Early records show that some residents of Salem in the late 1600s were Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal whose families escaped the infamous Inquisitions of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. By the mid-1800s, Jews from Russia and Germany were arriving. Greater numbers of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe settled in Salem beginning in the 1880s, as immigrants fleeing Czarist oppression and seeking opportunities for better lives reached the “Goldene Medina” of their dreams. Their numbers climbed steadily in the years before and after World War II.
Around the turn of the 20th century, two centers of Jewish life had developed in Salem – the Derby/Essex Street area, which drew the lion’s share of Jewish immigrants, and the Boston Street area bordering Peabody. The Boston Street Jews opened a shul at 165 Boston Street. Among the congregants were descendants of the original Sephardic Jews who had come to Salem in the earliest years.
In 1898, a formal charter was issued to Congregation Sons of Jacob to serve the Derby/Essex Street Jews. Forty-one persons formed this new congregation. The next year, the congregation secured land on Buxton Road in Danvers for a cemetery, which is still in use today. Services were conducted at various rented locations, including 4 Derby Square, until 1903, when the congregation purchased the Calvary Baptist Church at the corner of Essex and Union Streets, diagonally across Essex Street from the Hawthorne Hotel. Its first president was Max Winer, an immigrant from Lithuania, who founded Winer’s Specialty Shop on Lafayette Street, one of the first retail clothing stores in Salem. Rabbi Joseph Jacobson was called to Salem to occupy the pulpit of the congregation.
In the years before World War II, as people became more affluent, the Jewish population gradually shifted from the Derby Street neighborhood of the old synagogue to South Salem. In 1936, a site was acquired by Max Goldberg at the corner of Lafayette Street and Ocean Avenue, which served as the Jewish Community Center of an expanding Jewish population for sixteen years. During World War II, the building was also used by local civic groups, including the Red Cross and Civil Defense. In 1940, the congregation acquired real estate on Lafayette Street adjacent to the property it already owned.
The earliest Jewish merchants were William Filene, who opened a retail store in 1856 at 156 Essex Street, and David Conrad, who founded Ladies Goods at 163 Essex Street at about the same time. Both merchants moved their businesses to Boston in the next few years. Filene’s became a famous department store and a household name that exists today, while Conrad’s became a smaller specialty store that survived until the mid-20th century. In 1867 Conrad became an alderman, the city’s first elected Jewish officeholder.
Many Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe began their merchandising careers in Salem as peddlers with sacks on their backs, graduating to horses and buggies, and later, as they became more successful, opening shops. These included Sam and Benny Axelrod, their cousin Robert (Reuven) Axelrod, and Max Winer – all in the early years of the 20th century. Many of these early Jewish-owned homegrown retail businesses flourished. As the transportation hub of the North Shore, the city became a shopping mecca in the 1930s and ’40s. All of the trains and buses in the area converged in Salem. Steam engines would rumble into the historic old Salem train station at what is now Riley Plaza on Washington Street.
Walking toward Washington Street from the Hawthorne Hotel on Essex Street, the main shopping area, shoppers seeking out Jewish merchants would have encountered Bessie’s Dress Shop, the Rose Bonnet millinery shop, and the Royal women’s clothing shop. Above the Royal was Laura Greenberg’s Pattee Anne shop for children’s clothing, a few doors down from the North Shore’s largest Jewish retailer, the Empire, part of the store chain owned by Salem brothers Sam and Benjamin Axelrod. Former Mayor Sam Zoll remembers that the brothers were “leaders in the Jewish and non-Jewish community.” Ben’s son Leonard helped diversify and grow the business, and became a leading local Jewish philanthropist, donating the Axelrod Wing at the Salem Hospital and the walkway from Essex Street to Charter Street, adjacent to the Peabody Essex Museum.
