To most of the world, Jeffrey Lynn Goldblum’s story is his multi-decade career in Hollywood. After graduating from West Mifflin High School in 1970, he skipped college (having famously been rejected from Carnegie Mellon) and moved to New York City to train as an actor. His film career began soon after. He has since worked consistently, starring in numerous prominent films (Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Thor: Ragnarok, and many others). He also has a side career as a jazz musician. 1 A man of many talents! But if Jeff Goldblum is interesting to me, it is because he was one of the last to experience something very dear to my heart, something that is now long gone.
You see, by the 1960s there were very few young families left in the Jewish community of Homestead, Pennsylvania, which once had hundreds of kids running around. The number of kids enrolled in the local Hebrew school had fallen from ~40 in the 1959-1960 school year to ~10 in 1966-1967, the school’s last year. Jeff Goldblum was part of that last class of kids, though he didn’t make it through to the end.
The Goldblum family — father Harold, a doctor; mother Shirley; and siblings Lee, Rick, and Pamela — was an exception thrice over. They were one of the last few Jewish families remaining in the Homestead district at a time when local Jewish families, I’ve been told, felt socially isolated from their neighbors. Moreover, they were the only one of those families in the West Homestead part of the district. And, as first-generation Homesteaders, unlike most of Homestead’s remaining Jewish families, they didn’t have the multigenerational friendships (and outright kinship) that tied the other families together. Nevertheless, when Dr. Goldblum’s career brought the family to Homestead, they joined the local Orthodox synagogue and sent Jeff and his siblings to its Hebrew school — though other families like theirs, even those with deep Homestead roots, often preferred the larger and more progressive congregations nearby in Pittsburgh. If Jeff Goldblum is interesting to me, it is also because he and his siblings are the product of these complicated, exceptional decisions — decisions which are themselves rooted in the family’s origin story in America.
Dr. Harold Goldblum and Shirley Temeles, Jeff’s parents, were both American-born children of American-born mothers and immigrant fathers who arrived as teenagers. Jeff’s genealogy has been available online in numerous places for at least a decade (for example), and a 2016 podcast with him confirms he is generally aware of his family’s origins. Of his father’s side, he is even aware of the kind of information that takes others years to untangle:
My dad’s dad, named Povartzik [was] from Russia. I’m not Goldblum; I’m Povartzik. That was never my last name, but that’s the family name; that’s my dad’s dad’s name. 2
The surviving records add a bit more detail: His father’s father, indeed born Joseph Povartzik (1896-1967), immigrated at age 15, arriving in Baltimore harbor with his older brother in November 1911 to join his father, Zelig (1869-1957), who had arrived months earlier. I’ve seen a few different towns in Minsk governate associated with their origins — Starobin, Timkovitch, and Turov (then in Russia; today Belarus). Evidence suggests that it took until well after WWI for all Zelig’s children to make it to the U.S. Probably the last to arrive was the youngest son, Israel, who arrived in the U.S. by way of Florida in 1923. He was the only one not to settle in Pittsburgh. For more than three decades he was rabbi at Congregation Emunath Israel in East Orange, NJ. 3
A closer look at Zelig’s ship manifest solves the mystery of the name change: it indicates that he was going to join a stepbrother in Pittsburgh named…Meyer Goldblum! Although Zelig did not change his last name, all his children did. He spent the rest of his life in Pittsburgh, outliving four wives. 4
Joseph, Zelig’s second son, married Lillian Leventon (1898-1981), the American-born daughter of Russian immigrants who came around 1890. Jeff’s father, Harold, was the first of their three children. He and his siblings grew up on the Southside of Pittsburgh. Jeff knew these grandparents.
[My father’s father] came over here — my dad was sort of, well, uh, let’s not get into that — but Joseph — I think in that generation of American Jews, they wanted to assimilate…But I think his dad, who was selling — he had a little candy store and sold some luggage — didn’t really want to learn to drive, and that kind of stuff… I never saw [the store]. I met Tat — Tat we called, him, Tat, Tatkele — Joe Goldblum — but we didn’t go over and visit them much, he and Bubbe Lillian. (Interviewer: Because your dad didn’t want to?) Well, didn’t want to.
