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North End History: Our Jewish Heritage

North End History by Guild Nichols

PART 4: OUR JEWISH HERITAGE  1870-1900

The following brief history of the North End’s Jewish heritage is adapted from Michael A. Ross, The Jewish Friendship Trail, 2nd edition, 2003, and is graciously provided with permission by the author.

Eastern European Jews began settling in the North End as early as 1870. By the early 1900s they comprised 6,300 or almost one-third of the entire neighborhood population. They settled in a modest enclave comprising several blocks along Salem Street.

Many arriving Jews had skills related to the needle trades and were able to find work in the burgeoning clothing industries in Boston’s North and West Ends. Others opened up food, clothing and retail shops. Salem Street and the adjacent blocks around it soon became one of Boston’s most active shopping districts, filled with Kosher butchers, bakers, delicatessens, clothiers, tailors and food markets.Solomon and Jennie Rubinowitz (later known as Rabinovich and then as Rabb) opened a grocery shop – called the “Greenie Store” – at 134 Salem Street in 1892. This was the very first of many Rabb family grocery stores and it survived at this location through 1908. The Rabb family chain of groceries would eventually culminate in New England’s largest grocery chain, Stop & Shop. The initial Greenie Store location is today occupied by A. Bova & Sons Bakery.

Jewish immigrant consumers also provided a ready-made market for Kosher chickens and meats. One of the companies that was formed to satisfy growing poultry demands was the Menorah Products, Inc., which built its own “schlachthaus” (Yiddish for slaughterhouse) building at 112-114 Fulton Street. This building has been subsequently subdivided into residential condominiums.

These businesses and the entrepreneurial spirit behind them reflect the importance of Jewish immigrant enterprise and some of the lasting contributions of Jews to the heritage of Boston’s historic North End. Another example is the zeal with which the Jews relished and seized new opportunities in North End real estate.

With the departure of the Irish to South Boston, Jewish newcomers were able to acquire many of the run-down neighborhood tenement buildings from the 1870s and earlier periods.

In many instances, 100% of the purchase money was available through Jewish mortgage brokers representing first mortgage financiers. By requiring that these brokers place second mortgages in their own names, first mortgage holders were secure enough to offer 5-6% mortgage rates. Utilizing such readily available financing, Jews soon owned substantial portions of North End housing and commercial space by the 1890s. Capitalizing on their ownership, they often either gutted whole buildings and subdivided them into apartments or they tore them down, replacing them with new construction. One example among the very many is the Segel Building at 18 Cooper Street built with Jewish financing in 1896.In North End retailing, Saturday was the most profitable commercial day of the week and Boston’s Sunday “Blue Laws” were, with a few exceptions, still in effect during this period. Thus, Jewish retailers were confronted with a variety of choices among open-for-business hours and/or personal/family Saturday Shabbat celebrations. Some merchants practiced observance or partial observance, while others simply did not choose to observe the Shabbat by closing their doors on this busy market day. And yet, despite these different practices, it was surely their common faith that bound the co-religionist members of the Jewish community together.

Moreover, there were at this time three large and two smaller Orthodox Jewish shuls (synagogues) along with companion Talmudim Torah (Houses of Bible Study) of varying sizes and membership in the North End. In addition, there were two Hebrew schools located on alleyways off Salem Street that also served the Jewish population.Yet by the early 1920s, all but a few signs of this very strong Jewish presence in the North End had faded away as the Jewish population moved out of the neighborhood and on through Boston’s West and South Ends to Roxbury, Dorchester, Brookline and Newton, as well as to Chelsea and Revere. What remains to this day is one barely visible Mogen (Star of) David high on a building at Baldwin Place and the barely discernible block letters of “Hebrew School” over an arched doorway on Jerusalem Place off Salem Street. Thus, the North End’s Jewish heritage has been subsumed within the overpowering embrace of today’s Little Italy.

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