Life on the Corner: A Shtetl in the City; The Jewish North End

The photo I’m sharing today comes from a postcard dating from the 1890’s. It depicts Salem St. looking towards Cross St. The photographer was most likely standing near Blackstone St. in front of the new Boston farmer’s Market. At that time Salem St. was mainly a Jewish colony although Italians were starting to move in.

It’s interesting that someone thought the North End was worthy of a post card but I suppose our neighborhood was always considered somewhat exotic.

The Irish were among the first non native ethnic groups to populate the North End. There were some early Portugese and French Canadians but after the terrible potato famine of the 1840’s the Irish arrived in droves. I read that the North End Irish were mainly from County Donegal while those who settled in South Boston came from Galway. St. Mary’s Church on Thacher St. was built in 1835 to service these Irish immigrants and it quickly became one of the largest parishes in Boston. There was a lot of Nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment on the part of the Yankee Puritans. Donald Trump would have felt right at home then, and the Irish suffered the brunt of this prejudice. In 1859, the pastor of St. Mary’s, Bernard Wiget, S.J. tried to defend a young boy, Thomas Whall, a student at the Eliot School, who was whipped for thirty minutes for refusing to read a passage from the Protestant bible. The teacher who whipped the boy was exonerated by the school committee and this incident led to the founding of St. Mary’s parochial school.

The history of the North End is one of constant change. After the Civil War, Eastern European Jews began arriving in large numbers. Like so many ethnic groups they came with nothing but what they could carry and the tenements of the North End offered cheap, affordable housing. By the turn of the twentieth century there were over twenty synagogues in the North End, small shuls that most likely serviced people from the same village or town [See Jewish Synagogues of the North End). The Jewish section formed a rough triangle encompassing Salem, Prince and Endicott Sts and many of the storefronts depicted in the postcard were owned by Jews. On the right side you can see two dry goods shops, one selling used shoes and the other curtains. On the left is a plumbing shop and what appears to be a food store.

I have a book in my possession published in 1899 entitled, “The History of the Catholic Church in New England”. The author, Fr. William Byrne, comments that the North End of that era was mainly Irish but, “A few years ago…Hebrews and Italians (began) supplanting Irish Catholics in the North End.” How shocking.

The Jews dominated this area from about the 1880’s until 1930 when they moved on either to the West End, where the apartments were larger and had central heating, or Mattapan/Roxbury where large synagogues such as Mishkan Tefila were being built.

Several years ago, I was speaking with Norman Leventhal who was my landlord at the time. Norman was one of the great Boston philanthropists and among his many developments are Rowe’s Wharf and the park in Post Office Square. Norman knew I lived in the North End and he told me his wife, Muriel, was born on Cooper St. We commiserated on how in her lifetime she went from a cold-water flat in the North End to a penthouse at Rowe’s Wharf, a wonderful American success story.

Even after the Jews left their tenement apartments they continued to have a major North End presence as landlords and shop owners on Salem St. Today the only thing left to remind us of the Jewish settlement is a small passageway off Salem St. called Jerusalem Place, the site of one of the shuls.

We haven’t had a contest in a while so it’s time for one.

The North End Union was a settlement house on Parmenter St. started in the early 1890’s by the Benevolent Fraternity of the Unitarian Church. During its early years it serviced mainly the Jewish residents. There was a much beloved social worker there who organized clubs, reading groups and social events for young Jewish girls. A water fountain (we called them bubblers) in the lobby was dedicated to her.

I will give a $20.00 gift certificate to the first person who can name her and give the biblical quotation inscribed on the fountain in the comments section below. The gift certificate is for Sam LaGrassa’s, home of our favorite pastrami sandwich, located in Downtown Crossing. I know, it’s not the 2nd Avenue Deli but give it a try.

Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.

25 Replies to “Life on the Corner: A Shtetl in the City; The Jewish North End

  1. I am wondering where the little shul was ? is it that little church located next to the old north church?.I lived in the north end (from the west end and beacon hill) from 7 to 30 years old oye

  2. Thank you for that very interesting article on the Jewish people settling in the North End. One person that immediately came to my mind was Mr. Sheldon of

    1. Vida, the Saturday Evening Girls Club was started in the North Bennet Street Industrial School. They met to read books, discuss literature and put on little skits. I believe they met in a building on Hull St. which the NBSIS owned at that time.

