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.
So you can see I did not have a real life when it came to the Shabbos. Later on I started when I was still at Hebrew Teachers College working at the Chelsea Hebrew School and so I was in high school at this point and I helped lead the Saturday morning services at the Hebrew school and they even started calling me in as a substitute teacher if someone weren’t coming in. I would get a call in the high school in the days before cell phones and I’d get a message from the office and I’d show up at the Chelsea Hebrew School afterwards and sub whatever. So I started teaching. I was still in high school doing that. But going back to the home life, the home life was very comfortable. For many people in Chelsea, you probably hear this over and over again as you talk to people, we were poor but we didn’t know it. They were rich lives, they really were. And people really didn’t lack for anything.
Our family did not own an automobile. I don’t know how common or uncommon that was for the period. Probably uncommon. But we did not own an automobile. It was probably financial reasons that we did not. The other thing, because of the extended family, for example on weekends, on Sundays, whatever, one of the sisters would call and we would always go out with one of the relatives to the beach or – but most of the time during the summer going to the beach was a very simple matter. We would take our blankets and food and whatever and go down to Bellingham Square and take the trolley to Revere Beach and that was it. And that’s what we did. During the summer when I was younger my mother would take my sister and take me and that was it, a trolley ride to Revere Beach.
FISHMAN: Revere Beach was your form of leisure in the summer.
FINKELSTEIN: That was it. That was our vacation. In fact it was the only vacation. We did not do vacations. My sister ultimately -- I always joke my sister was an only child. My sister did end up going to Camp Yavneh for a couple of years when she was -- she also went to Prozdor at Hebrew College as well and whatever. But I never went to summer camp. I ended up actually probably when I was in the ninth grade actually working parts of the summer in Boston for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society as an office boy. The longtime director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society Helen Alpert was my uncle’s dear friend. They were dear friends for 50 years but never got married. But we always referred to her as our aunt Helen. She was a very very nice person, very important in the Boston Jewish community. And so I would go and help in the office and become the messenger and all that. It was fascinating. I loved it because I got to explore parts of Boston. I got to visit offices of the people that they dealt with. It really was wonderful. Literally I got an education doing these things. Going into Boston just during the year was no big deal. You went down to Bellingham Square and you had two ways of getting into Boston, two different lines. And either going over the Mystic Bridge or going the other way through East Boston. And within 15 minutes you were in downtown Boston, no big deal. And so went into Boston an awful lot. Now I live in Framingham. And we made sure that when our kids were growing up they could be independent and get into Boston. A little more difficult, but get in on their own. My kids have friends who grew up with them in Framingham to whom a trip to Boston was akin to taking a trip to New York City. It was like how do you get to Boston, all of this stuff. But here so we grew up literally with the museums and the libraries and the theaters and the shopping and the whole nine yards. Boston was our backyard. Chelsea was so close. It was just ten, 15 minutes away. You were in downtown Boston.
FISHMAN: What about your parents’ leisure time? What did they do with their friends? Do you ever remember them...?
FINKELSTEIN: Oh yeah. My father worked.
FISHMAN: What did he do?
FINKELSTEIN: As a wool sorter. And he even worked on Sundays when it was illegal, because of Massachusetts blue laws. But most of my early childhood growing up I remember he was not around on Sundays, because to make a living, because he didn’t work on Shabbat, he didn’t work on all of the Jewish holidays. He didn’t whatever. And so you have to make a living. And so basically his job as he saw it was to work and supply money for the family. My mother at that point did not work at all. Later on she did. When the children were all out of the house she went to work as a nursing aide at Mount Auburn Hospital and worked there for a long time, maybe 20 years. But before that while the kids were growing up her job was at home. And so my father worked. He went to work surreptitiously on Sundays. He always carried a lunchbox during the week, one of these black lunchboxes. On Sundays he could not carry the lunchbox because that would be a tip-off to the police that he was actually going to work. So he carried a little bag or something, whatever. And all of these wool waste shops were located on the other side of Chelsea, the Williams School District, Second Street and so forth. Just if you drove down those streets in those days you’d be appalled. It was like Slumsville USA with one little dinky shop after another. They looked terrible. The streets were rutted. It was just a terrible, terrible thing. But he would do this. He would walk to work every day including Sundays. So Sundays were quiet days for us. Most times we’d go off with one of the relatives to the beach or something like that. But sometimes we just stayed at home and whatever. It was very quiet. Quiet existence. Lunch bag on Sunday, right. And I remember he used to come home on Sunday when he worked. He would come home like around 3:00 or 4:00. And when we were home I’d be waiting for him to come home. And this was before we got a television. And I remember the old radio, one of these old real console floor radios, and I remember on Sundays at 3:00 listening to “The Shadow.” Which means absolutely nothing to you. But it was one of these radio mysteries. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows. Anyway that would keep me occupied on a Sunday afternoon.