To understand his father’s discomfort, we need to take a detour into the story of Jeff’s uncle Charles Goldblum, younger brother to Jeff’s father. In high school and in college Charles was an honor student and a basketball star. In 1943 at age 20 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. A training mission aboard a B-24 in June 1944 went terribly wrong, and he and his crew mates had to bail, landing inside the Grand Canyon! The whole ordeal received significant press coverage as it was happening: 5
“I tell you those days of waiting from Thursday, when the army authorities told me ‘Chuckie’ was down somewhere in Arizona, until Sunday when we were told that he had been found safe, were the worst I’ve ever experienced…
“I never expected anything to happen to him, here in this country,” Mrs. Goldblum said.” It was our other son, Lieutenant Harold Goldblum, somewhere overseas, maybe in England, maybe in France, that I worried about. But I guess if I’d have known what Charles was doing I’d have worried more about him, too.
“He writes us every day — hasn’t missed a day since he went into the service. But all he writes is that he saw a show, or that he went somewhere to dinner — or this or that happened in camp. Never a word about those flights over deserts and mountains and rivers out there in the West. I knew, of course, that he was a flier but I didn’t have any idea where he was flying.”
…Joseph Goldblum, father of the flying lieutenant, has been working in a Southside defense plant for two years—seven days a week. Mrs. Goldblum takes care of the confectionary store, which, by dint of 16 and 17-hour workdays on the part of the parents, provided college education for their two soldier sons. (source)
It took 10 days until a successful rescue mission retrieved Charles and his crew mates from the canyon.
Unfortunately his luck did not hold; in December after a bombing raid in the Philippines he was listed Missing in Action. There was no heroic rescue this time. His body was never found. The family never recovered from the loss. Joseph and Lillian left the home where they raised their children and moved to Squirrel Hill, opposite Taylor Allderdice High School.
Meanwhile, Jeff’s father, already a Pitt-educated doctor, had taken a commission with the medical corps. He arrived overseas a couple weeks after D-Day (and just days before his brother’s Grand Canyon ordeal) and served on the front lines in France and Germany. He arrived back from Europe in March 1946 and left the army in June, returning home to a family much-altered from the one he left. Less than a month later, he married Jeff’s mom at Beth Shalom, a Pittsburgh synagogue. They first set up house in the Highland Park neighborhood, and their first child was born a little over a year later. As Jeff haltingly recalls it, Charles’ death further separated Harold from his parents.
But so his family — he would always be a little — his mom — we’d go over to their house, and he didn’t like the smell that much — so we’d go back, and they had pictures of Chucky Goldblum, and they said, oh — (he was never found) — but he’s gonna come back, and my dad was always, like, kind of mad and ashamed. There was plenty of subterranean, un-excavated — oh, lots of things, I’m sure, that were hidden in the Jewish David Lynchian way, just under the surface.
Jeff used the word “ashamed” often in anecdotes about his father’s feelings towards his family.
[My father] said he wanted to either be — to get himself out of this condition and to rise up and to be an American — he was going to either be a doctor, as one did, or an actor.
Apparently his father found an acting class he stepped into “out of [his] league,” which is why he went the (easier?!) doctor route. After the war he initially worked in the veterans’ hospital in Aspinwall. By 1952 he was practicing in the Homestead district, and he maintained his private practice there for the rest of his life. His patients were primarily mill workers. 6
My dad was a very authentic, real sort of guy with a big work ethic, lovely. We’d go to the Steelers games all the time. (Interviewer: What kind of doctor?) Internist, general medicine, general practitioner. He had a bag, he’d go to people’s houses — go make house calls, that kind of thing. His patients loved him, I think.
In one generation Jeff’s family went from teenaged immigrant to respected community doctor. Along the way they made the biggest sacrifice a family could make for the cause of freedom. These stories, with their complicated aftershocks, are Jeff’s inheritance on his father’s side.
“My mom’s dad was Austrian,” is all that Jeff related about his mother’s family’s origins in that 2016 podcast. Their history parallels his father’s family’s story. Jeff’s maternal grandfather, Samuel Temeles (1893-1939), immigrated when he was 17, arriving in New York in May 1910 (the year before his future mechuten Joseph Goldblum arrived). When he arrived, he was detained at Ellis Island for a full day before his older brother Benjamin could pick him up. Other siblings had preceded him, the following year his mother and younger brother arrived, and a year after that his father joined them via Canada. The towns associated with this family — Zlowchow and Podkamen — were in Galicia (today western Ukraine), making them Austrians, yes, but Galitzianers more precisely. They began their American lives in New York City and later moved to Pittsburgh.
Grandfather Samuel married Anna Katz (1898-1987) in 1916. Like Jeff’s other grandmother, she was born in Pennsylvania. Her parents were likely Galitzianers who came around 1890. Jeff’s mother Shirley, the third of Sam and Anna’s four children, was born in Ohio. Ultimately the family settled in West Virginia and ran a general store in a small town on the border with Pennsylvania. They did well enough for a time to afford a live-in servant. But when Shirley was 12, tragedy struck: her father Samuel died of a heart attack (update: while on trial for setting fire to his rental property in an alleged insurance scam).
