Full text from interview with Reisa Bunick in 2011. Highlighted section are included in audio presentation. Audio requires QuickTime player (free download from Apple) or equivalent MP3 player installed with your browser.
Q: And can you just go through some of the landmarks in your neighborhood? Places that were important you? Stores, synagogues, neighborhood associations, hangouts. You can talk about places that you heard your brothers or parents talk about. And then places that were important to you as a child.
A: OK. We lived on Addison Street. The Orange Street synagogue was actually back to back with our house. We were renters. But Nathan Mindess who owned the house and was president of the synagogue -- well, he was the person who owned our house. So there wasn’t a passage. But if we looked off the back porch we could see the Orange Street synagogue, which was the center of my father’s life outside the family. He dedicated himself to the synagogue.
Q: Can you talk a little more about that? What type of involvement he had there.
A: Sure. It was an Orthodox synagogue. When I was a child it was thriving. And it was full of lots of families. He founded the brotherhood -- he was the secretary and kept all the records. He kept all the yahrzeit records and took care of all the yahrzeits. When I was growing up he also was the sexton. He cleaned the place. And he pretty much ran everything. They stopped having a rabbi. I don’t even remember their having a rabbi when I was a child. So he and the other men conducted the services. It was an Orthodox synagogue so the women were upstairs in the balcony. They had lots of social occasions. They had breakfasts that my father ran. They had picnics every summer. They had lots of parties. It was a wonderful place.
Q: Was your mother involved there as well?
A: Yeah she was. Yeah she was. She was president of the sisterhood for a long time. She was a shy woman. So she was president because my father told her to be I guess. But obviously she went there to all the occasions and sat up in the balcony with all the other women and got yelled at during the High Holidays. Which you probably have no experience of that. That’s what it was like. All the women would sit in the balcony and gossip. And then the men would be -- quiet down.
Q: And what were some other places in the neighborhood? Stores, hangouts.
A: Well, there was the drugstore. The Citron’s drugstore, which was owned by the Zazula brothers. And we spent a lot of time there. There was a corner grocery store across the street from it owned by Mr. and Mrs. Rabinowitz. And then later by Mr. and Mrs. Silver. And that was one of the few places my parents would trust me to run to when I was a child. So we bought groceries there. There was Goldstein’s market, which was a couple of blocks farther away. And the butcher store. Freedman’s. Eddie Freedman’s butcher store, which was where we bought all our meat. And that was a few blocks away. And my mother’s family tended to live around there. So they were in various streets around when I was a small child. Until they started to scatter as well.
Q: Where did you go to school? You and your brothers?
A: Well, I went to the Carter School, which was on Forsyth Street in Chelsea. And my brother Harvey -- who is now Nick -- also went to the Carter School. My brother Irving went to the Williams School, which was a little farther away. We all went to Chelsea High School, which is not the current Chelsea High School. The old Chelsea High School, which is still standing. I think they still use it for something.
Q: I think so.
A: Irving graduated in 1950 and enlisted in the Air Force and was shipped off to the Korean War. Nick graduated in 1954. He was the captain of the football team. He went to the University of Florida on a football scholarship. And was in ROTC and ended up in the Army stationed at Fort Ord in California. He was a lot luckier. So he was actually stationed in a resort community. That’s a beautiful part of California. It’s near Palo Alto. Near Clint Eastwood’s golf course. And then he settled and lived here briefly. Got married there and settled in California. And then Texas. And then Oregon. And has never really come home. I graduated from Chelsea High in 1963 and went to Smith and then lived in New York for a while because my parents said I’d disgrace them if I got my own apartment in Boston. So I got my apartment in New York so I wouldn’t disgrace them. And after two years they gave in and I could move home. Move to Boston, have an apartment in Boston like I always wanted. I just didn’t want to move back with them in Chelsea because I would have gained 100 pounds and probably still be there. OK. Where were we?
Q: What about your home life? Can you describe the house where you grew up to the best of your ability?