FISHMAN: What about interfaith relations in Chelsea? It seems like a lot of the people that you were friends with were Jewish even from public school.
FINKELSTEIN: But not exclusively. But not exclusively.
FISHMAN: OK. So tell me a little bit about that.
FINKELSTEIN: And the friendships all revolved around classmates, school. And neighbors of course. So we lived in a neighborhood. But the interesting thing about Chelsea is there were not ghettos as such. And even on Walnut Street where my father grew up there were Polish neighbors. In fact there’s a big Polish community in Chelsea. There were Polish neighbors and Italian neighbors and Irish neighbors. Growing up on Bellingham Street next door were the McLaughlins and Skippy McLaughlin, one of my friends growing up. It really was a nice mixture of people. When I was still in the Shurtleff Elementary School, which went through grade nine, we started a club, the Musketeers. And basically it included pretty much all the boys in my class, which included non-Jews as well. But the vast majority of people we associated with were Jewish simply because these were our classmates and at least for me the way schools were divided back then, classes were divided, it was done by I guess ability, so that for example if you started in -- there was always a high, high second, high third, high fourth, high fifth, whatever. And I would say that probably 80% of the kids in these high classes were Jewish. And so that’s basically who you associated with.
Even going through junior high school in seventh, eighth and ninth grade it was the same thing too. There were these divisions, 71, 72, 73, 74, 81, so 81, 71, 91 were the highest. And then you would go to high school and you would be tracked, whether it was the college course, then there was a lower called the academic course, and so forth and so on. And so I was always in the high whatever and in the college course as well. So basically through Shurtleff School I was with the same kids, including my future wife, from second grade on.
FISHMAN: Did you know her then?
FINKELSTEIN: Oh yeah sure of course. In fact we went to a Young Judaea dance together in the fourth grade, yeah.
FISHMAN: Did you keep in touch throughout all those years or did you reconnect later on?
FINKELSTEIN: Yeah informally, informally, until -- we both went to BU undergraduate. We would see each other, give each other rides home and this and that, because she lived at school for a couple years but I lived at home. And then graduate school at BU as well. I needed to take a course on statistics and I break out into hives thinking about statistics, math and whatever, and so I walk into the classroom and there she was. And the rest of course is history.
FISHMAN: What were you studying?
FINKELSTEIN: Education. I was getting a master’s degree in educational media at the time. And she was a Spanish teacher. She was getting her master’s degree also in teaching foreign languages.
BERNSTEIN: So I noticed that you asked about interfaith relations. Obviously that’s a bit of an anachronistic word. But how did you think of those kind of interactions at the time?
FINKELSTEIN: We didn’t. Literally we didn’t. I’m Jewish. Skippy is Catholic.
FISHMAN: And there was no tension between these various immigrant groups?
FINKELSTEIN: No. Religious, no. There really --
BERNSTEIN: Did you understand their religion?
FINKELSTEIN: No, no. But non-Jewish friends came to my Bar Mitzvah. I don’t remember ever going to any of their religious things though. I don’t remember that at all. But like I said before if you grew up in Chelsea even if you weren’t Jewish you were Jewish. Everyone understood this. But the community was really mixed up. In other words you would have Irish and Polish and Jewish all living next to each other in the same communities.
