By Alan Lupo
Monday, June 12, 2006
All these years I have lived where I do without knowing I am a Mystic River Jew.
I knew I was Jewish. Why else in the spring of 1951 would I have been reading Hebrew at my bar mitzvah in a little Winthrop synagogue, then crossing the street to the Jewish community center for a couple of knishes?
But a Mystic River Jew? Who knew?
This is the name that somewhat suddenly has been thrust upon those of us who have lived in such places as East Boston, Winthrop, Chelsea, Revere, Everett and Malden. That’s fine with me, because I have been called worse things.
Indeed, in the old days, Jews, Irish, Italians and others used to call one another by some less pleasant appellations. But we managed to coexist and even learned, as our parents insisted, to “play nice,” both as kids and adults.
For example, my father Max and his bunch were engaged in a bloody street fight in 1926 with Harry Della Russo and his bunch. Years later, Max volunteered for Harry’s political campaigns. God bless America.
The point of all this is that many people do not know that Jews lived in the aforementioned communities and in such large numbers that neighborhoods such as Shirley Street in Winthrop, Shirley Avenue in Revere and Suffolk Square in Malden were American versions of shetls, the Jewish villages of old Europe.
Suffolk Square is long gone, the victim of urban renewal. Shirley Avenue boasts more Cambodian stores than Jewish outlets. Shirley Street has been a pretty desolate strip since the late 1960s, and it breaks my heart when I walk past what were once a deli, our landlord’s grocery, that community center, a package store, three kosher butcher shops and hear only the voices of a time that cannot be reborn.
This is why it is crucial that the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts and other leading lights in the Greater Boston Jewish community have decided to rehab the old chapel at the Ohabei Shalom Cemetery in Eastie and turn it into a museum to honor the thousands of Jews, many of them working stiffs who never became famous or rich, who lived in these here parts.
The cemetery, probably the oldest Jewish burial ground in Massachusetts, dates back to 1844 and has been home to more than 350 of the dearly departed. It sits at the end of Wordsworth Street, a dead-end strip of a few houses off the main drag of Bennington Street. On the other side is Dom Savio Prep, honoring St. Dominic Savio, an 18th century Italian teenager who, before he died at age 15 of tuberculosis, was reputed to have been a calming and leading influence on other teen boys.
Indeed, Italians who grew up in East Boston seem to be as excited about this project as are Jews. The older ones among them have fond memories of Jewish neighbors, but just as the Jews moved from Eastie long ago, many Italians more recently have left for suburbia, to be replaced by Latinos, Brazilians and others.
The newcomers to the Mystic River neighborhoods are doing what the Jews, Italians, Irish and others had done. They open stores, work at low-paying jobs, send their kids to the local schools, struggle with the ways of a new homeland.
It is a continuum, and Jews were part of that and so should be remembered as such. On Sunday, Sept. 10, at 10 a.m., we shall gather at that cemetery to begin the process of remembering that our beginnings were not in some leafy ’burbs, but, rather, in hardscrabble urban America.