Phillips Street, on the North Slope of Beacon Hill, is a small, unremarkable street. Many years ago, it was considered part of the West End and was once home to a sizable Black population. It consists of four and five story tenement buildings and extends from Irving Street to West Cedar Street, one block up the hill from Cambridge Street.
These days the old tenements, once cold water flats, have been turned into expensive condominiums and luxury apartments, but a century ago this area was very different. Today young professionals hurry to their jobs in the Financial District, and doctors and nurses head to their clinics at the Massachusetts General Hospital. As they walk by, staring at their cell phones, they pass by a modest brick building at #18 Phillips Street. They might wonder about the history of that building which seems oddly out of place in 21st century Boston. The stained glass Star of David over the front entrance gives a hint of its significance. How surprised they would be to learn that one hundred years ago that small, unprepossessing building, the Vilna Shul, was the center of Jewish life for the Lithuanian Jews who settled in that section of Boston.
The Pale of Settlement was the term used for the far Western reaches of the Russian Empire, the only area where Jews were allowed to live. There, they lived in small villages or market towns called “shtetls.” These weren’t ghettos where only Jews lived, but were mixed communities with Jews and Gentiles living side by side.
In the nineteenth century there were terrible pogroms carried out by the peasantry against the Jews which were supported by the Russian government. After the violent pogroms in Kiev and Odessa in the early 1880s, many Jews decided to flee Russia and emigrate to the new world. Between 1880 and 1920 over two million Jews left Russia. Another wave of Jewish immigrants came after the Russian revolution. Many Eastern European Jews recall the terror they felt when marauding bands of Cossacks rode through their shtetls yelling “zhidovka,” Russian for give us your women.
Those who came to the United States settled mainly in the big Eastern cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston where they may have had relatives or friends from the same village. Here in Boston, they formed small communities with their fellow “landsleit” centered around a house of worship called a “shul.”
The Eastern European Jews settled first in the North End and then in the West End and the North Slope of Beacon Hill. A sizable number were from near the present day city of Vilnius in Lithuania and, even though they were poor, the “Anshei Vilner” (the People of Vilnius) soon built a shul on Phillips Street and called the Vilna Shul. The present day guardians of Vilna Shul allowed me to read the oral histories of the last congregants to worship there. These histories were recorded in the 1990s when the people were quite old. The interviewees talked about life in the shtetl, coming to America, living in the West End at the time of World War I, and making a life in the new world.
Like other immigrant groups, those from Lithuania tended to congregate together and recreate their shtetl culture in the narrow streets of Boston’s West End. Life in the shtetls was an intimate life with families living in small thatched houses and oftentimes running a modest business out of the same house. Phillips Street was one on the main shopping streets in the West End, North Slope area, and most tenement buildings had small street level shops.
Life in the shtetls wasn’t all bad. It was a traditional, very religious Jewish life where the husband worked in some manual trade or small business and the wife stayed home to raise the many children. Day-to-day life was centered around family, friends, and especially the shul. In the West End, the Vilna Shul served the same function for these Lithuanian, Litvak Jews. It was where they worshiped on the sabbath, where their sons had their bar mitzvah, where weddings and funerals were held, and where social connections were made. Charitable programs were often organized through the shul. One resident commented on how every Jew was the caretaker of every other Jew and no one went hungry.
The husbands worked in a variety occupations. Many were peddlers, other worked in the garment industry as cutters, pressers or designers, some were skilled tradesmen. Young boys sold newspapers at the street corners or shined shoes. The famous actor Leonard Nimoy’s father, Max, had a barber shop on Chambers Street near Barney Sheff’s delicatessen. Leonard Nimoy always said his fondest memories were growing up in the West End. He would often return to his old neighborhood and hold master acting classes for aspiring thespians at the Elizabeth Peabody House or the West End House settlements. Old West Enders will remember Schnipper, the best green grocer in the neighborhood.
As important as buildings were, they were only part of the scaffold that held neighborhoods together. The North End and West End were blessed with scores of synagogues, mostly small shuls that serviced people from one town or village. Vilna Shul was a poor congregation and they often couldn’t afford to hire a prominent Cantor for high holy days. A local character who many residents, including Leonard Nimoy, remembered well and comment on was a man called Al Tabatchnik.
Anyone who grew up in the West End from the 1930s to the 1960s knew Tabatchnik. He was a beast of a man, over six feet tall, and almost as wide. He was brilliant and spoke several languages and had a booming baritone voice. He was also overly fond of Four Roses schnapps and probably had some kind of mental illness. He dressed in rags with a rope belt and holes in his shoes. Tabatchnik was, as one resident said, a barrel picker and a rag collector.
One of my earlier memories is sitting on my grandmother’s lap in her apartment on Salem Street. She had a side window looking down the street toward Scollay Square. Walking down the middle of the street was a giant man yelling “bebekhes,” which is Yiddish for rags. My grandmother told me his name was Tabatchnik and I should avoid him because he would take young children to live with him in the West End. Tabatchnik was a gifted singer and many West End synagogues, including the Vilna Shul, would pay him to sing at their services. They would also assign a couple of young men to watch over him carefully to be sure he didn’t get sidetracked on his way to shul.
The Vilna Shul is quiet now. All the congregants have moved away and services are no longer held there. It remains a silent sentinel, a guardian of the memories of the thousands of Lithuanian Jews who worshiped and celebrated there. Today, the Vilna Shul is reinventing itself as a center of Jewish life and culture. It hosts lectures, movies and discussion groups which are open to all religions and races. Its role in the modern world has changed, but is no less important. It is a place where Jews can celebrate their heritage and give thanks for their brave ancestors who left their homeland and created a new life here in Boston.
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.