FISHMAN: And your parents all had friends that --
FINKELSTEIN: My parents’ friends however were all Jewish. My mother for years -- there was this running bridge club called the Jolly Club. And I think she’s the only surviving member at this point of the Jolly Club. And they would meet once a week in each other’s homes and this went on for years and years and years and years. My father did not belong to -- he was involved in the labor movement. He was for years, decades, he was the secretary treasurer of the wool sorters’ union, the local in Chelsea. So he was involved with that, so there were meetings like once a week or whatever. And that’s basically what his activity was. Keep him occupied in his spare time, as if he had spare time. For him it was work, that was it, that was life. And I think it was similar to a lot of the working men in Chelsea at the time. There was really no life beyond work, no matter what that work was.
BERNSTEIN: When did you as a Jewish boy, you said it was like Jews and Irish and Polish. Like what commonalities bonded you if you were in different school classes and all these things?
FINKELSTEIN: That you were neighbors, you lived close by, because you’d go out on the street and you’d play stickball or whatever with whoever was around and this and that. And it was mainly school. Really didn’t go far afield from your own little neighborhood and your own small group of friends and the kids that you played with. But again because it’s such a close-knit thing you knew everybody. In other words there weren’t like strangers. So even if you didn’t associate personally with certain kids they knew you and you knew them.
BERNSTEIN: So maybe we wouldn’t have such a contemporary problem nowadays with interfaith relations if the kids played stickball in the street.
FINKELSTEIN: Well yeah this is probably true. This is very very true. But people got along. It’s unlike -- you hear stories from other communities for example. The Blue Hill Avenue grouping, the tensions between Jews and the Irish. Real violence. We never had that in Chelsea.
FISHMAN: Why do you think that is? Why was Chelsea such an open environment?
FINKELSTEIN: Because it was just close-knit. Because of the small geographic area. And the fact that people knew one another. That I think made a difference. Not saying that there was no anti-Semitism. I remember there was an old man who lived on the street. He had a house that to me it looked like Mount Vernon. It sat up there. Apparently he’d been there for a long time and his family had been there for a long time in this house or whatever. And I remember on a Sunday -- that was the day my father would tinker around the house when he was not working, or during his two weeks’ summer vacation, which he would spend tinkering around the house, fixing the roof or fixing this and that, painting, or whatever. And I remember distinctly he was doing some outside work, he was painting or something like that, and the other gentleman was coming home from church or whatever, and he called out to my father, “Don’t you know it’s the Lord’s day?” That’s the only experience. That’s the only thing I remember of all of that.
BERNSTEIN: How did your father respond?
FINKELSTEIN: He didn’t.
FISHMAN: And when did you leave Chelsea? You lived at home during college.
FINKELSTEIN: Lived home during college. And all that while I was teaching at the Chelsea Hebrew School. And when I got married in ’67 we took an apartment. My wife and I were both teaching at the time at Chelsea High School. She taught Spanish, I taught German in adjoining classrooms. And when we got married I was the only teacher who’d have his lunch served to him by his wife every day. We moved into a brand-new apartment building in Chelsea not far from the high school. And we lived there for four years and we had one child at that point. And my kid who lives in Pittsburgh still revels in the fact that he was born in Chelsea. Has this close attachment to Chelsea. Because we’d go back and forth with the kids to visit the grandparents who both continued to live in Chelsea for a while.
FISHMAN: Does your mother still live in Chelsea?
FINKELSTEIN: No, oh, no. My mother lives in the Ulin House in Brighton, senior citizen housing, Jewish community housing. Where was I?
BERNSTEIN: Son’s special attachment to Chelsea.
FISHMAN: You lived in that apartment building.
FINKELSTEIN: Lived in that apartment building. And then I left Chelsea High School and got a job in the Brookline Public Schools. And I commuted for one year from Chelsea to Brookline and then we said it’s time to move out and all of that. It’s just time to move out. And my first choice would have been Brookline because I’d spent so many years in Brookline at Hebrew College and then now here I am working in the Brookline Public Schools. So we went, we met with a realtor, and we spent about 20 minutes with the realtor. We all had a good laugh. And then we made our way westward along Route 9 and ended up in Framingham.
FISHMAN: Can you talk a little bit about how Chelsea changed over the years and the decline of the Jewish community?
