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A Shtetl in the City, Part 2, “Shabbas Goy”

A while ago I wrote a column about the Jewish North End and this is a follow up to that article.

Today’s picture was taken on Salem Street in 1909. It shows a young Italian boy calling up to some Jewish neighbors offering to light their stove fires. It’s a Saturday morning, the first day of the Jewish sabbath when observant Jews are forbidden from doing any manual labor. The boy would hope to collect a few coins the following day for his efforts.

At that time Salem Street was the center of the Jewish North End. Many of the buildings and shops were owned by Jews who came mainly from the Pale of Settlement in Russia. They came to America to escape the Tsar’s pogroms and moved to Eastern United States cities where they established small communities such as those on the Lower East Side of New York and the North End in Boston. At one time the North End had about twenty small synagogues one being in Jerusalem Place, off Salem Street, which was nicknamed “Shalom” Street.

I don’t recognize the buildings in the photo and there are no street numbers but I suspect they were in the part of Salem Street which is now the Greenway. At that time Salem Street extended all the way from Charter St. to Blackstone St. The section of Salem St. from Cross to a Prince Sts. Had food and grocery shops while those between Cross and Blackstone Sts. were mainly clothing and dry goods.

North Enders of my generation will remember all the Jewish owned shops on Salem St; Shermans, Claymans, Reznick’s hardware store, Jack’s shoe shop, Etta Leibovitz and her House of Fashion which was on the corner of Salem and Prince Streets and many others. Father afield was Harry Sandler’s shoe store on Union St. where I bought my “dirty” bucks. Harvard students used to come to the North End to buy chino pants and Oxford shirts at Clayman’s where they were half the price that the Harvard COOP charged.

Several meat markets on Salem St were owned by Jews and carried Kosher beef and the chicken slaughter house at 112 Fulton St. was certified as Kosher.

Many years ago I met a lovely woman named Sylvia Hack. She came to my office wearing a fashionable blond “sheitel” and was accompanied by her husband who introduced himself as Meyer Hack. He was a small, wizened man with bright, alert eyes. As I spoke to Sylvia, I noticed Meyer staring intently at me which I found unnerving. Finally, he clapped his hands, pointed at me and said, “you lived on Salem Street.” I was surprised and said that was true but how could he possibly have known that? Meyer told me he and Sylvia owned Meyer’s Bargain Center, a dry goods store which for many years was at the corner of Salem and Cooper Streets. I remembered the store but I never went in there because they sold mainly women’s clothing, bras, girdles and something called a house coat that my aunts and mother wore.

He said he noticed me because I was always around the neighborhood and was one of the good kids who didn’t try to steal anything. He told me that he and Sylvia met at Auschwitz and fell in love thinking they would be killed at any moment. They showed me the tattoos on their arms and talked about some of the unbelievable horrors they witnessed.

We reminisced about some of the other tenants in the building who were his friends like Professor Ingo on the third floor who operated the grandly named Ingo Conservatory of Music.

I was amazed at how happy and optimistic they were after having lived through the hell of the death camps. America gave them a new life, Meyer said, a life of freedom and hope. He told me how much they loved the North End and all the wonderful people who shopped in their store, except the shop lifters who they identified and carefully watched. The thing that surprised him the most about his many years in the North End, he said, was how many of the old Italian ladies learned to speak some Yiddish. A few became conversant enough in Yiddish to haggle about prices even though they didn’t speak a word of English.

The signs on the buildings in the picture advertise a tailor on the left and a printer on the right. Many Russian Jews were skilled tailors and eventually went into the garment factories on Kneeland St. I reminded Meyer about the rag man from the West End who would walk down Salem Street yelling rags (bebekhes) in Yiddish.

The sign on the right is for the printer and is in Yiddish which, like Hebrew, reads from right to left. Can any of the readers of this article translate it?

Gut Mazl.

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.

18 Replies to “A Shtetl in the City, Part 2, “Shabbas Goy”

  1. Nick, I remember Etta’s. I swear, if my memory serves me right, she had dark black hair, and black eyeglasses. I also remember Sheldon’s. I recall his very strong Hebrew accent. We use to go to Arthur’s on Hanover, but not sure if they were Jewish also.

  2. Yes, Etta had dark hair, wore shades, was short and dressed very well. There was a guy named Izzy who had a store on Prince street.

  3. The clothing store on Salem street was the site of the old firehouse it was called Sheldon’s. As a child I remember the rag man ,the ice man, the watermelon man and the Savino oil delivery truck.

  4. Nick, I think it means good luck or good fortune. I love reading your stories of the North End past. I remember very well ( when I lived in your building) the chicken coup across the street. Every Saturday morning I remember the chickens running around the street. What a funny sight it was.

    1. Merri, I showed the picture to two friends who grew up in Orthodox , Yiddish speaking homes. They thought the Yiddish word was the same as the English word above it, “printing”, but their Yiddish was rusty.

  5. Thank you Nick for a trip down memory lane.
    I lived at the corner of Salem & Stillman St and boy were all the jewish merchants wonderful to us. They always told us how special and beautiful we were. The pharmacy at 100 Salem was owned by someone who we would refer to as Dr. Beechman.. We would go to him if we had something in our eye and he would help. Donald & Sam Resnick, would fix our roller skates, mother’s iron or anything we would ask to be fixed. Lily & Fanny Levine had a dry goods store, Mrs Bass sold eggs or mushrooms. Uncle Dave started on Salem St, they were all terrific people, never to be forgotten.

    1. Great stories, SP. I lived at 109 Salem St. right across from the drug store.
      I think Dr. Beechman got into some kind of difficulty and had to close up his shop.
      The Piso family lived on Stillman St. I was friendly with the younger boys, Dominic, Peter and Saverio.

  6. How about Uncle Dave’s Grocery Store at 190 North Street (I lived up stairs) He would always say~~~
    while biting on his index finger~~~~~~NA GA ZINTA~~~~NA GA ZINTA Who knows what that meant ??? I don’t think it was a nice saying??? I never thought he liked us kids very much, but ON THE DAY OF MY WEDDING, he handed me a beautiful clown statue made of crockery with some kind of Brandy in it !! Years later I was visiting a friend in Florida, and saw a man in the pool, throwing coins to children swimming so they could dive in and retrieve them. I recognized his voice, so I watched, and sure enough it was Uncle Dave !!!! It was so nice to walk down memory lane with him !!!

    1. I looked it up, Janet, and it means “go in good health”. It could also be construed to mean “get lost”. Knowing how fresh you were as a child I’d go with the second meaning.
      The whole expression is, “gay ga zinta hate”.

  7. One time while I was watching TV, there was a talk show host introducing people who were victims of the Holocaust, and a familiar voice came on ~~~IT WAS SYLVIA~~~~~MEYER’S wife !!!! She looked the same as when I was a kid!!!
    For what they had gone through, they didn’t look it !! What strong people they were !! God Bless !

  8. These stories are so wonderful – you are helping to preserve the North End’s rich history by contributing them. I always look forward to reading them.

    It’s fascinating to think how fluid the ethnicity of the neighborhood has been when you step back and frame it from a generational perspective. I believe the Irish also comprised the majority of the population at one point.

  9. both my aunt and uncle would light the fire for their jewish neighbors (but in the west end). i believe they would get 5 cents for doing it. my uncle learned a good bit of yiddish as he was growing up which he put to good use during world war II. he was able to help translate what the captured german soldiers were saying.

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