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We spoke to 20 individuals who are first- or second-generation Americans, born into Jewish immigrant families that settled in the Greater Boston area in the early twentieth century. As children and grandchildren of immigrants, they describe the process of acculturation into American society and a generational straddling of two worlds: between the old and the new and between the religious and the secular. Whether their families followed traditional, Orthodox Jewish practice or a more Americanized Jewish cultural observance, every narrator was profoundly shaped by their Jewish home and neighborhood life.

At the same time that they share similar experiences across the neighborhoods, each narrator has a unique voice and story to tell. Listen to their full oral histories in our Digital Library and Archives.

The Narrators of Chelsea

Sara Lee Callahan

Sara Lee (Saievetz) Callahan was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1944 and grew up in Chelsea. Her parents were Rose Malatsky Saievetz (born in Chelsea) and Meyer Theodore Saievetz (born in Boston). In her career, Sara Lee worked in IT and taught at the high school and college level. With her husband, Michael Callahan, she raised two children. She now lives in Swampscott, Massachusetts. In her oral history, Sara Lee describes growing up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood; her daily interactions with neighbors, teachers, and friends; the multigenerational Jewish home that shaped her and that remains in the family today; and her belief that the triple-decker house represented the Jewish American experience—with grandparents living on the first floor, the next two generations on the second floor, and non-Jewish neighbors on the third floor. 

Sara Lee Callahan
Street in Chelsea, date unknown, Wolfson and Freedman Family Papers in the JHC archive.

"I don't feel like I ever left"

"I don’t really feel like I ever left Clark Avenue. It doesn't really matter what you physically do; it’s where your head is at. A lot of people who started out in Chelsea might be living in Marblehead or Newton or Wellesley or whatever, but they're still connected to Chelsea, because that’s what made them who they are, I really think..."

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Flora (Wembren) Selesnick on Watts Street in Chelsea, undated, Sterling and Selesnick Family Papers in the JHC archive.

"At a very young age, I knew Yiddish"

"It’s interesting, because at a very young age, I knew Yiddish totally. Part of the reason was not exceptionally nice, but my Bobie and her sister that lived in Everett were very Orthodox. They didn’t wear makeup, they had buns on their heads, and they wore the nylons with the garters below the knee. Well, on Shabbos, their younger sister...would come over, and the three of them would lie down to rest in the middle of the afternoon, and they would gab in Yiddish..."

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Chanukah at Hecht House in Dorchester, date unknown, Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Boston, Mass.) Records in the JHC archive.

"God doesn't like this"

"We used to go into the church on Clark Avenue across the street from me, and we used to put on Christmas/Hanukah programs. I remember a couple of people were singing solos, and we were on what’s like the bima in the church, and it must have been the steeple had a draft, but every time we lit the Hanukah candles, the candles would go out, and we were whispering, 'God doesn't like this.'"

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Robert Feinberg

Robert “Bob” Feinberg was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in 1931 to Mary Melamed (born 1900 in Russia) and Charles (born in 1898 in Boston). Bob grew up across from the Walnut Street Shul in Chelsea. After earning Master’s degrees from Boston College and University of Rochester, he became a nuclear physicist with General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He married and had two sons. In his interview, Bob tells of his immigrant grandparents’ experiences, and his own experience growing up during the Depression in an observant Jewish family. Among his many colorful memories and stories, Bob describes through a child’s eyes his grandmother’s funeral held in the living room, and recalls being harassed for money by another boy, Albert DeSalvo—who years later was identified as the Boston Strangler. Now living in Niskayvna, New York, Bob speaks movingly throughout his interview of the deep, lifelong impact growing up in Chelsea had on him.  

Bob Feinberg
Boy Scout Troop #2 marching in a parade in Chelsea, date unknown, image courtesy of Robert Feinberg.

"Chelsea is like my father"

"Chelsea is my home. Chelsea is my beginning. Chelsea is like my father. It is part of me. I belonged there. I grew up there. It gave me the skills, the tools, the atmosphere, the culture—very important—and the set of traditional values that I carried forward in my life..."

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Abraham and Ida Melamed and their children, circa 1905-1906, image courtesy of Robert Feinberg.

"I grew up Orthodox"

"My grandparents were Shomer Shabbos people. I grew up Orthodox up until maybe when I was 12 or so, and very close to Walnut Street Shul...You keep the Sabbath completely. You don’t put on lights, have somebody else to do it. You don’t cook..."

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Walnut Street Shul (Congregation Agudas Sholom), date unknown, image courtesy of Robert Feinberg

"It was all wooden tenement houses"

"It was all three-story wooden tenement houses, all lined up, all along the street, on the side of the Walnut Street Shul, and across the street of it. Then the street next over had the Williams School. So, we lived there. But it hasn’t changed..."

