Growing up in Chelsea, Norm Finkelstein recalls having non-Jewish friends who spoke Yiddish. “You could [be] not-Jewish in Chelsea, and still think you were,” said Finkelstein, 81, “Because basically everyone – Jews and non-Jews – were surrounded by reminders of Judaism.”
This may not seem like the Chelsea we know today – one that is over 66 percent Hispanic and houses just a couple of synagogues. But back in Finkelstein’s day, Chelsea was home to 18 shuls, and was thought to have the most Jews per square mile anywhere in the United States outside of New York City.
This trend of historically Jewish enclaves that now have demographically different compositions exists in a number of Greater Boston cities, and those are the stories brought to light by the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center’s new “Jewish Neighborhood Voices” oral history exhibit, which opened Sept. 7. The Wyner Center will be celebrating the launch with a free and open-to-the-public community reception on Oct. 15 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Williams School in Chelsea.
The oral history project was put together over the last two years, exploring the Jewish lives in three areas – Lynn, Chelsea, and Dorchester/Roxbury – from the 1920s to the 1950s. (While Dorchester and Roxbury are two separate neighborhoods, because they had similar patterns of Jewish settlement and because some of the narrators had lived in both places, the Wyner Center chose to combine them for the purposes of the exhibit.)
“We really wanted to speak with people who had firsthand memories and experiences in the early- to mid-20th century Jewish communities, Jewish neighborhoods that are no longer known as being Jewish,” said Rachel King, executive director of the Wyner Center. She explained that the motivation behind the project was to enhance and build the Jewish Heritage Center archive, and to connect with the people who can speak to the Jewish past of these places while they are still around.
“When I heard about the project, I thought that was just a wonderful idea,” said Finkelstein, one of the voices in the exhibit. “These [were] rich, rich, rich Jewish cities back then. To make sure that the memory of that continues, I think, [is] really important because so many young people today just have no idea.”
Six volunteer interviewers spoke with 20 “narrators” – Jews who’d grown up in the aforementioned cities, like Finkelstein. King and project manager Sarah Quiat compiled selected audio clips from the collected oral histories into an exhibit, and archivists Gabrielle Roth and Henry Treadwell added the full oral history recordings and transcripts to the Wyner Center’s digital archive for preservation and public access.
“We have long wanted to add oral history to our documentation of Boston and New England Jewish history,” said King. “We have deep resources in our collections about local and regional Jewish history, but it’s traditional archival materials … we really wanted to add … firsthand accounts of the past to our holdings.”
After applying for and receiving a $20,000 grant from the Mass Humanities Foundation in the fall of 2021, the Wyner Center also applied to Combined Jewish Philanthropies to further fund the project, and received an additional $15,000. With that, organizers consulted with oral history expert Judith Monachina, and worked with other partners to help develop and execute the project.
“When historians write about Jewish history, the Jewish experience in New England, they can write about the kind of business Jews were in … about Jewish institutions … about biographies of Jewish individuals … but it’s very fact-oriented and data-oriented,” said Herbert Selesnick, an interviewer and partner for the project. “On the other hand, when you interview somebody, you often get a heavy dose of their subjective experience, what something meant to them … so you get a more personalized, humanistic read-out of experience. I think it adds an important dimension. It adds texture and human voice to Jewish history.” Θ
The Oct. 15 launch celebration will include being transported back to a 1940s/’50s delicatessen. Register online at jewishheritagecenter.org/events.
To view the online exhibit, visit jewishheritagecenter.org/jewish-neighborhood-voices.