Memories of Jewish life in Boston from our Wexler Oral History Project collection
Lekoved (in honor of) Jewish American Heritage Month, we are featuring memories of Jewish neighborhoods around the United States. We are going beyond the New York neighborhoods that may first come to mind to give voice to some of the other hubs of vibrant Jewish life. Each week we'll feature a different neighborhood or theme, so check back here or on our homepage for new perspectives on the American Jewish experience all month.
Due to a lack of economic opportunity and a religiously intolerant atmosphere, Boston was the last of the early major cities to attract a stable Jewish population. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that there was a permanent Jewish community. In the 1880s, after the city was established as a manufacturing and distribution center, growing numbers of Eastern European Jews began moving into the North End and West End. Unlike other immigrant populations of this period, they came to Boston in family groups. As Jewish businesses became successfully established and streetcar lines expanded, a portion of the growing Jewish population moved out from Boston’s cramped center and into more spacious neighborhoods.
By the 1930s, Roxbury and Dorchester attracted increasing numbers from the middle and upper middle classes to the south; industry brought the working class to outlying areas to the north and south. Jewish families living in wooden three-story houses and aging Victorians clustered along three miles of Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester, where residents could spend Shabbos in the park, see a Yiddish play, and choose from seven Yiddish newspapers to read. Dorchester’s Jewish population dramatically declined in the second half of the twentieth century amidst anti-Semitism and as an emerging middle class left for the suburbs: Brookline and Newton to the west and Sharon to the south. Despite further dispersion through outlying areas, Boston remains one of the largest Jewish communities in the United States.
Jeff Warschauer remembers high-rises full of Jewish elders and the vibrant culture housed in a single building. The inhabitants were often survivors and immigrants from the early twentieth century. In this "vertical shtetl,” as Jeff calls it, the organized Jewish elderly filled Boston’s apartment buildings with klezmer, comradery, and Yiddish to the brim.
The scent of leather, the sound of Yiddish: Leonard Nimoy, z"l, remembers Boston’s West End as an example of “village life” and the site of cultural exchange for Jewish immigrants and their neighbors. Leonard recalls the defining aspects of his experience in the West End: the Yiddish shopping center of Spring Street, his grandfather’s leather craft, and the Italian ice deliveryman who spoke Yiddish to his customers. Visit Leonard's hometown for a vivid description of the culture of the neighborhood and its tragic end, brought on by urban renewal.
“Aunts across the street, aunts around the corner": Elaine Trehub remembers Boston’s Jewish neighborhood, Blue Hill Avenue, as a small town in an urban center. She describes her surroundings of Jewish neighbors and family as the quintessential, iconic Jewish immigrant experience, a tall apartment building housing many generations.
Mildred Berman recalls fostering a community with the other Jews on Boston’s Blue Hill Avenue. “The door was open all the time,” she remembers, as a deep connection among neighbors created an extended network of Jewish family. For Mildred, her Jewish identity was integral in defining her values as a mother and how she built a family on Blue Hill Avenue.
Explore the entire Wexler Oral History Project collection for more stories about Jewish neighborhoods, food, holidays, historical events, and much more.
You can explore more of our Jewish neighborhood series on the Center's Wexler Oral History Project YouTube channel, where you’ll find a selection of playlists. And follow the Wexler Oral History Project on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to view these clips and more from the Project.
Pictured: Tremont St. at West St. in Boston, 1903 by E. Chickering & Co.