  3. Great article. I never knew how many small synogues there were. Will have to share this article with my daughter-in-law’s father. Very interesting!

  4. Nice going Sarah. The social worker was Julia Whitridge Frothingham, the daughter of a prominent Back bay Unitarian family. She worked with teenage girls who were mainly Jewish at that time and her girls loved her. They called themselves “Miss Frothingham’s girls”. At her own expense she took them on day trips all over New England and taught them manners and deportment. For a special treat she would bring the girls to her house at 258 Beacon St. and serve them hot chocolate and Bailey’s coconut cake.
    But what about the inscription on the bubbler? It came from the Old Testament and referenced the rejuvenating waters as giving eternal life.

  5. I have one last story about Norman Leventhal (BLS class of 1933). About a year before he died I saw him walking through the park named after him in Post Office Square. He was walking under the trellis and I went over to say hello. It was a beautiful, sunny day and the park was filled with young people enjoying the beautiful urban garden. I said to Norman how pleased he must be to see so many people enjoying the park. He stopped, placed his hand on my arm and said, “Nick, of all the projects I’ve done this is the one I’m most proud of.” Norman gave Boston a wonderful gift.

  6. Nick, as the number of replies indicate, you are outpacing everyone hereabouts as a valued institution in the newsletter.

    I am interested in learning more about the origins of “my” Prince Macaroni Building. I know it was built in 1917 to supply pasta to the troops… but I can find no reference to a dedication date that would allow me to search for stories in the BPL, Globe or Herald libraries.

    Feel free to contact me (Nick or anyone else, for that matter) at

    1. Not much to tell. The company started on Prince St. and did very well. They moved to your building and when they outgrew that they moved to Lowell and then sold the business. Nice family, they now live on Beacon Hill.
      Normand Smith knows all the history of the Prince building. Tim Anderson, a brilliant lunatic, renovated it about fifty years ago and it’s always been one of the most popular buildings on the waterfront. A cast of characters.

  7. Anita Diamant’s latest book, Boston Girl is about Jewish immigrant girls growing up in the North End and going to the Rockport Lodge for summer ‘camp’ of sorts. Great fictional depiction of the era.

    1. I concur, Laurie. The book adds another dimension to North End/West End history I couldn’t put it down. (–and really–not so fictional!).

  8. Hey Nick your the best! Keep it going great stories. Mom and grandmother came to America in 1915 Short time in New Jersy and than to the North End. She knew so many stories like you. We where all 7 baptized in Sacred Heart Church and during the War went to Bethel Baptist Church which is now North End Health Center St Mary’s church was so Beautiful ( now Casa Maria Housing My mother spoke yiddish italian in house and american went to third grade went to work No child labor laws Sadly passed away in October at age 106 Nick you would have enjoyed her stories too!

    1. Thanks, Corinne. The North End isn’t just restaurants, cafe’s and pastry shops, it’s people, real city people. Tourists are always looking for a good restaurant. They would have a much more enjoyable time playing cards with Johnny Shoes and the guys at the Madonna della Cava.

  9. The Jewish neighborhoods in various cities are happily alive and cozy. In Paris it was my favorite. You hear the traditional Jewish music coming from the little shops and smell the aroma of their delicious food and pastries. Nick, the postcard depicts the family life in the streets. Beautiful, family oriented, religious peoples.

    1. You are so right, Jamison. I love seeing all the young families in the North End and it’s much more diverse now than it’s ever been. It still is a real inner city neighborhood, which I love.

  10. As St. Mary’s was built in 1835, 10 years before the Irish Famine, it could not have been built for the purpose of ministering to those fleeing it. That would have required an unreasonable measure of foresight. You might also reconsider the plausibility of a child being whipped for 30 minutes in a school. Many things get exaggerated, twisted and fabricated with the passing of time, often to promote a racially divisive agenda by demagogues.

    1. The Irish began leaving Ireland many years before the famine because of poverty and the onerous working conditions imposed on them by their English landlords. The great famine accelerated the mass migration but poverty was surely a prime motivating factor.

      My source material came from the book, History of the Catholic Church in the New England States” published in 1899 by the Hurds & Everts Co. The authors are the Rev. William Byrne and the Rev. William Leahy.

      Unless your sources are better than mine, I stand by the facts in the article.

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