PEABODY – “The memories – they’re still as clear as day,” said Margo Suckney in a little alcove of the Harriett and Ralph Kaplan Estates, an assisted living facility in Peabody where residents sip coffee and look out the window. Outside, the sky was a cloudless cobalt, brilliantly clear.
The first leaves are getting red around the edges, and another year is coming to an end. Margo and Arthur Suckney recently sold their house in Peabody to move into assisted living. Amidst all the change, the couple uses the High Holidays as an opportunity to indulge in an ancient Jewish pastime: remembering.
Margo, 74, remembers her bubbe’s kitchen on the High Holidays, just off Shirley Avenue in Revere, where she and her two sisters were the “little balabusta” assistants.
“My mother’s mother lived with us, and she would cook – oh my God – the smell of the gefilte fish, and you’d say ‘Bubbe, how do you make this?’” Margo remembered. “She’d say, ‘A little of this, a little of that.’ We just had to guess and remember what she said.”
Margo still can taste those meals – gefilte fish, matzah ball soup – to this day. In the ’40s and ’50s, her bubbe Jennie could get everything she needed on one street: Shirley Avenue, the nexus of Jewish life in Revere.
“When my father was around, he’d take her to the fish store to buy the fish, and up the street from where we lived was a slaughterhouse with chickens and everything, so you’d get all the Jewish delicacies,” she said.
Jews could get everything they needed on Shirley Avenue, and Margo remembers walking down a street where everyone waved to her as she walked by. For a while, it was her whole world. “On the High Holidays, we always thought all the stores were closed. My mom said, ‘Oh, I have to go up to Broadway and cash a check,’ and I said, ‘What are you talking about, Ma? It’s a Jewish holiday.’ She said, ‘We’re Jewish down here, but the other part of Revere still goes on.’”
On the High Holidays, a truant officer named Sam Samuels walked through Revere’s shuls to make sure that the kids taking off school were spending their time in synagogue, and not at the arcades and rides that used to line Revere Beach. And Margo was there, next to her mother, up in the balcony of Congregation Tifereth Israel with the rest of the women, trying her best to keep up with prayers that no one wanted to teach women in those days.
Arthur says the women up in the balcony in his shul used to spend the High Holiday services gossiping, and it irritated the cantor. “The women would be up in the back, men in front, and the old cantor would get mad once in a while, and slam his hand down on the podium to keep them quiet,” he said. “But then they’d start up again afterwards.”
Arthur, 77, grew up in Chelsea, where many of the synagogues were informally named after the streets they were on: there was the Walnut Street Shul, the Elm Street Shul, the Chestnut Street Shul. Arthur attended the Chestnut Street Shul, just like his father, and his father’s father. He always heard that his step-grandfather William Cohen was a carpenter who helped build the shuls on Walnut Street and Elm Street. His other grandfather, Nathan Suckney, crafted the yarmulke he wore to temple on an old Singer sewing machine, along with his baseball caps.
Arthur only wore that yarmulke on the High Holidays, which was the only time of year he went to the Chestnut Street Shul. “Necessity knows no laws – you had to go,” he said. “If you were Jewish, you had to go.” He didn’t mind services too much, because he went to Chelsea Hebrew School and knew some of the prayers. What’s more, back in the ’40s and ’50s, the shul was completely full, and Arthur enjoyed being with the other neighborhood kids, some of whom he only saw once a year.
But services were long – the traditional Orthodox services lasted from early in the morning till the sun set – and the sanctuary was hot. “We didn’t stay the whole day – you left after you got nauseated and hot and sweaty because they didn’t have air conditioning,” said Arthur. Out in the fresh air, Arthur went to his grandmother’s house, where she made them gedempte fleisch (an Ashkenazi pot roast), along with matzah ball soup and apples and honey.
Just like his wife’s bubbe, Arthur’s grandmother cooked a whole meal from her head. “When somebody asked her what to do, she’d say, ‘A pinch of this, a pinch of that’ – she had everything in her mind, and never wrote anything down,” he said.
On Yom Kippur, Arthur and his family followed up his bubbe’s break the fast with a tradition just as Jewish: they went out for Chinese food.
Arthur and Margo moved to Everett after they married, because neither wanted to move to the other’s home city. In the ’80s, they relocated to Peabody, where they attended Temple Ner Tamid on the High Holidays. Margo taught Hebrew school, and learned the prayers no one taught her as a girl. They invited over friends and she cooked some of their grandmother’s recipes – from memory, of course.