10 Things You Might Not Know About Philly’s Jewish Quarter

The start of Hanukkah has us thinking about the city's Jewish history, which dates back to pre-Revolutionary times.

Hanukkah sneaked up on us yesterday — it’s super-early this year — which got us thinking about Jews’ part in the city’s history. There have been Jews in Philadelphia since pre-Revolutionary times — Nathan Levy was granted land for a Jewish cemetery in 1740, which led to the founding of the city’s first synagogue.

Philly’s earliest Jewish citizens came from Germany and settled mainly in Northern Liberties. But it was the Russian pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that brought three great waves of Jews to Philadelphia, to put down roots in what became known as the city’s Jewish quarter: between Second and Sixth and Spruce and Christian streets. (Many European immigrants preferred sailing to Philadelphia rather than New York’s Ellis Island because the latter was rumored to be more stringent about entry rules.)

Here, close to the Emigrant Depot on the Delaware River at Christian Street where they’d disembarked, where small houses could be rented cheaply, where the garment industry would flourish, these newcomers established a city within a city, with its own language, theaters, banks, houses of worship, restaurants and schools. With a hat tip to Harry D. Boonin‘s 1999 book The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia, this is a glimpse into this (mostly) vanished world.

  1. In the late 1800s, Philadelphia led the nation in “sweatshops,” a production system in which clothing manufacturers gave out work to contractors who sublet it to immigrant workers armed with katerinkas, Yiddish slang for sewing machines. Miserable conditions in these shops — in summer, workers moved their machines outdoors to try to avoid contracting tuberculosis — led to the rise of unions and strikes, including one in 1909 involving 15,000 young women and girls belonging to the Ladies’ Waist Makers’ Union Local No. 15.
  2. At the Wheatley Dramatic Hall at 511 South 5th Street, as many as 500 men, women and children at a time attended performances in Yiddish (The Spanish Inquisition was one popular play; 15 cents for a gallery ticket, 25 cents for a rear parquet seat and 50 cents for the front rows). An apple stand sold beer, peanuts, sour balls, fruit and pretzels between acts; the orchestra read its music by candlelight.
  3. Society Hill, in the northern part of the Jewish quarter, was named for the Free Society of Traders, an economic development company chartered by William Penn in 1682 that owned a plot of land extending from Spruce to Pine between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. A hill near Front and Pine became known as “the Society’s hill,” then “Society Hill.” The name was no longer in use by the time the Russian immigrants arrived. In the 1950s, Albert M. Greenfield, chair of the City Planning Commission that was redeveloping the area, proposed the name “Old City Urban Renewal Area,” fearing the classist connotations of “Society Hill,” but realtors loved the uppity name, and it stuck.
  4. In the 1890s, a survey of the area around the Wheatley found only 11 bathtubs for 1,900 residents — and four were being used to store firewood. The Public Baths Association was organized to provide washing facilities for the poor, including two bathhouses in the 400 block of Gaskill Street: one for men, with 26 showers and one tub, and one for women, with 14 showers and three tubs. Five cents bought you a room, a towel, soap, and hot and cold water, for yourself, your children and your clothes.
  5. At the Washington Market, a “shambles” or slaughterhouse opened in 1857 between 3rd and 5th streets on Bainbridge, each butcher was limited to selling one kind of meat: beef, pork or mutton. Each year on George Washington’s birthday, the butchers put on silk hats and paraded through town. In the Times-Philadelphia newspaper in 1887, a piece headlined “The Russian Hebrews: A Peculiar People Settled in Philadelphia” mused, “Some of them are doing a thriving business without as much as being able to form an English sentence.”
  6. On Yom Kippur in the late 1880s, an anarchist named Louis Moskovitz incited a riot by opening his grain and bean stand across the street from a synagogue at 322 Bainbridge, putting on the ritual robe and prayer shawl, and reading socialist literature. It took two patrol wagons of policemen to quell the irate Orthodox Jews (likewise clad in robes and shawls) who were incensed by his “God-blasphemy.”
  7. As a special indulgence, Kartchmans’ Bathhouses at 313-321 Monroe Street, which featured Russian baths, swimming pools, kosher mikvehs and salt baths, offered the pleytse, a “Russian massage” administered with a bundle of wet oak leaves dipped in hot, soapy water. Men often followed bathing with games of cards.
  8. Ukrainian-born photographer Elias Goldensky (1867-1943), who had a studio on the second and third floors of the Captain James Abercrombie House at 270 South Second Street, shot portraits of such celebrities as Maxim Gorky, Al Jolson and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
  9. In 1905, the Hebrew Literature Society at 310-312 Catharine Street had a gym, a 500-seat lecture hall, 4,000 books in English, Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish and German, and 700 members. Professors at Penn frequently lectured at the society on Sundays. In the early 1920s, other Ivy League schools asked on their applications, “Have you or your family ever changed your last name and if you have, what was the name before it was changed?” But Penn stood up to bigoted alumni and never posed the question, instead welcoming the children of Russian Jewish immigrants.
  10. In 1913, a real estate broker placed an ad in the Jewish Herald with the heading “The Time of Singing Is Come,” from the Song of Solomon. It enticed Jews to leave the crowded Jewish quarter and move to the “fresh air” and “beautiful country landscape” of Strawberry Mansion. Such ads were highly successful; it was largely in “the Mansion” and West Philly that the next generation of Jewish Philadelphians was raised.

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