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.
FISHMAN: Well, just to backtrack a little bit, do you know anything about their immigration experience? I don’t know if it’s something they talked about.
FINKELSTEIN: I only wish they had talked about it and I only wish I was smart enough to have asked the questions. My wife has become deeply involved in genealogy and she’s done a wonderful job with her family. We’ve taken trips to Latvia. We’ve gone to Poland and all of this. And she too says the same thing, if only she was smart enough to have asked the questions at the time. Now it’s much too late. I looked up Ellis Island records and all of that but in terms of the experience itself, there’s very little. I’d love to know how for example my mother and her sister traveled from Romania, from this little shtetl in Romania, how they made their way to Marseille where in fact they took the Ile de France to come to America. I’d love to know that. But even when I ask her now she doesn’t really want to talk about it. It’s one of these things. Oh we got there, we took a train, we went. And that’s all you get. You don’t get specifics. It’s very strange. But they did get here.
FISHMAN: And they came to Chelsea because they had family.
FINKELSTEIN: Because people had already come and already been there. Same reason that many people landed in Ellis Island and they went right to the Lower East Side because that’s where the Jews were and that’s where families were and that’s where landsleit were and there were connections. They were already. And I think Chelsea turned out to be it was the same thing.
FISHMAN: OK. If you could just describe some of the places in your neighborhood that were important to you, like landmarks, hangouts, stores, schools, synagogues?
FINKELSTEIN: Well, remember because Chelsea was so small with 1.8 square miles, everything was the neighborhood, although there were real distinctions growing up in Chelsea. Which side of Broadway you lived on for example. We lived on quote the right side of Broadway. But the other side of Broadway where the Tobin Bridge is now and that whole area was at one time a very heavily Jewish area and that really was for many Jews the first area that they went to. It was the Williams School District. We grew up in the Shurtleff School District. And then of course there are the people on the other side who grew up in the Carter School District and in Prattville. And they were considered more well-to-do. I guess to simplify things you could say that the Williams School district was lower socioeconomic. Shurtleff was somewhere in the middle. Carter was a little higher. That’s the image we always had in our minds of who we were. But in my neighborhood of course the school played a very very important role. We walked to school of course. There was no busing. And these were literally neighborhood schools so that parents were always -- mothers, not the fathers -- were involved in the PTA groups and there were activities that were around the school. There was a little store at the corner of Shawmut Street and Bellingham called Harry’s. A store probably no bigger than this room. And that was the little local grocery store. My mother would send me down to pick up a dozen eggs or bread or whatever. And there were many of these little corner stores set up throughout the city that really served a small neighborhood.
FISHMAN: Did you know a lot of the owners of these stores? Were they family friends?
FINKELSTEIN: Well, not friends, but acquaintances. And we went to school with their children. Harry Malsberg and his wife Sarah owned that store. And then if you went further down into Bellingham Square and went onto Broadway there was Promisel’s, which was the big, quote, supermarket. And we would go there for larger food requirements. Ultimately Harry’s closed. Harry went to work on the Tobin Bridge as a collector to make a living because things had been changing. And also down in Bellingham Square was a First National Supermarket, which was a large chain. So we would go there to do purchasing. My mother would send me out to buy stuff. Broadway was really the main street of Chelsea. At the foot of Bellingham Street was a delicatessen, Shapiro’s Bell Dell, Bellingham delicatessen, Bell Dell. For years -- I think I must have been in my 30s. It suddenly dawned on me that Bell Dell was not a generic name for any delicatessen. People would say -- you could be in a strange city, you could be in Waukegan and see a deli, oh, there’s a Bell Dell. It just didn’t dawn on me until I was much older. Oh, it’s not a generic name. But there were other delis in Chelsea as well. Probably the best known was Pressman’s Deli on Everett Avenue. And these places were interestingly enough not kosher. Not certified kosher. Because by the 1950s the kashruth observance of many Jews in Chelsea had just waned. They do tell me that in the old days like in the ’20s and so forth there were a few kosher delicatessens in the city. But by the time I came along they were gone, they were not there. So the other thing, the public library was a very very important place as well. And I spent a lot of time there. There was a children’s room on the bottom floor. And the adult.