A: Sure. It was a three-flat house when I was born. Up until age 12 we lived on the first floor. It was not a great place. It was the way lots of working class people lived in Chelsea. It had five rooms. I actually didn’t have a bedroom until my brothers moved out. I had a folding bed, which I still have in the other room. That was on wheels. And my parents would put me in whatever room nobody was using. It was a five-room apartment with the bathroom off the kitchen, which is how people lived then. And one of the rooms had peeling paint which was full of lead. So we stopped being able to use it, which is why we had so little space. When I was 12 the landlord, Mr. and Mrs. Mindess, she couldn’t walk the stairs anymore. So we had to switch apartments and we moved to the second floor. So we had the fifth room again. It wasn’t in very good condition. It was very poorly heated. I remember we used to wear coat linings around the house. The rent was very low because the Mindesses liked my parents so we stayed there. It wasn’t a palace. There were lots of rats and mice in the neighborhood. And sometimes I could hear them scratching in the walls. But they never came into the apartment. Fortunately.
Q: And your parents lived in that apartment until when?
A: Until -- trying to think of when they moved.
Q: If you can’t think of it don’t worry about it. Can you think of any funny family anecdotes or family customs or just memories associated with that house that come to mind? And if you can’t think of any right now --
A: I’m sure that there are lots of them.
Q: What about your Jewish life growing up in Chelsea? Describe the experience of being Jewish as a resident of Chelsea.
A: Well, since I was a girl I had no Jewish education. Both my brothers went to Hebrew school. There was a large Jewish population. And most of the rest of the population would have been Catholic. At that time it would have been. Chelsea now is Spanish and Asian and lots of mixture. But in those days it would have been mostly Italian people and Irish people. And some Polish people and Jewish people. And it was fine. I went to the Chelsea Y. Most of my friends were Jewish but --
Q: But the relations between -- with your non-Jewish neighbors were --
A: It was fine. Well, my father was famous for getting along with everyone. He had a lot of Christian friends. And he tells a story in some of the documents I gave you about he was on good relations with all the gangs in the neighborhood, so they never bothered the synagogue or any of the people going to the synagogue. It was the same way towards the end of his life when they lived at -- the Carter School was set on fire. Where I went. And it was never rebuilt. It was rebuilt as an apartment building, where my parents eventually lived. And it was declared one of the five most dangerous apartment buildings in Chelsea, which was something that I wasn’t aware of. Because my father was friends with all the gang members in that building too. And so there was never any problems. He was just a very friendly person and he got along with everyone and liked everyone. And I think the reason -- he was nice to everyone. He treated everyone with respect. And that comes back to you. And my mother was very shy but she was so pretty and sweet that towards the end years she would -- whenever she fell down, always some gorgeous handsome guy would come and pick her up. It was like a joke. She never hurt herself. And she always got these really -- lift-ups by -- sometimes say that half the gang members in Chelsea picked her up off the street. She was really cute.
Q: What about the celebration of holidays and other Jewish home rituals? How did you celebrate a holiday? Did you have a lot of your family?
A: Well, we had seders in the house. So when I was a kid obviously it was in the house. We’d wait forever for my father to come back from the synagogue. The seder would be in Hebrew and I wouldn’t understand a word and it would go on for hours and hours and hours and hours.
Q: Did you have lots of family members there or was it just your immediate family?
A: No it would just be the immediate family. And then when my older brother Irving got married it would be his family and his children. And it would be shorter and more in English.
Q: And what about other Jewish home rituals? Did you keep a kosher house? Did you observe Shabbat?
A: We did. We kept a kosher house in the house. And we did observe Shabbat. It’s unremarkable, that’s what people did in those days. My mother had two sets of dishes and she had two sets of Passover dishes. And I don’t know where she kept it all in that tiny little apartment. And we always had kosher food and separated the types of food. And my parents did go out to restaurants. And I know we were in California once and my father ate a Reuben because he was curious about it. My mother never let him forget it. Because it had cheese and meat. And whenever she was angry at him she’d bring up the Reuben that he ate in California.
Q: That’s funny. What about your leisure time? How did you spend your time in the summers or after school, on the weekend?
Q: Yeah you and then your parents.
A: Well, I grew up going to Revere Beach all the time. When I was a kid I went with my parents. And we sat in the Chelsea section, which was where the -- are you familiar with Revere Beach? The bandstand area. Punks Corner. So we’d sit there. And there would be some of my other relatives there.
Q: So there was a separate section for people from all different towns?
A: People from Chelsea tended to go to the same place yes. So it was Punks Corner. And the area where the bathrooms were that were going towards Winthrop. Other people went to the clock or to Point of Pines. But Chelsea people were all around Punks Corner.
Q: And what sort of attractions were there? What did you do when you were done swimming?
