In August, when I was preparing my D’var Torah to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the dedication of the synagogue building, I re-read this newspaper article about the 1913 cornerstone-laying. I had originally found it in May, but in my initial excitement I hadn’t read it closely. This time, I noticed something odd: a few paragraphs in, there was a line missing. Then another.
At this point I’ve scanned through thousands of pages of this newspaper and never noticed any other missing lines. But the lines really were not there. I even asked a library in Harrisburg to check their copy of the microfilm, and it was missing these lines as well. The reason why I went to such trouble to try to find a better copy of this article is that the missing words may be the most exciting find of all:
The “-story of the congregation, the names of the contributors and a copy of the Daily Messenger” “were placed in” what????? A few paragraphs later, a clue:
“This history, which was found in the corner stone of the old Synagogue”… does this mean what I think it means? That when they laid the new cornerstone, they once again placed the synagogue’s history (plus some other items) in it? Does this mean there is a time capsule that no one remembers? Could that time capsule still be hidden….here?
Obsessed with the possibilities, when I visited the synagogue in September (on a late summer day that feels like a distant memory as I watch the temperature drop to 1oF,) I scrutinized the construction of the cornerstone. I had initially hoped that the front of the stone, as you see it above, was a separate sort of face-plate atop the actual stone. I had thought that accessing the time capsule would be as simple as prying off this front to get at the contents within. But from my visual inspection it seems pretty clear that this stone is a solid block.
A few clues I subsequently found seem to confirm what I saw. The first is the newspaper article from the 1901 cornerstone-laying for the first synagogue building. As the excerpt above shows, at that time the papers were placed under the stone. The second is the photograph at left of a cornerstone laying from the June 6, 1903 cornerstone laying for Homestead’s First Presbyterian Church. As you can see, the men are using a crane to lower a giant stone atop an existing foundation.
While I don’t know anything else about this church’s cornerstone laying ceremony and how it might compare to either of ours, this photograph certainly suggests something about the constructions techniques of the time: no easy-access doors for people to get at things hidden inside cornerstones.
A final hint came from the archivist at the other Rodef Shalom, who pointed out to me that it took tearing down that synagogue’s first building (from 1861) to get at the time capsule laid at that time. 1 And tearing down the building is clearly not an option, not only because many of us still visit it and treasure the remarkably fine shape it is in, but also because the church which bought it in ’93 continues to use it. When I raised my suspicions of a hidden time capsule to its bishop, he pointed out that there was no way to be sure I had even correctly identified the cornerstone. Traditionally, he said, the stone called the cornerstone was actually at the base of the altar, meaning that the stone I was after might be in the floor towards the front of the building. Skepticism aside, we brainstormed how one might work around the stone I think is the cornerstone to locate the box — then we laughed at ourselves, a bishop and a techie, for pretending we knew anything about construction. In the end he gave me permission to bring a builder by to propose what it might take to discover and extract the possible time capsule in a way that would not end in unfortunate headlines about Jews destroying churches.
I haven’t moved forward on this project for a few reasons. One is that I do not know any builders in Pittsburgh — or anywhere else for that matter. Perhaps I am too easily dissuaded from work that is so far outside of my experience that I do not even know how to approach it, especially when there is so much else within my reach to focus on…
…which brings us to the main reason I haven’t pushed ahead: if the contents of the time capsule are exactly as indicated in the first newspaper excerpt above, then it is not likely anything in this box will be new to us. I suspect this history is the same as the one in the synagogue’s records (in Yiddish, so not yet posted on this site pending translation), whichever issue of the newspaper they picked is available on the same roll of microfilm that started this mystery, and I believe the list of contributors can also be reconstructed from the synagogue’s records.
That said, wouldn’t it just be awesome to unearth this box after all these years?! I’ve read through the synagogue records through 1950, just before the last founder passed away, and not one word was mentioned about the time capsule, even in conjunction with the various anniversary commemorations. If a time capsule was deposited in 1913, it is very likely still there. Who wants to help me get it out?
In an article for the synagogue’s 2/28/02 bulletin, she wrote, “Time capsules are still very popular, although it is no longer recommended that they be sealed up in cornerstones.” Ya don’t say! ↩
The missing lines might not be due to a technical problem at the printing press.
It might be because somebody went to the library back when that library still had physical copies of the 1913 Homestead newspapers in its “archive” or “back issue” section. Then , that certain somebody could have gotten a certain issue of the Homestead paper and could have taken it to a semi-secluded part of the library and pretend like the just simply want to read it.
But then as soon as that person felt confident that nobody was watching him or her, he or she could have used as ordinary pencil eraser to literally erase certain lines of text.
Why? Because that line contained soon information that the illegal “redactor” did not want to be known.
Perhaps only one single word was what offended the “redactor”. But then that sole missing space would have called attention to itself, and, make future readers all the more curious. And, worse (from the illegal “redactor’s” point of view), might even make some future readers realize that somebody had deliberately erased something.
Therefore, he or she could have decided to erase the entire line to fool future readers into thinking that the missing info is due to a technical glitch at the printing press.
Since a tiny bit of the print is still visible in the very bottom of the “faded” lines, the redactor (assuming it is an act of redaction) used a straight edge to make sure that he or she did not accidentally erase anything in the line above or below.
If so, then the redactor would have felt satisfied that the bottom-most part of the redacted line will be totally intelligible to future readers. Plus, leaving that itty bitty piece serves to make the ommission look like technical glitch had caused it.
However, the bits remaining DO leave clues because the bottom bit of a character ELIMINATES the majority of the alphabet. For example, the bottom bit of a redacted lower case “a” could be a, d, g, p, or q. But, no way could it have originally been f, h, I, j , m ,et cetera.
Tammy, the previous msg sent before I intended yo send.
I am going to try to recovery the missing lines using the metros today I was describing at the end of the period msg.
One time when I was researching the history of St Agnes Parish using microfilms of old newspapers, I discovered a key section of an article on the untimely death of a priest obliterated by sloppy strokes of a pencil eraser back when the physical version of that paper still existed. Since that particular redactor was sloppy, it is obvious that somebody did not want future readers to know certain information.
Because of that experience, my immediate suspicion when I read “Secret of the Faded Newsprint” was that somebody had deliberately erased those lines. My guess is that somebody did not want it known that a certain individual had donated money to the shul.
BTW, today is the 101st anniversary of The Saint Agnes Day Blaze of 1914. Therefore, I’m remembering Old St Agnes Church in a special way today. And, of course, on Feb 11th, I’ll be remembering Old Rodef Shalom in a special way.
I can help — I used to work in construction!
What a mystery! If the other commenter is correct, I wonder what would make someone do such a thing . . . .
The Pgh History & Landmarks Society has many tradesmen available, who give classes for the public about subjects of historical nature about buildings. They may be able to recommend a contractor.
I think Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) could be used to scan the cornerstone and under the altar.
It is a technology used for many purposes, including archaeology.
A simple Google search for the Pittsburgh area shows several companies in the area that provide this service.