FISHMAN: Still is.
FINKELSTEIN: Still is, exactly. It’s a very nice library really. Thank you, Andrew Carnegie. And they maintained it very nicely. But I remember I was in the fifth grade and I had outgrown the children’s room and so I used to force my mother to take me to the upstairs room so she could use her card so I could take books out on her card. They’re very strict about these things, very strict. And the other thing was the Chelsea Hebrew School. And there was a smaller Hebrew school at Temple Emmanuel in Chelsea, but the Chelsea Hebrew School was, quote, the professional school.
FISHMAN: And that was a communitywide --
FINKELSTEIN: That was the communitywide Hebrew school under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Jewish Education. In those days the bureau had a lot of clout in terms of curriculum. And so there were community Hebrew schools throughout the greater Boston area that were in effect organized and run -- although they were independent -- it was the Bureau of Jewish Education that dictated the curriculum, teachers, hiring, salaries and that kind of thing. And that’s all gone by the wayside.
BERNSTEIN: How did that work out, having one Hebrew school for a whole community when there were so many different levels of religiosity that you described?
FINKELSTEIN: The school itself was basically run as a traditional school in that all of the holidays major and minor were all observed. They ran Saturday services that were conducted in an almost Orthodox way. Although --
FISHMAN: Because at that point weren’t most of the synagogues Orthodox with the exception of Temple Emmanuel?
FINKELSTEIN: All of the synagogues were Orthodox except for Temple Emmanuel. Temple Emmanuel was Conservative. But even then it was really to the right, it was almost a Conservadox kind of thing except the men and women sat together. It basically ran almost like an Orthodox service, but a little more genteel than the traditional Orthodox shul. Reform was an unknown factor in Chelsea. This is not to say that everyone who lived in Chelsea was devout and Orthodox and whatever certainly. Far from it. But everyone grew up exposed to the Orthodox experience. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the public schools were closed. So even if you were not Jewish you were Jewish. Probably the vast majority of stores on Broadway which were Jewish-owned would be closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, closed.
FISHMAN: And on Shabbat?
FINKELSTEIN: On Shabbat they’d be open, yeah.
BERNSTEIN: Tell me more about this Orthodox Conservative dynamic in the Hebrew school. What did the teachers teach?
FINKELSTEIN: The teachers taught Ivrit b’Ivrit. Everything was taught in Hebrew. It was the way things were done. So even kids who did not have any kind of real religious connection or whatever, the kids went, and this was the education that you got. In terms of starting from an early age, you started grade one in Hebrew school, went up through was it grade six, seven? The teachers were, many of them, European-trained. They were Hebrew linguists. They were scholars. It’s quite amazing, the caliber of the people who were teaching in these schools. And this is the experience that the kids were exposed to. Now what happens after graduation from Chelsea Hebrew School is that many kids then ended their Jewish education. It was gone, ended. There were some of us who went on to Hebrew Teachers College, the Prozdor program, Hebrew Teachers College. But certainly we were in a minority of all our peers in Chelsea. And you have to remember too that not all of the Jewish kids in Chelsea went to the Chelsea Hebrew School. There were some that as I said went to the Temple Emmanuel school. There was a private school run by Mr. Dubrow at the Shurtleff Street Shul. And I really don’t know what kind of Jewish education kids got there. It was the kind of education a lot of kids I think ran from afterwards because it was just rote learning and that was the end of it. And then there were people, rabbis or whatever, who would give private Bar Mitzvah lessons or whatever. So there was really a mishmash. So the Chelsea Hebrew School was the central educational institution in the city but even then it did not encompass a majority of children.
FISHMAN: Did boys and girls receive the same education?