A: Well, the beach was wonderful at that point. Well, yeah we swam a little bit. But mostly there was an arcade then. The boardwalk. And there were all kinds of games and rides and cheap food. Joe and Nemo’s hot dogs. And soft ice cream. And it was just a fun place. And everybody was there. And we were there every day during the summer.
Q: And what about when you were a teenager? Did you continue to go back with friends?
A: Yeah I did. Yeah I’d go with friends and we’d play whist on the beach.
Q: What’s that?
A: It’s like bridge only it’s easier. Yeah, flirt, do things that teenagers did. But yeah I went there all the time with my friends.
Q: Were there any like organizations that you were involved in or youth activities?
A: Yes. I belonged to the Chelsea YM and YWHA. And it was the social center for the Jewish children. There were clubs there that we all belonged to. And then there were dances. And there was a rec room where we all hung out all the time that had a jukebox. And we were there constantly.
Q: Sounds like fun.
A: It was fun. It was wonderful.
Q: What about your parents? What did they do in their leisure time? Did they hang out with friends?
A: Yeah they played cards a lot with their friends in various houses. But there was a restaurant called the Apollo that was on Broadway. And they went there constantly. And I don’t know how -- the place didn’t stay in business, because they just -- they would order coffee or whatever. My parents weren’t drinkers. And sit around for hours and hours and hours with their friends. And there were some delis that people hung around in also. But it was mainly the Apollo that I remember. It was amazing that they -- life was so different that they didn’t mind leaving me alone in Addison Street as maybe a nine-year-old or whatever, because it was considered safe at that time.
Q: What did you and your friends do on the weekends? Do you remember?
A: Well, when we were little kids we went to the Y. When we were bigger kids we would get in our cars and go on the Lynnway and hang around at an ice cream place that everybody went to.
Q: What was it called? Do you remember?
A: Roland’s I think. Might have been. And all the teenagers hung around there. Or we would cruise around picking up boys we knew. Not boys we didn’t know. And there was a time when we just all hung around on street corners in Cary Square in Chelsea. Or we’d go to Everett and hang around and meet the Everett kids. And hanging around street corners doesn’t sound like much but we weren’t wealthy children. That was how we socialized.
Q: And what sort of changes did you see taking place in the neighborhood as you got older and then when you came back and moved to Boston? How did you see the community changing? The Jewish community?
A: Well, obviously the Jewish community moved out. I think the worst thing about the neighborhood though is automobiles. Because when I was a kid on Addison Street everybody had yards and they had fruit trees and gardens. And now people can’t live that way because they need places to park their cars. So if I walk down there now it’s sad to see all of the gardens gone because they’ve been paved over. Because people need automobiles and you have these three-family homes and so everybody can’t park out front and so there’s really no choice except to get rid of the yards and have -- that’s the worst thing about how the city appears.
Q: Do you go back to Chelsea often?
A: Not anymore. In 1990 my mother needed full-time care for Alzheimer’s and so even though I owned this condo I went back to take care of her for seven years. And so I was actually living in Carter Heights with them again. And she died in 1997 and my father wanted to move into the Cohen Florence Levine Estates. So he applied there. And I thought that I would be living back here and commuting back and forth. And he had a total mental breakdown and the beginning of his dementia. This was after he was accepted and he was on the waiting list. So I had to go back to Chelsea until he actually got into the place. And then he was so confused that I used to spend every -- how did I get into this? Every day with him. So I was in Chelsea every day. And the same when he broke his femur in June of -- gosh, it might actually be June 15th -- of 2000 and was in Spaulding for a while and ended up at Chelsea Jewish Nursing Home. And I was with him every day there. So I spent a lot of time in Chelsea. And it has a different population.
Q: Do you think a lot of the immigrants that are coming into Chelsea now are experiencing similar things?
A: Oh yeah I think so. I expect they are. I’m not there but I met a lot of the immigrants coming to Chelsea because they worked at the nursing home. And they were wonderful.
Q: Are there any other stories that you can think of about growing up in Chelsea or stories that you heard your parents tell or other relatives that you feel are just really evocative of life growing up in Chelsea at that time?
A: I should have spent more time thinking about this. I spent time going through the papers. And not time thinking about what I could talk about.
Q: That’s OK, the papers are wonderful. And all of the pictures are amazing.
End of Part 2.... back to Part 1
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