Farther down Essex Street were Buddy Esses’ Buddy’s for baby furniture and clothing, Rooks, M.H. Baker’s, Jack’s, Newmark’s, and Bixby’s, all selling women’s clothing; Your Boys Store, Herman’s Boot Store, Miller Music, L.H. Rogers for women’s high-end designer clothing, Salem Army & Navy Store (owned by Norman Barron, who later co-founded Marshall’s), and Boston Leader for women’s accessories. Continuing across Washington Street on Essex Street, shoppers would encounter Edward Adelman’s Salem Smoke Shop, R.A. Day women’s clothing shop, R. Axelrod, and Sons dry goods store, and Lann’s Florist.
Nearby Washington Street, across from the post office, was the original site of Jerry’s Army & Navy Store (outfitters of generations of Salem’s children). On the same street was Giblee’s, Louis Baker’s and Fisher’s Men’s Store for men’s clothing, and Louis Feingold’s Salem Kiddie Shop. On the corner of Washington and Essex Street, diagonally across from the church that became Daniel Low’s department store, was T.R. Kerr furniture store.
Jewish merchants radiated out from Essex to other nearby streets. On Central and lower Lafayette Street were Dottie and Joe Kessler’s Children’s Store, Hy Silver’s Electrical Supply Equipment, Lamper’s shoes, Carmen-Kimball travel agency, Eva’s Hat Shop, and Selbert Jacobson’s haberdashery. On Front Street, later the site of the Jewish Federation of the North Shore, were Jake Share Stationery, Beaulieu & Linsky Paint and Wallpaper, Freedman’s Hardware, Barron’s Butcher Shop, and Jake Goldstein’s clothing shop.
Retailing, of course, was not the only way Jews earned a living. Jewish business owners of the early 20th century included manufacturers Max Korn and Max Silverman, whose leather company spawned a dozen or more ancillary leather firms, most of them in the Boston Street area bordering Peabody. S. Bernstein and Son manufactured men’s clothing on Front Street.
Several decades later, merchants and shoppers often converged for lunch at Gerber’s Delicatessen, a hotbed for discussions and rumors about politics and unions, on Washington Street near the corner of Essex. Other Jewish-owned delis were Sushel’s and Lander’s, both on Central Street. Weinshel the butcher was in the same neighborhood as tailors Nagel and Wiggetman. Another Jewish tailor, Morris Orloff, was on St. Peter Street, and two others on Essex – Waller’s and Pekin’s.
Broadway had Shaw’s Eggs and Poultry (run by Leo and William Shoer). The popular open-air market between Front and Derby Streets at Derby Square was home to a host of Jewish businesses, including Zundel Lambert’s fruits and vegetables and Pofcher’s Fish Market. Then there were fruit peddlers who first sold off trucks and then at fruit and vegetable markets near the old Town Hall plaza. The largest of these, Salem Food Land, started by Les and Al Oppenheim, later became Cressey-Dockham, a major area food wholesaler.
In other areas of Salem were Morry’s Cleaners on Bridge Street, owned by Meyer Finkelstein, and on Leach Street Ben & Harry’s Economart, a small grocery store owned by Ben Linsky and Harry Rosenfeld. On Phillips Street in North Salem was a junkyard owned by Isaac Talkowsky. Saul and Ben Ablow’s Salem Paper occupied the space now housing Roosevelt’s Restaurant on New Derby and Central Street. Where Domino’s Pizza now reins supreme on Canal Street was Ted Simons’ Ted’s Tire Co. Also on Canal Street was Salem Glass, owned by Saul Goldberg.
Then there were the real estate magnates. Much of the property on the block where the Elizabeth Montgomery “Bewitched” statue stands (now designated Lappin Park) was owned by John Lappin, father of philanthropist Robert I. Lappin. Across from Salem City Hall on Washington Street was a block of commercial real estate owned by the Shribman family. The Goldberg family’s name remains on one of their real estate holdings – the former wallpaper store on the corner of New Derby and Washington Streets, opposite the new Loft condominiums. David Frye was another prominent Salem businessman with large real estate holdings.
This article was adapted from “A History of Boston’s Jewish North Shore” by Alan Pierce.