FINKELSTEIN: Yes, yes, absolutely, boys and girls received the same education. It was all equal. Mixed seating. Except for Saturday services. Now in Saturday services, which were held in the auditorium of the Hebrew school, the boys sat on one side, the girls sat on the other, and the girls did not have aliyot. So it was run as an Orthodox -- and this was really because of community sensibilities. That’s what the community was. Even though the vast majority of Jews in Chelsea were not observant and whatever, still it was that. This was the Judaism of their grandparents and their parents and whatever and even though we don’t believe in it and even though we don’t practice it still that’s what it is to be Jewish.
BERNSTEIN: That’s the Judaism we don’t do, but it has to be that one.
FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, it has to be that, right, exactly, yeah. It’s like in Israel today that if you want to get married it has to be according to the -- it’s the same sort of thing. Does it make sense? No, but that’s exactly the way it was. And the sad thing is however that as intensive as the education was in the Chelsea Hebrew School by the time the kid is in seventh grade, sixth grade, whatever it is, sixth grade, that’s it, that was the end of any kind of formal Jewish education. And that really is the sad thing.
FISHMAN: Did kids come from other neighborhoods and other communities to the Chelsea Hebrew School?
FINKELSTEIN: No, because every surrounding community had its own Hebrew school basically run through the Bureau curriculum. So there was a Malden Hebrew School, an Everett Hebrew School. I don’t know if there was a Revere. I really don’t know. They must have had something. But each community just ran its own.
FISHMAN: And what did you and your friends do after school, on the weekends? I’ve heard a lot of people talking about walking up and down Broadway, and that was the Friday night activity.
FINKELSTEIN: Oh yeah, that was a popular sport, didn’t cost much. Yeah, it didn’t cost much, yeah. You’d walk up and down Broadway. You’d stop for an ice cream or something. Then there were the movie theaters. The Olympia and the Broadway. And there was another one. There were three movie theaters.
FINKELSTEIN: The Strand, yeah, the Strand. But the Strand was considered, how should we put it, low end. There are all kinds of stories about the uncleanliness of the Strand. And to tell you the truth, to be very honest, I never set foot in the Strand. The Olympia was where we went. And that basically was entertainment. Now you have to remember my growing up was not typical of many of my peers.
FISHMAN: How so?
FINKELSTEIN: Because by the time I was in the seventh grade I was already going to Prozdor at Hebrew Teachers College. And Prozdor in those days was five days a week, two hours during Monday through Thursday, four hours on Sunday. I did not have a life. And the Prozdor experience became my life. Here I am years later. I’m now into my 29th year of teaching at Prozdor. So I spent all my life connected with Hebrew College.
FISHMAN: What do you teach at Prozdor?
FINKELSTEIN: History. I do history courses. I’ve been doing that for the last 29 years. So I spent four years at Prozdor and then another four years going to Hebrew College -- Hebrew Teachers College at that point. So you take those eight years and add them to my 29, boy, that’s a lot of time. So my experience growing up was not quite similar --
FISHMAN: Was atypical.
FINKELSTEIN: Typical of my friends and classmates that I went through Chelsea High School with.
BERNSTEIN: What do you think is a typical experience?
FINKELSTEIN: The typical experience. Probably my friends at Chelsea High as we got older, there’d be a lot of activity at the YMHA, which was the central place.
FISHMAN: Were you involved in the YMHA at all?
FINKELSTEIN: Very minimally, because again I had no time. There were the boys’ clubs, the Clovers and the Weiners, AZA groups.
FISHMAN: These were all Jewish groups.
FINKELSTEIN: All Jewish groups, right. And I was a Whiner. But even then I could not go to many meetings because they’d do a lot of stuff on Sunday mornings and Sunday mornings I was in Brookline. So that would keep kids busy. Again some kids got involved in sports, not that many, but some kids did get involved in sports. But it was basically stuff through the Y. The Y was that center that kept the Jewish kids together.