FINKELSTEIN: Well, the Jewish community declined voluntarily. As people started making money, the next generation getting an education. And you have to remember that Chelsea High School was almost like a prep school for Jewish kids in the Ivy League. It really was quite amazing that out of this particular school there turned out such a number of Jewish kids who went on to fame and fortune in academia, the business world and whatever. There was a certain drive. And I just find it amazing that basically Chelsea is an inner city. It’s part of the inner city. And out of this one high school you had a whole several generations of kids who came out and really succeeded in America in all kinds of fields from doctors to lawyers to businesspeople. Whatever profession you would want to think of. And so --
FISHMAN: What was it about the community that was able to foster that kind of drive?
FINKELSTEIN: It was the feeling, and I don’t think anybody ever came out and said so, but it was the feeling, this inner thing, that the way to better yourself in America is education, that’s what’s going to get you out of Chelsea. Because the idea was we love Chelsea, OK, but the dream was to get out of Chelsea, OK? And this is what happened. And once people started becoming financially secure, the succeeding generations started moving voluntarily. It’s not that they were being thrown out.
FISHMAN: When was this?
FINKELSTEIN: Oh, I think it started right from almost the beginning. But it’s really in the ’50s that this really takes hold. Because by the ’50s you now have a generation of American-born kids, and because I remember walking up and down Broadway, and all you would hear would be Yiddish or English with heavy Yiddish accents. It’s the children of these people who began moving out.
BERNSTEIN: Where did they all go?
FISHMAN: Where did they go?
FINKELSTEIN: Oh, they moved to the North Shore in large numbers. Why? Because it was there. And it was on this side of the Mystic River Bridge. So they moved to places like Swampscott and Peabody and Marblehead. And it wasn’t unique to Jews, however. You have to remember that what’s going on in the country at this point after World War II is the growth of suburbia and the Jews of Chelsea were not immune to this as well. Just as the Jews in Roxbury and Dorchester and Mattapan started gravitating to Brookline and to Newton, Chelsea Jews just stayed on their side of the ocean, their side of the river, and just went north. And so the population began seriously declining in the ’50s and the ’60s.
FISHMAN: And when did the Hebrew school close?
FINKELSTEIN: Hebrew school closed in the -- let me see. I started teaching in Brookline in 1970. So I would say in the late ’60s. They may have gone on into the early ’70s. I honestly don’t remember. But they closed along around that time because again the Jewish population had really dropped, really dropped. I remember when our kids were younger we would take them to visit the grandparents in Chelsea. One day my kid pops up and he says, “Chelsea, that’s just for nanas and papas, isn’t it?” And the kid was right at that point because that’s about the only people left in Chelsea. There really weren’t any young Jewish people left in Chelsea, there were just the old-timers.
FISHMAN: Well, there weren’t young Jewish people but new immigrant groups continued --
FINKELSTEIN: There were new immigrants who were coming in, exactly. And there were a lot of Asian people, Vietnamese. There started to be a swell of Hispanic people. Puerto Rico was well-represented. And today if you go into Chelsea of course it’s like a little United Nations with a lot of Hispanic Central American people there. The thing that we notice as we go to Chelsea, and like many Chelseaites, if we’re in the area we have to swing by to just go up and down the streets again. And we do that and we notice that the housing stock, the same houses that were there when I was there, have gotten like new life to them. People have taken pride. So Chelsea has been a city welcoming different immigrant groups. So the Jews were there, the Italians and the Greeks and the Poles. And now the Asians and the Hispanics are coming into the same housing stock and rejuvenating it and giving it new life. It’s interesting. The thought hit me that people think of Chelsea and think well it’s high crime and the drugs and all of that. Well, we may not have had drugs in Chelsea back growing up, but there was an element of crime in there as well. You could go down to sections of barrooms on Fifth Street and those areas and you could arrange deals with people who would be willing to break some legs for you. That was a known fact. Before the lottery if you wanted to gamble it was all illegal gambling and there were many a bookie running around Chelsea, many Jewish bookies. You could place bets on horse races and so forth in certain barrooms. And you wanted to get some stolen goods, well, you knew where to go. It was that kind of thing. But we didn’t do -- there weren’t any real -- there weren’t gangs and there weren’t the violence and that kind of thing. But so things have shifted today.
