For much of its early history, Salem was a Republican town. In 1867, David Conrad served on the Salem Board of Alderman, according to an article that appeared in the “Man About Town” column of The Salem News in November 1911. J.L. Simon served as chairman of the Salem Republican Committee during the administration of President Taft in the early years of the 20th century – before the influx of immigrants shifted the city to the Democratic column.
Almost half a century later in 1957, Democrat Sam Zoll was elected to the Salem City Council, becoming council president in his second year. He later served as state representative, mayor (1970-1973), district court judge, chief judge of the district courts, and chair of the state’s Labor-Management Committee for Public Safety. Describing how he became a successful politician, Judge Zoll wrote:
“My dad, for health reasons, was unable to work for a long period, so all through grammar school, high school, and college, I was the paperboy in North Salem. At one point, at my peak, I hit 400 papers every day, and close to 1,100 papers on Sunday. I knew everybody; I was part of their family. I never went anyplace. I was there every day on time, and there was never any money missing from the doorstep. So when I came home from the service and decided to run for a ward Council seat, my mother said to me, ‘I thought you were going to be an accountant.’ She didn’t want me to get hurt. My opponent, who didn’t know me because I had been away for a few years, said, ‘Kid, you never have a chance.’ Little did he know how deep my base went. I just made it – by 191 votes. People were great to me.”
Judge Zoll also described a prophetic moment with Peabody’s Dave Kirstein at High Holiday services:
“He (Mr. Kirstein) was up on the bimah soliciting contributions, and his secretary, who used to be out in the front entry, was recording. He would go up and down the pews. I knew him only because he was at services on Kol Nidre – this was before he lost his son in World War II – and I’d see him around the congregation. He called my father’s name. I had never had a conversation with him other than to say, ‘Hello Mr. Kirstein.’ I was fourteen years old. My father says, ‘Fifteen dollars.’ [Mr. Kirstein says] ‘How about a little more, Joe?’ My father pauses, you know. He didn’t have much more at that point. ‘Okay, Dave, twenty-five dollars.’ I’m sitting next to my father, and Mr. Kirstein says, ‘Joe, thank you, thank you. You know, some day your son is going to be Mayor of Salem.’ ”
From the 1960s on, Jews took an active role in the civic life of the city, serving on municipal boards, as bank officers and trustees, and as volunteers at the Peabody Essex Museum and Salem Hospital. Gerald Posner was one of several founders of the Salem-based Jewish Journal in 1977, and went on to serve as its publisher on and off for more than a decade.
A few Jews even became well-respected local athletes. Fred Axelrod was a boxer and also a linebacker for Dartmouth’s football team. Eddie Wineapple pitched in one game for the Washington Senators’ American League baseball club in 1929 after an outstanding basketball career at Salem High and Providence College.
The first Jewish physician in Salem was Dr. Max Lesses, who lived next to the Salem Common. He was followed by hundreds more. Dr. Alan Freedburg was a well-known dermatologist of the pre-World War II period. Dr. Gregory Alexander and Dr. Harry Freedberg were among the first Jewish physicians admitted to practice at Salem Hospital, now part of a greatly expanded North Shore Medical Center. Among the most prominent physicians in the post-war years was Dr. Israel Kaplan, who later became the first Jewish chairman of the Salem Board of Health. His name is honored by the Shaughnessy-Kaplan Rehabilitation Hospital, associated with the North Shore Medical Center.
The first Jewish dentist may have been Meyer Winer, a 1912 graduate of Harvard Dental School, and father of the late dentist Richard Winer, former president of the North Shore Jewish Historical Society. J.L. Simon’s son Harry was a prominent local attorney who served as city solicitor and, along with Al Pitcoff, served on the Planning Board. Other prominent lawyers of the early to mid-20th century were Hy Marcus, Al Zetlan, and brothers Lenny and Barry Berkal.
In the period between 1910 and 1920, ballroom dancing gained great popularity. Salem boasted several dance halls, notably the Greater Salem Dancing School in Odell Hall across from the District Court. According to Judge Zoll, “You never went there with a girlfriend. That’s where you went to meet the right girl. There was dancing from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., a dance contest till 10:30, and they gave prizes. There was a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish youngsters there.”
In the early years of the 20th century, one couple who met on the dance floor used to look forward to meeting every week. After several months of dancing, the young lady got impatient that her companion showed no sign of being ready to “pop the question.” So one night she surprised him by saying she was going to be married. Alarmed, he asked: “Who are you marrying?” “You,” she answered. He quickly agreed. The couple did indeed marry and raised four children.
Kernwood Country Club was central to the social life of the North Shore’s affluent Jews for more than a century. Founded in response to the exclusion of Jews from the area’s established country clubs, Kernwood’s history goes back to 1914, when conversations among Louis Kirstein, Joe Liebman, Jesse Koshland, and Al Kaffenburg led to negotiations to purchase a large parcel of land in north Salem. This was where, in 1844, Colonel Francis Peabody purchased land for a summer home that he called Kernwood.
The golf course was laid out by architect Donald Ross, who designed many of the nation’s finest courses. Two tennis courts were built on the west side of the old homestead, enclosed by hedges. First named Elm Hill Country Club, it was later renamed Kernwood Country Club after the original name of Colonel Peabody’s property. Louis E. Kirstein was the first president from 1914 to 1918. Though only six holes were completed for the opening, more than 100 prominent Jewish residents of Greater Boston – many of them summer residents of the North Shore – were elated to play at the new golf club.
Salem Willows, a historic waterfront park that included amusements, opened in 1858. It attracted young working-class singles and families throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, including its share of the Jewish community. Its popular Charleshurst Ballroom, now the Willows Casino Arcade, was operated for many years by Charles Shribman. Among the luminaries who played there were Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong.
The annual Jewish Heritage Day, featuring Jewish food, music, and games, was a popular summertime event in downtown Salem in the 1980s and 1990s, drawing thousands of visitors to the city. A highlight one year was the sight of Dr. Israel Kaplan alighting from a ship at Pickering Wharf dressed as a humble immigrant. In later years, as crowds dwindled and the city came under financial pressures, the event was moved to the grounds of Temple Shalom, then phased out.
Note from author: We tried to mention as many people, businesses, and Jewish institutions past and present in order to capture the essence of our rich Jewish history. We realize, however, that although our intentions were to be inclusive, we may have left out some important elements of that history. Please forgive our lapses.