FISHMAN: Just moving on to a new topic, I want to talk about your home life a little bit. Can you describe -- I don’t remember which house -- the one on Bellingham Street, that’s the house you grew up in. So if you could just describe that home and then also just your family customs and just a little bit about your home life.
FINKELSTEIN: My father was religious. And this became -- this was a great difficulty, because if you’re religious and you don’t work on all of the Jewish holidays, money was a problem. We were not rich people. Far from it. My parents owned the house and it was basically paycheck to paycheck in terms of existence. My mother was and still is very conscious of money and how you spend. But to her the main thing was education for her children. And literally this whole Yiddishe Momme thing, that was my mother. So we were never hungry, we ate very well, and we were never really lacking for things. But on the other hand my mother would really watch her pennies so that she could afford to pay tuition to send two kids to Prozdor for example or anything dealing with education. Piano lessons. I had elocution lessons for heaven’s sakes. My sister had dance lessons and ballet and whatever else she did. So my mother always made sure that there was money for this. So with us for example Friday night was Friday night at home. So I generally did not go out on a Friday night. My mother was more liberal and still is today, a little more liberal than my father. But my father was open to everything. So for example when we got our first television the question was do we watch television on Shabbat. And the answer was why not, why not. Do we turn the lights on and off, sure. Except for Yom Kippur. And I remember very clearly on Erev Yom Kippur my father would go through the house and make sure that whatever lights -- we were not going to turn lights on Yom Kippur. No radio. No television, whatever. We tore the toilet paper. All of that. Just for Yom Kippur. But on Shabbat no problem. We turn the light. But still my father went to shul every Saturday.
FISHMAN: Where did he go?
FINKELSTEIN: The Elm Street Shul. This was the shul that he had grown up in in effect. This is where my grandfather, who was a melamed, he was a teacher, he was not an ordained rabbi, but he performed for example on the High Holidays -- this is actually before I was born -- they would have two services at the synagogue. The main synagogue service and an auxiliary service downstairs. He always led the auxiliary service downstairs. Or he always davened shacharis almost every Saturday. I remember vividly. So I would go to shul with my father almost every Saturday and sit with my grandfather and that would be that. And that tradition really continued with my father after my grandfather died.
FISHMAN: Where was the Elm Street Synagogue located? On Elm and --
FINKELSTEIN: Elm and Everett Avenue. It sat in a corner. In the center of the road. There was like -- the roads parted. So Everett Avenue went this way, Elm Street went this way, and there was an island. It made an island. And the synagogue sat in a very very prominent place. It was a magnificent building. It just tore my heart when they tore it down. It was terrible. It was just a beautiful beautiful building. It was simple but it was prominent. And it stood there in the center. And the interior itself was quite beautiful. Painted walls with murals, painted ceiling, beautiful chandeliers. It was absolutely a lovely lovely lovely building.
And that’s another story. Urban renewal took that down when there was one of many great Chelsea fires.
FISHMAN: In the ’70s?
FINKELSTEIN: In the ’70s, right, yeah. And at that point the congregation had grown so small. Ultimately they moved, by the way, to the Chelsea Hebrew School. And held services there on a daily basis. And on yuntif as well. But it’s not the same.
FISHMAN: Do you remember who the rabbi was at the Elm Street Synagogue.
FINKELSTEIN: The Elm Street Synagogue did not have a rabbi all my years. There was a shames, the reverend Scheinfeld, and he basically ran the services. But there was no rabbi. There was however a cantor, Gedalia Bagard, and he had a magnificent voice. He then moved to Temple Emmanuel later on when things were getting a little low in attendance at the Elm Street shul, whatever. He went off and became the cantor at Temple Emmanuel till, well, basically the end of his life. And so that would be Saturday. Normally coming home from shul we’d stop at my grandfather’s house, which was on the way on Walnut Street. And the sisters would prepare a little snack or whatever, the kiddush. And then my father and I would go home. We’d have lunch. And that was basically it.
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