BERNSTEIN: So everyone got along very very well but there was plenty of like gambling and --
FINKELSTEIN: Well, yeah, but it was very friendly, it was very nice. It was a nice activity. Sure. One of my uncles used to patronize Louie the bookie quite a bit.
BERNSTEIN: These leg-breaking people, can you tell me about them?
FINKELSTEIN: Well, if you for example owed a lot of money to your bookie, they would have to tell you that this was not a good thing to do. And the message was generally you’d get beaten up or something of that sort. Didn’t happen very often, but it did happen. But I should have mentioned there was another place. Right in Bellingham Square there is the building that Shapiro’s Bell Dell was in called the Labor Lyceum Building, and it was an office building. And meeting where different unions had their offices and so forth and so on. But on the top floor it was like a social club where men would go to play cards, a lot of poker. And one of my uncles was a devotee of that place that spent a lot of time at the Labor Lyceum playing poker.
FISHMAN: What was it called?
FINKELSTEIN: The Labor Lyceum. Lyceum, it’s an English word.
FINKELSTEIN: That is correct.
FINKELSTEIN: Lyceum, yeah, although we called it the Labor Lyceum. That was the pronunciation.
FISHMAN: Is there anything else you want to add that I haven’t mentioned? Anything else you can think of?
FINKELSTEIN: Oh there probably is. There probably is. The thing is with time nostalgia really takes over and for example because my wife and I are both members of the same graduating class of Chelsea High School in September we have our 50th high school reunion. And these reunions are taken seriously. We have classmates coming in from all over the country. There was something about the bonds. I’m not just talking about our Jewish classmates. Talking about everyone. It’s really quite amazing. I imagine if you go to Brooklyn, if you go to somewhere else, people will tell you the same kinds of stories. But I only have that Chelsea experience to refer to. And I tell you that it’s a very very close kind of feeling that people have about growing up in the city. And so you might ask if they loved it so much why did they leave. That’s another story.
BERNSTEIN: There’s two questions that you wanted to ask that you didn’t ask. And the first was about interfaith dating between religions in community.
FINKELSTEIN: When I was growing up there was a little of that. And actually there were a couple of marriages of high school classmates of mine who were interfaith. But not that many. And that was it. Were the parents happy? Probably not. But it did occur. And again it was because of the proximity. People together all the time. But I would say that on the whole growing up in the ’50s although there may have been some interdating the vast majority of the Jewish kids got married to other Jews. It was just that’s what you did, it was accepted.
FISHMAN: OK. Did you have another question you wanted?
BERNSTEIN: And how do you feel about the world today compared with the world you grew up in? What’s greatly advanced? What’s terrible?
FINKELSTEIN: Oh well, I’m not one of these people that say oh the good old days, boy, they were really -- in fact, I wrote a book called “The Way Things Never Were: The Truth about the Good Old Days,” written about the ’50s actually. And the basic stuff I said in the book is the same stuff that I believe. Yeah, life was wonderful back then, we didn’t know any different, but to tell you the truth I wouldn’t trade that life for life today. Whether we’ve made advances in medicine and technology, whatever it is, OK? I love it. That’s wonderful. It’s called progress. And so I’m content to live in both worlds, the nostalgic world of the past, but the nice world of the present. And I’m certainly not one of those people to say oh how wonderful things were back then, because if you stop and look at the way at least I grew up in a poor household and whatever, I don’t think I’d want to duplicate that again and I don’t think I would want my children to have that same experience. So we love the nostalgia. And when we meet with our friends who grew up with us in Chelsea there’s probably not a time goes by that Chelsea does not come up. And we’re talking about that Chelsea, not today’s Chelsea, and talking about that and how wonderful and things. But if I were to ask any one of them would you like to go back and live through that, the answer would be a resounding no. That was the past. It was very nice. It helped turn us into who we became. And now we are who we are.
BERNSTEIN: So what do you think is great in terms of progress in the Jewish community and what are you nostalgic for that it’s sad that it’s lost?
FINKELSTEIN: The thing is today the Jewish community is so fragmented. But then we’ve always been fragmented. The reason that there are 18 shuls back in Chelsea in the 1930s, all of them Orthodox, was the fact that the Jews still couldn’t get along. And if you were Russisch or you were Palisch or you were a Litvak, you wouldn’t associate with these other, that’s why they started these --
FISHMAN: Just to interrupt really quickly, is that the official number, 18?
