We've been leading walking tours of Boston for about ten years.
So, when we were asked to devise a center of the city, Jewish walking tour of Boston,
the Athens of America, we knew that we would walk many of Boston's streets and alleys
before suggesting this friendship trail.
Once known as a
new Jerusalem, it wasn't until the mid-1800s - after various
legal and attitudinal barriers were lowered, that Boston
began to attract a community of Jews.
During the years
1875 to 1925, approximately fifty to seventy thousand Jewish immigrants
arrived and stayed in Boston. The City - which in the mid-1800s
was a two-pronged peninsula with a narrow neck attaching
it to the mainland - by 1900, had filled in both Mill Pond
(joining its North and West Ends) and Back Bay
(enlarging the lower and upper South Ends).
The bulk of those
fifty to seventy thousand Jewish immigrants initially settled
in Boston's North and West Ends, including the back side of Beacon
Hill down to the Charles River. Some of them initially settled
in the lower and upper South Ends and many of them initially
settled across the harbor in Chelsea and parts of East Boston.
This BostonWalks' "The Jewish Friendship Trail" is designed
as a 2.5 hour walking tour. To really explore these sites, consider ordering
BostonWalks The Jewish Friendship Trail Guidebook.
For now, though, let's vicariously walk, to these sites of Jewish Experience in
Boston's West and North Ends circa 1870s through 1920s:
- (1) Our first stop is Otis Place at the base of Beacon Hill,
near the Charles River. If you had been here during the 1st two
decades of the 1900s, you might have recognized Justice Louis Dembitz
Brandeis coming home. During the 2nd two decades, Edward Albert
Filene walked home to this same, small street. Both men were
well-dressed, and one, E. A. Filene, was somewhat dapper.
Brandeis made this townhouse his home starting around 1900 while
Filene didn't move here until close to 1920.
Louis Dembitz Brandeis was appointed U.S. Supreme Court Justice
by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and thereafter made his Winter
home in Washington DC. Edward Albert Filene, President of Filene's
Department Store, lived here until his death in 1937.
Brandeis' and Filene's business and personal relationship stretched
over forty years from the 1890s until Filene's death. While Edward
Filene, himself, was not known for his Jewish involvement, his brother
Lincoln and his partner Louis Kirstein were major participants in
Boston's Jewish community. Indirectly, Filene espoused Jewish concerns
when he worked with Brandeis for employees rights and public
transportation. Brandeis, from his midlife on, became a model
not only for Boston's but all Jewish immigrants as he became not
only the figurehead leader of American Zionism but also a voice
on the Supreme Court for progressive interpretations of the
United States Constitution.
- (2) We'll now walk up Phillips Street on the backside of
Beacon Hill to our next site. Along the way, on Phillips Street,
we'll note the interesting exchange of demographics that
occurred on the North slope of Beacon Hill as the African-American
and Jewish-American communities utilized many of the same
buildings for similar and different purposes as each group
passed through this area. Particularly, synagogues and churches
were sold or exchanged between the two populations as each
group waxed and waned here.
There is information about
several buildings on Phillips Street which were used for Jewish
retail as well as residential purposes from the turn of the
century to the 1930s. But we're headed to the Vilner Shul,
completed around 1920 here on Phillips Street.
a landsmanschaften of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania some
twenty years earlier, this chevra of Jews finally built this
shul after occupying several other sites on the Street.
A considerable amount of the labor in building the shul was
provided by the immigrants themselves.
While there is some debate
about the origins of the aron kodish (the housing for the Torah
scrolls), the aron kodish may well be a Sam Katz original or, perhaps,
embellished with Sam Katz wooden ornaments. The shul is a fascinating
reminder of a working class, small shul. Its active use was
from the 1920s to the early 1980s.
- (3) Further Eastward, after going up to Myrtle Street
and then down Joy Street, we come to another landsmanschaften's
little shul. This chevra came from Libawitz and purchased
its house of worship from African-Americans in the late
1890s. Anshe Libawitz on Smith Court served as strong Orthodox shul
through 1940s, and owned this site until the early
1970s. Its womens' section was up a steep circular set of stairs
which can still be climbed today.
