Jewish Neighborhoods: Philadelphia

Memories of Jewish life in Philadelphia from our Wexler Oral History Project collection

Philadelphia has one of the oldest and largest Jewish populations in the United States, with the first Jewish resident recorded in 1701. Large numbers of Jewish immigrants arrived from Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of whom were Yiddish speakers. They established folkshules (Yiddish schools), Yiddish-language newspapers, Yiddish radio programs, and landsmanshaftn (social and welfare organizations created by Jewish immigrants from the same European towns). In the 1890s, the Jewish immigrant gegnt (neighborhood) established itself along South Street. In the close quarters of the row houses, small shops were repurposed as shuls (synagogues) on Shabbos and holidays. Over the ensuing decades, the Jewish community expanded west and north.

Philadelphia has seen a recent boom in its Jewish population, now estimated at 350,000 Jewish residents, and the city has 125 synagogues. The city is also home to the first public Holocaust memorial in the United States, and in 2010, the National Museum of American Jewish History moved to the corner of 5th and Market Street, near Philadelphia’s historically Jewish neighborhood. Today, men ken hern a yidish-vort (Yiddish can still be heard) throughout the city.

Enjoy the clips below, and for more stories like these, you can browse our YouTube playlist of American Jewish Neighborhoods.

The Little Shul in Philadelphia

Native South Philadelphian David Berg paints a picture of the city’s synagogue culture, where Jewish immigrants socialized, observed, and organized—often af yidish (in Yiddish).

Row Homes and Jewish Delis

Elissa Samberg fondly remembers the closeness of the Philadelphia row homes in the 1960s and the liminal space between Old Country traditions and American assimilation.

A Jewish Education

Klezmer musician and author Hankus Netsky reflects on Jewish summer camp and attending Hebrew school in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Northwest Philadelphia.

Philadelphia’s Yiddish Radio

Allen Katz and his bubbe tuned in to the Yiddish radio channel in West Philadelphia, which covered both opinionated news from Europe and melodramatic Yiddish soap operas.

Yiddish Theater and Actors in Philadelphia

Selwyn Freed, z”l (1917–2016), son of Yiddish theater actors Celia Adler and Lazar Freed, describes Yiddish theater in Philadelphia and talks about the actors, who often communicated with the audience.

Rowhouse image courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple Universty Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.