There has always been a Jewish presence in the North End. Jews were probably living here since Colonial times, but the height of Jewish immigration to Boston was from about 1870 to 1920 when Eastern European Jews fled the Tsarist pogroms to the safety of the New World. The West End had a larger Jewish presence, but the North End also had a very active Jewish community. Each neighborhood had settlement houses to help acculturate the newly arrived immigrants into the life and culture of their new home.
Hecht House was founded by Lina Hecht in 1889 in the North End to help assimilate and train Jewish immigrants. It moved to Bowdoin Street in the West End in 1920 when the Italian population of the North End surged. The other two West End settlement houses were the West End House and the Elizabeth Peabody House. In the North End we had the North End Union and the North Bennet Street Industrial School, both of which served immigrants of all nationalities. These settlement houses were a social nexus for immigrants and taught basic child rearing skills and manual trades.
It is estimated that almost seven thousand Jews lived in the North End during those fifty years and their main settlement formed a triangle of Salem, Prince and Endicott Streets. Many of the North End Jews came from Lithuania and they formed a tight knit community centered on Salem Street. The men engaged in all the typical immigrant occupations of manual labor, especially those involving tailoring and clothing manufacture, while the women, who often worked from home, were skilled in dressmaking and sewing. There were once over a dozen synagogues in the North End, mainly small shuls, but there were at least three large and impressive ones. The building now occupied by the Galleria Umberto pizzeria was once a synagogue and there were two others in the small alleys off Salem Street, which the locals called Shalom Street. The land at the end of Baldwin Place now occupied by the present Knights of Columbus hall was once home to a large Lithuanian synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel.
Salem Street was lined with Jewish kosher meat and grocery shops, some of which still existed into the 1960s. Many of these shops were eventually bought by Italians. Fulton Street, on the other side of Hanover, had Menorah Products, a poultry slaughterhouse. One of my Saturday jobs was to go there and buy freshly killed chickens. Watching Sammy, the chicken executioner, slit the unfortunate bird’s throat and hang it, wings flapping, upside down to bleed out was fascinating. He would then dunk the dead bird into a hot water bath and remove the feathers on a rotating drum dotted with rubber pegs. The carcass would still be warm when I carried it back to my Nonna’s apartment where she would add vegetables and boil it for soup. Sometimes there would be several unhatched egg yolks inside the chicken and we would all hope for them in our dish when Nonna ladled out the soup.
Sam Shore and his son Alan had a wholesale fresh egg business at the end of Fulton Street near Cross Street. They sold twenty four cracked eggs for less than a dollar and two dozen pullets were about $1.50. I’m sure there were Jewish restaurants and delicatessens in the North End, but they are long gone. When I was young we used to go to Godfried’s Deli in the West End or Ken’s in Copley Square for a corned beef sandwich and half sour tomatoes.
There were also Jewish funeral homes, two of which are still in existence but no longer in the North End. Levine’s was on Salem Street and Stanetsky’s was on Cooper Street. The Cincotti family bought Stanetsky’s and I went to my first wake at that funeral parlor. The funeral director, Jackie Cincotti, was a respected North End businessman and very active in the Holy Name society of St. Mary’s Church.
There is an Italian word, pentimento, which describes a painting that has been overpainted with traces of the original work showing through. The artist changed his mind, repented, and decided to paint a new, but similar, painting over the old one. I think about this when I walk down Salem Street and try to find remnants of the Jewish settlement in the North End. If you look closely they are still there and I’ve included some photos of buildings in the North End which still speak of their Jewish origins. The images are as faded as the memories, but they are still there if you look closely.
As you walk down Salem Street, look carefully at the small, side alleys of Noyes Place, Baldwin Place and Jerusalem Place and imagine you were back in the 1890s. If it was just before sundown you would see the Shabbos goy opening the doors and lighting the gas lamps of the synagogues. The congregants would be hurrying to the evening service as the rabbi and cantor prepared their texts and songs. If the weather was warm and the windows open, the ancient hymns could be heard drifting out into the North End night;
Baruch atah, Adonai, Eloheinu
By 1920 almost all the Jews, except the shopkeepers, were gone from the North End. They had moved on to other neighborhoods and towns but the immigrant cycle of arrival, assimilation and achievement had succeeded. The North End had served its purpose and was already welcoming a new immigrant group, the Italians, who were blending their culture with that of the new world.
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.