- (4) Proceeding down the Hill to Cambridge Street, we turn left
until reaching Blossom Street. The unassuming brick building
with a Massachusetts General Hospital sign reading
"West End House" hardly does justice to the actual and symbolic history
of this building.
As the thousands of Jewish immigrants poured
into Boston before and after the turn of the century, the immigrants
themselves, volunteers, and eventually social workers began establishing sites where immigrants and their children would have
opportunities for job training, education to become American citizens, cultural life, and recreation.
Two examples of these sites were:
- Lina Hecht's
and Golde Bamber's Hebrew Industrial School and Hecht Neighborhood
Houses which were started in the North End and moved to the West End. These sites no longer exist.
- Meyer Bloomfield's and Phillip Davis' Civic Service Center, now a
restaurant with apartments above it, on the corner of Salem Street and Jerusalem Place, diagonally across Salem Street from the former North End fire station.
Another example of the few sites which still exists is the West End House.
The West End House evolved from an immigrant Jewish boys
club, the Excelsior Club, which consisted of thirty-five Jewish
boys who grouped together for sports, culture, and social
gatherings. They also on occasion performed a play. It was
the performance of one of their plays which eventually led
to the funding of the West End House as a non-sectarian organization
and the construction of this building. we're pleased to tell
- (5)The West End House sat in the midst of a thriving Jewish community with many small and a few large synagogues. Two of the largest were located on North Russell Street which ran parallel to and East of Blossom Street and on Wall Street which was closer to todays Fleet Center. Officially, the North Russell Street Shul was known as Congegation Beit HaMidrash HaGadol. It was established in 1904 and located on North Russell Street in 1923. Officially, the Wall Street Synagogue was called Congregation Beit Yaakov. It was established in 1888 and stood on Wall Street until 1941. In that year, these two synagogues joined, using the North Russell Street location.
The synagogue which we're about to visit, officially, is called Beit HaMidrash HaGadol Beit Yaakov, known today as The Boston Synagogue. How that came to be also is a story.
- (6) Leaving The Boston Synagogue, we follow Causeway
Street in the reverse direction which some Jewish immigrants
might have pursued in moving from the North to the West End
during the late 1890s. We'll enter the North End from Prince
Street. At the corner of Prince and Salem Streets, in the 1890s,
a little store called "the Greenie Store" was a first venture
into retail food marketing by the Rabb (nee' Rubinowitz) family who,
a generation later, would create Stop & Shop, a large Boston-based
Turning right onto Salem Street, we pass by the building in which the Civic Service Center once was located. Immediately past that, in the first of two alleyways which were an important part of North End Jewish life in the late 1880s, 1890s, and very early 1900s; we can discover evidence of those years.
- Baldwin Place Shul
(officially Beit Israel) 1889-1920, the RaMaZ, and the Baldwin Place
- Jerusalem Place (fka Carroll Place) Shul (officially
Shaarei Yerushalayim 1903-1945, and the Jerusalem Place Hebrew School
- (7) Afterwards, on Cooper Street, we'll note the buildings which housed the B'not Israel Sheltering Home,
Stanetsky's Funeral Home, and the most obvious today,
the Segel residence. When the Segel residence was built
in 1896, the Bnot Israel Sheltering Home was a forty bed
facility, providing a place for new Jewish immigrants to
sleep during their first days and weeks in Boston.
- (8) Taking Parmenter Street to Hanover Street, we'll pass by
buildings which once housed a Matzah factory and one which housed earlier North End Jewish synagogues: Shomre Beth Abraham which was housed in Cockerel Hall from 1886 to 1893, also led by the RaMaZ. There were several other shuls on Hanover Street which predated the Cockerel Hall shul. Also, in Cockerel Hall was another Hebrew School.
- (9) Our final site on this walking tour of Boston's
West and North Ends is a newcomer. Completed in the Fall of
1995, it appropriately memorializes Jews who lost their lives
among the same groups of Central and Eastern European Jewry
who didn't make it to Boston during the previous half century.
Their grandfathers who came here to Boston rapidly Americanized
and spread over much of Greater Boston. But it was here in the
North and West Ends where they landed and began new lives.
Hope you enjoyed our walking tour of sites of Jewish experience in Boston's
West and North Ends.