Memories of Jewish life in Philadelphia 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.
It was hard not to know your neighbors in the close quarters of the row houses in Philadelphia’s Jewish neighborhoods. On Shabbos, small shops were converted into shuls (synagogues) and congregations crammed in for services. Starting with the first recorded Jewish resident in 1701, Philadelphia has one of the oldest and largest Jewish populations in the United States. Large numbers of Jewish immigrants arrived from Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and many brought Yiddish with them. They established folkshules (Yiddish schools), Yiddish language newspapers, Yiddish radio programs, and landsmanshaftn (social and welfare organizations of Jewish immigrants from the same European town). In the 1890s, the Jewish immigrant gegnt (neighborhood) established itself along South Street, then the population moved west and north over the course of the ensuing decades. Though less famous than New York as a Jewish city, the City of Brotherly Love was and remains a major hub of American Jewish life.
In the row homes of South Philadelphia, there once stood more than one hundred active shuls (synagogues). Native South Philadelphian David Berg paints a picture of the ritual and culture of the synagogue, wondrous in a child’s eye, where Jewish immigrants socialized, observed, and organized—often af yidish (in Yiddish). The synagogue David Berg‘s grandfather belonged to is the last row house shul in Philadelphia, Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel—lovingly referred to by locals as "The Philadelphia Little Shul."
Elissa Samberg fondly remembers the closeness of the Philadelphia row homes in the 1960s and her neighborhood of Jewish immigrants just north of Philadelphia in the liminal space between the Old Country tradition and American assimilation. She describes this childhood experience through the lens of grocery shopping with her grandparents—her hand held tight by her grandfather, Elissa would visit Jewish delis every Saturday for nova lox on a bagel.
Does Jewish identity come from a structured education, or emotional osmosis? A klezmer musician and author of Klezmer: Music and Community in Twentieth-Century Jewish Philadelphia, Hankus Netsky reflects on Jewish summer camp and attending Hebrew school in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Northwest Philadelphia as an education in tandem with encountering the stories of Holocaust survivors recounting their experiences in the family’s rag shop.
Allen Katz and his bubbe tuned in to the Yiddish radio channel in West Philadelphia. Allen says his “world revolved around the radio,” the source of both opinionated coverage of news from Europe and melodramatic Yiddish soap operas.
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.
Rowhouse image courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple Universty Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.