by M. Irving Herbster, Avrom Herbster, Irving Sacks, Paul Ordman,
and Alan Pierce
The first known Jewish settlers in Peabody were Louis Karelitz and Charles Halpert, who came from Russia in 1896. At the turn of the 20th century, there were about 15 Jewish families in Peabody. By 1909, the number increased to about 100, drawn from Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Germany. Many of them were experienced leather workers in their home countries.
These early residents were joined by others before and after World War I and the Russian Revolution. By 1920, there were about 200 Jewish families in Peabody, increasing in the next 20 years to 350, as fortunate families escaped Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, some other Jewish residents became merchants and manufacturers. Peabody was known worldwide as the Leather City. In its heyday, there were over 100 tanneries or leather-related businesses. Similar to the experience in the shoe industry in nearby Lynn, Jewish immigrants were drawn to these cities for jobs in the shoe and leather factories. The entrepreneurial spirit soon took root and, in short order, many of these businesses became Jewish-owned.
Among the leading Jewish leather firms were: Peabody Embossing Co. (Louis Meyerson); Mincovitz Leather Sales; Ossoff Leather Co.; Pearl Embossing Co.; and Allen Leather Co. (Allen and Edward Pearl); Central Buffing Co. (Robert and Sidney Pierce); Prager Leather Co.; Bond Leather Co. (Murray Rain); Remis Leather Co.; R.L. Leather Co. (David Rosenfelt); Korn Leather Co.; Salloway and Salwin Leather Co.; Shawmut Tannery (Allen and Charles Scholnick); Smidt Leather; Barney Singer Leather Co.; Kirstein Leather Co.; Strauss Tannery; Stahl Finish; N.H. Matz Leather Co.; Mann Leather; and approximately a dozen or more others. Other prominent individuals were Agoos, Behar, Bycoff, Camenker, Castleman, Edelstein, Edinburg, Fermon, Freedson, Fromer, Goldberg, Hershenson, Isaacson, Kaplan, Katzman, Klivansky, Lampert, Lerner, Limon, Lippa, Osman, Palais, Rabinovitz, Salloway, Savy, Silverman, Sogoloff, Steinharter, Tanzer, Tarlow, Weisman, Zabar, and Zion.
Among the earliest merchants were Louis Karelitz and Jacob Remis in furniture; Michael Berstein’s Bakery; Ellis Elmont, Aaron Klivansky, Samuel Komarin, Abraham Kaplan, and Harry and Max Herman had shoe stores; David Rosenfelt and Joe Levin in haberdashery; and Sidney Lippa in transportation. Simon Rosen started in the shoe repair business, and was later in bicycles, radios, and hardware. Samuel Rafey was in hardware; M.P. Stone and Barnet Smidt in coal; Louis Waisberg, Abraham Hoffman, Harry and Sam Bacherman, Solomon Herbster, Azriel Spatrick, and Michael Shaktman operated the first grocery stores; Sam Pitcoff ran Sam’s lunch on Foster Street for many years.
Some of the other more well-known Jewish-owned businesses around Peabody Square were Goldstein’s Shoe Store, Gordon Realty, Alpers Men’s Store, Hoffman’s Meat Market, Weisberg’s Meat Market, Sheinheit Kosher Slaughterhouse, Karelitz Furniture, and Mizner’s Tailor Shop. Samuel Goldberg constructed the Sons of Israel Synagogue in 1913 and many houses in the East End; Samuel Marron built many of the houses in South Peabody. Charles B. Smidt built the houses on Smidt Avenue and several apartment buildings in Peabody and Salem; Samuel Tanzer had a blacksmith shop in the early years; Sol Droitiner was a real estate agent; Louis Glass, who ran a grocery store, served often as an interpreter for many who had not yet learned the English language; Charles Halpert and Raymond Bacherman operated steamship travel agencies; Samuel Chiplovitz was a cattle farmer; Morris and Nathan Goldstein and Samuel Ainbinder were butcher shop owners; and Morris Beres and Zundel Lampert were the first fruit and vegetable peddlers. Harry Gardner operated Monarch Oil Co.
At the end of World War II, the number of Jewish families stood at about 400. As men returned from the armed services, many housing developments with affordable residences for young families sprang up in Peabody in the 1950s. The city’s population doubled within a decade, as did the numbers of Jews. Engineers, technicians, and other young professional men made their homes here, and by 1960 there were about 800 Jewish families.
Among the earliest organizations in Peabody, was the local branch of the Workmen’s Circle (the Arbeiter Ring), established in 1907. Founded in 1892 in New York by immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe, the Arbeiter Ring was inspired by socialist ideals to improve the lot of the working man in America through mutual aid and education. One of its pillars was the preservation and transmission of Jewish heritage through Yiddish. In the early 1920s, the Peabody branch established the Arbeiter Ring Schule, where Yiddish was taught for the next 30 years and included young girls as students.
Since the beginnings of Jewish communities in America, women have assumed leadership roles in organizations devoted to community service and education. Peabody was no exception. The Ladies Auxiliary of the Peabody Hebrew School, first located at Congregation Sons of Israel, was a very active group from its inception in 1917. Among its organizers were women who used their husbands’ names, as was the custom at the time – Mrs. Max Korn, Mrs. Louis Karelitz, Mrs. Philip Weinblatt, Mrs. Frank Hershenson, and Mrs. Regina Strauss. The Ladies Auxiliary of the Congregation Anshe Sfard was founded under the leadership of Mrs. David Herman, Mrs. Abraham Bazer, and Mrs. Michael Shaftman in 1916.
The historic Washington Street home of Dr. Benjamin Salata, a prominent dentist for many years, recently was given to the Peabody Historical Society by his wife, Celia, and restored as the Osborn-Salata House.
Today, the center of Jewish life has shifted from the central part of the city to West Peabody. In the last decades, corner drug stores, such as Ordman’s, operated by Harry Ordman, and retail stores such as Remis Furniture, operated by David Remis, have been replaced by regional and national chain stores that draw people from surrounding communities to Peabody’s Northshore Mall. From 1983 to 1999, Larry Goldman and Scott Bucklin ran Goldbuck’s Deli in West Peabody. Larry Levine’s Kosher Meats and Deli may be the only retail establishment today selling an exclusively Jewish product in the city. The leather industry that supported so many Jewish families came to an end long ago, but was memorialized in the 1991 PBS documentary “Leather Soul: Working for a Life in a Factory Town,” narrated by Studs Terkel.
Beginning as a small town, Peabody first made its mark as the leading leather city of the United States. Now a suburban bedroom community and the home to the largest retail mall north of Boston, Peabody has retained remarkable ethnic diversity. The Jewish community has added many sustaining strands to the vibrant tapestry that is Peabody, Massachusetts.
(With over a century of Jewish life to cover with limited time and pages, the authors 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.)