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Norman H. Finkelstein

Full text from interview with Norman Finkelstein on July 1, 2009. Highlighted section are included in audio presentation. Audio requires QuickTime player (free download from Apple) or equivalent MP3 player installed with your browser. 

Finkelstein, Norman   Norman H. Finkelstein, a long-time instructor at Hebrew College in Boston and a retired public school librarian, is the author of 18 nonfiction books for young readers. Two of his books, Heeding the Call and Forged in Freedom won National Jewish Book Awards. His biography of Edward R. Murrow, With Heroic Truth received the Golden Kite Honor Award for Nonfiction.

   A proud graduate of Chelsea High School class of 1959, he holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from both Boston University and Hebrew College and is the recipient of Hebrew College’s Louis Hillson Memorial Prize for Excellence in Teaching. He is the series editor of the Jewish Publication Society’s acclaimed JPS Guides and is a member of The Authors Guild, the Association of Jewish Libraries and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. He lives in Framingham, Massachusetts with his wife, Rosalind (also a CHS ’59 grad). Norman is the father of three grown children and the grandfather of two wonderful grandchildren.


Part 1 –Immigration – Early Chelsea Memories – Approx. 7 minutes total.

FISHMAN:     OK.  So I’m just going to start by saying that today is July 1st, 2009.  We’re at the JCAM office.  My name is Casey Fishman.  Adina Bernstein.  And we’re interviewing Norman Finkelstein.  Finkelstein?  Finkelstein?

FINKELSTEIN:     I usually go by Finkelstein but I’ll answer to anything.

FISHMAN:     Finkelstein.  OK.  So I just wanted to start today.  If you could just tell me a little bit about your family history and background, where you were born, when you were born, how your family got to this community, yeah, so just start from there.

FINKELSTEIN:     Sure.  I was actually born in Chelsea at the Chelsea Memorial Hospital at the top of Bellingham Street.  I don’t remember that day very well.  But my parents both met in Chelsea.  My father came from Ukraine.  He was probably 13 or 14 years old and arrived in probably 1922 or 3.  My mother came later.  She arrived from Romania in 1933.  And came to Chelsea.  Now my father’s family had settled here.  My grandfather in fact came to Chelsea in the late 1890s.  And like some other immigrants he makes money to bring the other people over but then he goes back to bring the rest of the family over.  And they came piecemeal.

FISHMAN:     Your paternal grandfather.

FINKELSTEIN:     Paternal grandfather, right. In fact my paternal grandfather was one of the builders of the Elm Street Synagogue physically in 1899.  The original building.  And he goes back and he comes back with his wife.  And then the children followed maybe a year or so later.  Now his wife dies in 1925 I believe.  Just a few years after the children came.  A few years after my father came over.  My mother’s family, the story is much more interesting.  She came from an extended family.  My mother is still alive.  She’s 93.  And she at this point is the only surviving sibling of 11.  She was the baby.  And the older brothers and sister, several of them, came over on their own quite early, probably 1920 something, whatever.  And they established themselves here and then gradually began bringing over all of the other family members.  They brought the parents over separately.  In the end it was only my mother, her sister and a younger brother who remained behind in Chiplovutz, Romania.  And the two sisters came together on the Ile de France as my other always reminds me.  And a year later the remaining brother came.

FISHMAN:     Do you know where they came into?

FINKELSTEIN:    They came into Ellis Island.  In fact both sets of parents came in through Ellis Island and made their way to Chelsea by hook or by crook because that’s where families were of course.  The first of my mother’s siblings actually settled for a while in East Boston and then they bettered themselves and moved to Chelsea.  But there are still parts of the family that lived outside of Chelsea.  There was one brother for example who lived in Revere and his side of the family grew up there.  But everyone was pretty much close together. And my father’s family, there are really no other close relatives in the area except for my grandfather’s stepbrother who lived in Providence, Rhode Island.  And of my father’s siblings there were three, three sisters.  And one of them was married and lived in Brockton and had no children.  Another one lived with my grandfather on Walnut Street in Chelsea and was unmarried.  And the third was married and lived in the same house in Chelsea.  It was a six-family house and they lived on the second floor.  The grandfather lived with his daughter on one side and the married daughter, her husband and two children lived on the other side.  And they were connected by a long back porch.  So they could easily go back and forth to each other’s homes.  They basically lived in each other’s apartments.  They owned the building.  And I remember as a kid there was a dumbwaiter in the middle.  Not a dumbwaiter.  What do they call it?  An empty space.  Airspace or airshaft, that’s a good word, yeah.  In between.  And my uncle had run a bell so that if they needed each other they could just ring the bell from either apartment.  And someone would come in.  I remember that very distinctly.  My mother started off in Chelsea.  They lived first I believe on Watts Street and then moved to Central Avenue where my grandmother had an apartment.  The family was very very close, my mother’s family.  And again there were all these siblings and cousins and whatever.  And my earliest memories as a kid are things like Passover seder, which would be held in my grandmother’s house.  And it becomes like a massive catering job because there’s a cast of thousands at the seder.  And this whole very close tightly knit family experience was very nice.  It was one of the fondest memories I have of growing up in Chelsea.  And even as people got older and moved out of the city and went elsewhere they would always come back.  This was always the center, the grandmother’s house. My grandmother moved when one of the daughters and her husband bought a house on Cottage Street.  And it was a two-family house.  And my aunt and her family lived upstairs and my grandmother lived downstairs with the two unmarried sons.  One son died tragically young.  He was 49 years old, had a massive heart attack and died.  The other son continued living there until my grandmother actually died at age 88 and he then went and lived on his own still in Chelsea.  He was very active in the synagogue, the Shurtleff Street Synagogue.  And he was the president for life of the synagogue and very active in things like the Jewish National Fund and the Zionist groups.  Very very active.  My parents after they got married, when they first got married, lived in an apartment building on Fourth Street in Chelsea.  And I don’t know how well you know the Mystic Tobin Bridge, but if you take the second exit off the bridge, which is the Fourth Street exit, that apartment house was literally at that exit.  So as you --

FISHMAN:     But they had to tear down.

FINKELSTEIN:     Yeah they tore down a number of those houses.  And that’s where I spent the first four years of my life.  The only thing I remember vividly about that is the end of World War II.  And I remember standing in the vestibule of the apartment building just on the street level and crying because of all of the noise from the sirens and bells and whistles announcing the end of World War II.  So that vivid memory of that happening.  My father during the war worked at the Boston Naval Shipyard.  His education basically stopped when he graduated from the Williams School in grade nine.  And he went right to work in the wool waste industry just as a worker.  He was a wool sorter.  And during the war years he worked in the shipyard. It was probably in 1946 or ’47 that my parents bought a house on Bellingham Street.  And literally that’s where I grew up.  It was a three-decker.  And we lived in the middle floor.  My sister who’s four years younger than I came along.  And that’s where we grew up.  And again if you go up Bellingham Street today you’ll see how closely spaced the houses are.  And literally it was its own neighborhood.  Everyone knew everyone else.  The kids played on the street.  There were no play dates.  If you wanted to play you just went out and played on the street.  Go out and play in traffic.  That’s how I grew up.  That’s how everybody grew up basically back then.


End of Part 1.... continue to Part 2


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