. The next oldest, Avrum, followed two years later, with 15-year-old Rivka coming after that.
By 1913, the three had saved up enough to bring over the rest of the family, whose last name was changed to Marcus at Ellis Island. They lived in the Hill District together for several years, taking over a grocery store on Wylie Avenue, then to a farm in Troy Hill and to a home on Chislett Street in Morningside.
It was in that home that the family held decades of Seders, cramming up to 60 people into a typical small Pittsburgh home.
There are moments of lore: the family joke that people in their 50s were still seated at the kids table and the time that their Uncle Morris passed out while leading the Seder and the house was so crammed with tables that nobody could get to him to help him. The house was so overtaxed that the electric power invariably would go out at some point in the Seder, leading to Seder's "fifth question," said Goldie Katz of Point Breeze, great-granddaughter of Esther Marcus: "Why do the lights always blow out?"
In the early 1960s, the Seder in Morningside grew so large that it was moved out of a private home and into rented facilities such as the Pittsburgh Hilton, the Concordia Club and Webster Hall.
As is the custom at Marcus family Seders, the dinner begins with a recitation of the family's births and deaths for the year. They also use a custom Haggadah, the script for the Seder that tells the story of Passover, originally compiled via mimeograph from existing Haggadahs.
For the 100th Seder, the family is making an attempt to use modern technology to unite members far and wide. Amy Katz Leaman, great-great-granddaughter of Esther Marcus, is setting up a Google Plus Hangout using an iPad and a webcam and hopefully a big screen television at the Green Oaks Country Club to include Seders taking place in as many as seven cities.
"We have a lot of people who said they wanted in," said Leaman, 40, of Squirrel Hill. "The interest is still there for people to be connected."
For the second or third nights of Passover, the family often holds smaller Seders in their homes, splitting up for nuclear family Seders.
Many other families choose to just keep Seders smaller, keeping them in homes at manageable levels.
"I think it speaks to our long history in Pittsburgh," said Comay, a granddaughter of Esther Marcus, noting that the family has no plans to change the tradition. "We hope that our progeny will be celebrating the 200th anniversary in Pittsburgh as well."
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com