Shirley finished school in West Virginia and started at the University of Pittsburgh in the fall of 1944. It seems she dropped out months later when she became engaged to “Pfc. Sam Spector, serving with the armed forces (infantry) somewhere in England.” There was even an engagement party in his absence! Private Spector survived the war, but the couple never wed. 7 She remained in Pittsburgh, soon accompanied by her mother and siblings, who moved back as well. Seeing as how her first engagement took place when Harold had already departed, and how she married him within months of his return from overseas, it seems possible theirs was quite the whirlwind romance.
“My mom prided herself in being a free bird,” Jeff commented in a 2017 interview. He elaborated in the podcast:
My mom was kind of bombastic, vivacious, and had a temper, and would be dramatical and histrionic, here and there. She raised us four kids and then took off after we left. Was a sex therapist, legend has it, for a time, and went back to college, and had a radio show or something like that [TAH: she was on the KDKA television channel8]. (Interviewer: They separated?) No, they stayed together. She wanted to be in show business early on. So she was kind of an actress-y type, show-y type. (Interviewer: Funny?) Well, hard to know. Too close. Complicated and dark and stormy — very — big weather, lots of weather there, big weather patterns.
Jeff’s free-spirited mother had quite a different life from her immigrant father, who wasn’t even allowed into the country until he showed proof of family support. All across the Temeles family, not just in Jeff and his mother, an artistic streak showed itself. Shirley’s first cousins Gertrude Temeles Half and her sister Anne Temeles Golomb both became painters of some renown. Two other cousins in Jeff’s generation became working actors like him, and his sister, Pamela, became a painter. This artistic spirit was Jeff’s inheritance from his mother’s side and would allow him to live a life quite unlike anything his forebears could have imagined.
Harold, Shirley, and their first two boys moved to West Homestead because Harold established his medical practice there. Jeff and his sister joined the family after the move. Unusually, the Goldblums left Pittsburgh for Homestead at a time when the tide had long been headed in the opposite direction. I can’t help but wonder if the location also appealed to Harold and Shirley because it distanced them from the trauma and constraints of their own upbringings.
Of Homestead’s remaining Jewish families, a fair number, especially young families, belonged to Pittsburgh synagogues, but Harold Goldblum joined the Homestead synagogue when it was clearly in decline. In fact, of the 10 (only 10!) men who joined in the 1960s, he was one of only two with no prior family connection to the community and one of only two raising kids in Homestead. I’d be the last person to knock what Homestead’s Jewish community had to offer, but even the most stalwart of Homestead’s remaining Jewish families struggled at that time with the realization that as Jews, they and their kids would have more options and experience less friction across the river in Squirrel Hill.
Part of me wonders if the Goldblums’ atypical decision to join the local synagogue was made because it was the least effortful route. But then, I suppose they didn’t have to join a synagogue at all, although that would have been a pretty extreme choice for that time. All four kids attended Homestead’s Hebrew school, and all three boys were bar mitzvah’ed there — standard. Shirley did a stint in the Sisterhood.
Jeff doesn’t have much to say about his Jewish roots when his upbringing comes up in interviews.
My parents sent all of us to a Hebrew School at a local synagogue. It was kind of traditional. It was small. I had a bar mitzvah, but then we weren’t encouraged to participate much in anything. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 8/12/2007)
“‘[My bar mitzvah] was a modest affair,’ he says. ‘There was no speech in English — “Today I am a man” — nothing like that. I learned the whole service and conducted it in Hebrew. Actually, I was quite good.’” (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 11/8/1983)
All four Goldblum children were described in the synagogue’s records as having potential, but the three boys were subsequently noted as post-bar mitzvah “dropouts.” Harold resigned his membership shortly after third son Jeff’s Bar Mitzvah, when his daughter, the youngest, was 11. (It’s possible he maintained a membership at Beth Shalom thereafter.)
During an interview about his role in a Holocaust movie, the reporter noted,
when the actor is asked to talk about his Jewish identity, he tails (sic) off into vagueness…”There are things about me that are Jewish, although I have a spiritual appetite, I might say, where I identify myself with larger groups than just Jews.” (The London Jewish Chronicle, 5/4/2007)
Similarly, from another reporter,
I ask him about his Jewish roots, and Goldblum’s story seems to end with his bar mitzva and the conclusion of his Hebrew school education.