FINKELSTEIN: 18, yes.
FISHMAN: OK, because I’ve heard a lot of different numbers.
FINKELSTEIN: Yeah. Because some of them were little storefront little shuls that started because there was a fight in the larger congregation so they moved out. But that’s still happening today within the Jewish world, as you know. But the thing is growing up in Chelsea even if you were not observant you knew something about Jewish practice, whatever. You maybe didn’t know much about Jewish history, maybe you didn’t know much about the study of the Bible or holy texts but you knew you were Jewish. You heard Yiddish on the streets. There were still signs on butcher shops that were in Yiddish and Hebrew. You knew that. That you don’t have today. That does not exist today. And it’s a different world. I mentioned a couple times earlier the thing that I really feel badly about is the fact that for most of my peers they were not grounded in any kind of formal Jewish learning beyond sixth grade. And I look at for example Prozdor today. When I went to Prozdor in all four years there were probably altogether a total of 180 students from all of greater Boston.
BERNSTEIN: Did you want to go to Prozdor or did you want to play with the other kids and have your own free time?
FINKELSTEIN: I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I liked going to Prozdor. I enjoyed it. I had a whole group of friends from Prozdor. For those of us who were going at that point it was our life, because we were with each other for so much of the time. But today there are like 800, 900 Prozdor kids in a program that’s a lot different, but still it provides for -- so that’s like a positive as far as I’m concerned. That really is a positive, because if we had those kinds of numbers back then the Jewish community might have turned out a lot different in the greater Boston area in terms of intermarriage rates, in terms of just Jewish knowledge. So today we look at the Me’ah program, you look at Lee Wood (sp?) programs around the world. These are wonderful signs. These things did not really exist back then, and I only wish they had.
BERNSTEIN: The other question I have, and I recognize it’s a big question that’s coming out of left field, but I’m European, I’m British via Germany, and I can’t not ask this. What about the Shoah and your identity?
FINKELSTEIN: That’s a really good question. In 1945 I was four years old. What I remember is starting in the late ’40s and the early ’50s new people coming to Chelsea, people who spoke Yiddish, people with tattoos on their arms, and that was it. That was the first whatever. Going to the Chelsea Hebrew School as a kid back then they would every once in a while have films that they would show us of DPs coming to Israel, that kind of thing. That’s my first connection. It wasn’t until really much later that I really begin to look at and understand what the Shoah was about. But I wasn’t alone. This was a typically American Jewish thing. In the ’50s really no one talked about it. No one really mentioned it. The DPs, the survivors, those who came, well, they were here, they came from Europe, that was a tough time. And that was it. It’s only like in the early ’70s that we begin to actually try to --
FISHMAN: Deal with it.
FINKELSTEIN: Deal with it and develop a memory of the Shoah.
BERNSTEIN: Well, after the Eichmann trial that’s when all of the cultural words for talking about it started.
FINKELSTEIN: Right. The only thing, and this is from my wife’s family. We on my side obviously lost distant relatives but most of my immediate family, in other words my mother’s immediate family, my father’s immediate family, they were already here. It was only later that you begin to learn oh yeah yeah we had cousins who lived in -- with my wife’s family however there were survivors. And my wife remembers her mother putting together like care packages to send over to the relatives there. But that wasn’t me. That was her. So I’ve got to say basically growing up I don’t remember anything about -- very little about the Shoah. Whereas today of course we teach our kids about it at really an early age. That was one reason my first book was called “Remember Not to Forget,” which is a book about the Holocaust. And that was published in 1974. And at that point there were very few books for kids on the Holocaust. So I guess my awakening regarding the Holocaust actually begins like in probably the ’60s. Even though you know it happened. But today Holocaust identity and Israel I guess are the two major factors that unite most Jews or which Jews are more involved, perhaps even more involved than synagogue, whether it’s Israel or remembering Holocaust.
BERNSTEIN: Thank you very much.
FINKELSTEIN: Oh, you’re very welcome.
FISHMAN: Thank you.
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