I try to extract a little more from Goldblum about his Jewish identity. He seems to have little to tell.
“I’ve continued to, you know, identify myself culturally with Judaism, and have exposed myself to wisdom literature that’s from one tradition or another,” he says, his voice trailing off. I ask whether his Jewishness affects his work in any way.
“In the obvious ways – ways that, you know, I can imagine Jewish humor has something to do with certain shows.” (The Jerusalem Post, 7/14/2005)
By focusing on Jeff and his family as Jews first and everything else second, I worry that I am contradicting their choices about how they led their lives. But I have devoted myself to documenting each and every family in their community in all their diversity. Because the Goldblums were an anomaly, I have so many questions about their role in the community to further my understanding of the whole community. To what extent did growing up in a small-town Jewish community affect the Goldblum kids’ perception of Judaism and themselves as Jews? To what extent did growing up in a declining Jewish community? To what extent did arriving as outsiders? To what extent did attending public school as one of the only Jewish kids? What does he remember about the synagogue? What stories of the community can he tell me?
These are the same questions I’ve been asking his schoolmates all along. How would his answers compare?
The news broke in The New York Times shortly after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre that Jeff had agreed to talk about his origins “in a Jewish family in Pittsburgh” on a televised genealogy show with a celebrity host. I was perplexed by the choice: Jeff Goldblum’s story may fascinate because it resulted in a uniquely talented and charismatic individual, but from the perspective of this long-time family historian, the genealogy follows the patterns of most Ashkenazi families in the U.S. Even the tragedies, as singularly devastating as they were to Jeff’s parents, are not atypical.
I must own that my reaction was influenced by my personal experiences as a viewer of this program. Its format crams the stories of 2-3 guests into 50 minutes. Unlike the most prominent genealogy TV show, where the celebrity guest meets with history professionals, conducts actual research, and travels to his ancestral towns, this show takes place in a studio where the celebrity host presents the celebrity guest with pre-packaged discoveries that anonymous researchers made off-camera. The host prompts the guests to emote for the camera by repeatedly asking questions like, “Can you imagine such-and-such?” and “Can you believe such-and-such?” as he presents each twist and turn of the guest’s family history. Shallow questions like these lead to a show where heritage is treated as kitsch. Substance is traded for emotion. Meaning is wrung out of small family discoveries married with Wikipedia-level quick-takes on complicated history. Thus, the show ends up with absurdities like this one, from the last time an episode featured a descendant of Pittsburgh Jews:
Host: Julius didn’t have it easy when he came, so we couldn’t believe it: Just three years after becoming a citizen of the United States, Julius was one of the founding members of Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh! (Finding Your Roots, Season 3, Episode 3)
- “Didn’t have it easy when he came”: Generic pablum about immigrant life that is not actually supported by this particular man’s surviving records.
- “We couldn’t believe it”: Because they don’t know anything about how synagogues are founded.
- “Just three years after becoming a citizen of the United States”: Deceptive. Julius had been in the country for almost a decade at this point and was very well established.
- “Was one of the founding members”: One of the 35 founding members. Founding a synagogue is not an indicator of a heightened level of success. Most synagogue founders were extremely recent immigrants!
My reaction to Jeff’s selection, I must also admit, was influenced by my correspondence with the show’s researcher, who was neither a historian nor a genealogist, but an undergraduate studying film. His initial inquiries to me (and others), which came just weeks after the shooting, did not inspire hope — research questions about Jeff’s ancestors’ synagogue affiliations (oh, how the researcher searched for a connection to Tree of Life, New Light, or Dor Hadash) and requests for records about Jeff’s bar mitzvah (my goodness, why is that the only question anyone ever asks me about him? Bar mitzvah synagogue records aren’t a thing, people). With all that I know about the community in which their guest grew up, this is what they wanted from me?! Nevertheless, I wrote back agreeing to help, but asked if this website could be included in the show’s credits. I never heard from the show again.
Here is what they missed out on: Jeff Goldblum’s Hebrew school report card!
5-60: Jeffrey is a very intelligent and conscientious person. He entered late in the term and did a remarkable job in “catching up” with the rest of the class.
5-61: Jeffrey has the ability to do above average work. He, however, tends to day-dream and this is an obstacle to his learning.
5-62: Jeffrey has lost his interest in his studies. He still needs to overcome his daydreaming.
64: Jeffrey is very indifferent about everything. He is very forgetful about his homework.
I got his sister’s, too. “64: Pamela is too bright for her class. She is much further than they are in Hebrew and reading. Thus, she is handicapped in progressing as fast as she might.” His brothers were both “good students,” too.
These report cards — and the meeting minutes above — tell a story worth examining about a boy discovering what inspired him and what did not; about a student whose daydreams led to a career that touched millions; about the teachers who failed to reach him (and most of his classmates) despite their best intentions; about the rabbi who fought an uphill battle for eight years trying to hold together a waning community; and about the school board and Sisterhood mothers who created fun experiences for the kids so they would find joy in being Jewish despite the ultimately insurmountable challenges of being Jewish in Homestead in the 1960s.
Jeff Goldblum was one of the last to experience things that I have spent my hours daydreaming about since I was a child. He experienced a way of Jewish life in small-town America that is nearly gone. It was a way of life that did not hold, and he saw why. He experienced a community and institutions created and sustained by my family and the families of many of you reading. It was a community that struggled to transmit its values in the way its elders had intended, and he witnessed how.
This, then, gets to the utterly non-sentimental conversation I would have with Jeff Goldblum. It isn’t anything that would make for mass-audience entertainment. It would be a deep and penetrating and complicated conversation that gets to the heart of what it means to be a Jew in America today and the ways we are or are not re-evaluating our formative years now that recent events have cast our life-long identities in a new light.
He headlines a group he formed, which he named the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra after a friend of his mother’s. From Rolling Stone magazine: “I maintained this group and it grew and [at one show] they said, ‘We need a name to put in the program,’ and I thought about this woman whom I knew in Pittsburgh; a friend of my mom’s [named] Mildred Snitzer. I thought that was a funny name and then this idea of the orchestra was funny. I said, “Mildred Snitzer Orchestra,” and it’s kind of stuck since then.
Mildred herself was interviewed in the L.A. Times about how she discovered she had turned into a jazz combo.
“To some good guy,” began the letter to Las Palmas Restaurant. “I hope you will answer this. I have never heard my orchestra. Would you do a cassette (I’ll be glad to pay whatever) so I know how I sound?”
…It’s a funny thing when your name goes off to live a life of its own. Snitzer, who has survived two husbands and is now dating an 88-year-old retired colonel, didn’t hear about the jazz band until a friend sent her a clipping from the San Jose Mercury News.
“I knew Jeff when he was 12 years old,” recalls Snitzer from her Palo Alto home. “He was playing the drums and piano, and he was going to be an actor. His father was my doctor, and he had a great, dynamic mother.”
Goldblum remembers Snitzer as a very handsome woman, with a lot of thick hair “and an upper lip sculpted in a lovely way,” he says.
Snitzer hoots, then admits, “Honey, my hair is the one thing I’ve got left.” She says Goldblum called her once, but didn’t leave a number. She doesn’t seem upset that her name has been usurped–just curious about how her other half lives. “I love Dixieland jazz, so I hope that’s what I’m doing.”
She lived to be 103! Despite what seems to have been a lot of grief in her life — besides losing two husbands and outliving her siblings, her father died in the influenza pandemic when she was 10 — she seems to have been an energetic and dynamic person ’til the end. “An avid dancer and dance instructor well into her 90s, Mildred’s favorite expression was, ‘If you don’t keep moving, they’ll plant you.'” ↩
Sources for Israel Goldblum include the 1927 Newark city directory; 1930 census; New Jersey Jewish News, February 24, 1967, p. 21; New Jersey Jewish News, April 8, 1949, p. 12; New Jersey Jewish News, April 6, 1962, p. 19. He started at the synagogue in 1937 as possibly a teacher and certainly later the head of school. In 1949 he received his ordination from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, which is when he became the synagogue’s rabbi. For this achievement his congregation gifted him a television! I emailed the congregation to ask for more information, but all they could offer was one of those newspaper clippings — a typical example of the challenges of institutional memory in American synagogues that I have seen so often. ↩
It’s entirely irrelevant to this article, but how can I not mention that for decades Meyer and his family lived across the street from my family in Highland Park? Pittsburgh Jews! ↩
Charles’ early history, including the preceding photograph, comes from a riveting 13-page article co-authored by his sister / Jeff’s aunt, Charlotte Goldblum Wolkin, in the fall 1997 issue of the Pittsburgh History magazine. ↩
The Pittsburgh Jewish Criterion documents the engagement (Dec. 1, 1944, p. 12 and Dec. 8, 1944, p. 10). Charleston, West Virginia city directories confirm Sam Spector’s presence there before and after the war. He has his own interesting story: he was born in Cuba to Russian-Jewish parents who had immigrated there in the early 20s. In 1931 the family immigrated by airplane to Miami! They went on to West Virginia because of a brother/uncle already there. ↩