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Norm Finkelstein, Z"L

Norman “Norm” Henry Finkelstein was born in 1941 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where he also grew up. His mother was Mollie (Fox), who was born in Romania (now Moldova), and his father was Sydney Finkelstein, who was born in Kilikiyev, Poland (now Ukraine). After his Chelsea start, Norm was a teacher, librarian, and writer, and he and his wife, Rosalind, had three children. In his oral history, Norm discusses his close-knit, religiously-observant family; how the Jewish character of Chelsea impacted Jews and non-Jews alike; his long affiliation with Hebrew College’s Prozdor program; and how the city of Chelsea has changed from his childhood. Norm lived in Framingham, Mass. until his passing in 2024.

Norman FInkelstein
Mollie and Norman Finkelstein on Walnut Street in Chelsea, 1945, image courtesy of Norman Finkelstein.

"Today we would consider my family poor"

"Today we would consider my family growing up as poor; we didn’t know it back then. Because of his religious beliefs, whenever there was a Jewish holiday—and there were lots of them—he did not work. And if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. Life was very hard. My mother was a very good financial manager. No one went hungry. We ate well. We were clothed well..."

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Mollie, Linda, and Sydney Finkelstein at Bellingham Street in Chelsea, circa 1954, image courtesy of Norman Finkelstein.

"My father was a wool sorter"

"My father was a wool sorter. Back in the days before all the DuPont-created fabrics, it was wool, and wool was recycled and so forth. He was a rag picker! Down on 2nd Street in Chelsea, there were a number of these shops before one of the great Chelsea fires decimated that whole area. That was the industry. It was very hard work..."

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Norman Finkelstein on Bellingham Street in Chelsea, 1953, image courtesy of Norman Finkelstein.

"It shaped me for who I became"

"It shaped me for who I became. The fact that growing up on Bellingham Street or going to the Shurtleff School—we were exposed to people of all nationalities, of all backgrounds, and whatever. It basically allowed me, and I assume others as well, to have a freer association with all kinds of people. Growing up in Chelsea literally prepared me for life..."

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Cheryl Goldstein

Cheryl (Glassman) Goldstein was born 1950 in Winthrop, Massachusetts, and was raised in Chelsea. Her parents were Sylvia (Weisman) Glassman (born in 1917 in Newark, New Jersey) and Benjamin Glassman (born in 1916 in Chelsea). Cheryl had two children with her husband, Kenneth, and worked as an office manager. She now lives in Peabody, Massachusetts. In her interview, which husband Ken joined, she fondly recalls her grandparents, who lived in the apartment above her family's, and her love of her grandmother’s cooking. She also describes the family store that her father and grandfather ran, with its credit system, home deliveries, and familiarity with its customers. She calls the neighborhood she grew up in her “own little ghetto,” a term she uses positively to indicate an insular, protective neighborhood of Jewish family and friends. Cheryl also recalls attending Shurtleff Street Synagogue, which her grandfather helped found, and speaks of her regret that she didn’t receive more Jewish education or become a bat mitzvah. 

Cheryl Goldstein
Laying the cornerstone at Congregation Shomrei Linas Hazedek Anshei Volyn in Chelsea, 1957, Jewish Neighborhood Voices collection in the JHC archive.

"My grandfather helped build that"

"Shurtleff Street Synagogue. My grandfather helped building that. There was a cornerstone on the shul, which is sitting on my back deck. My husband surprised my mother when she was 90 and—because now it’s a Spanish church—and he had someone actually remove the cornerstone..."

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David and Becky Glassman in front of store in Chelsea, date unknown, Jewish Neighborhood Voices collection in the JHC archive.

"My father sold lox"

"It wasn’t kosher, but it was very Jewish. And the one thing that stood out and I miss terribly is my father sold lox, but not packaged. He would buy a big lox, and it would be on a slab in the store, and he would hand-slice it. And I can’t tell you how delicious, because it was thin..."

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David Glassman in front of store in Chelsea, date unknown, Jewish Neighborhood Voices collection in the JHC archive.

"We'll pay you next week"

"And when people came into the store and they didn’t have money, they said, 'We'll pay you next week.' I mean, everybody was honest. My grandfather, to keep records—you know a carton of cigarettes—he would tear up the carton, take one of those slats from the carton, write your name down, like 'Goldstein' and then he’d write how much you owed. And it was all in Yiddish. And that’s how he kept records..."

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Estelle Ringer

Estelle (Kaufman) Ringer was born in 1926 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, to Anna (Ganick, born in 1901 in Boston) and Abraham Kaufman (born in 1892 in Russia). Estelle had three children with her husband, Morris, and she now lives in Dedham, Massachusetts. In her oral history, Estelle tells the story of how her parents met and how her mother lost her citizenship status, unbeknownst to her, when they married because Estelle’s father did not yet have his citizenship. She captures her strong-willed mother and grandmother with such stories as how her immigrant grandmother marched in Boston suffragist parades, and how her mother finally decided to stop keeping separate sets of kosher dishes. Estelle describes her childhood home in close detail; and remembers her bat mitzvah at Temple Emmanuel in Chelsea, an uncommon event for girls in the 1930s. She also discusses her parents’ involvement in Zionism and their concern about what was happening to Jews in Europe during the war.  

Estelle Ringer
Harry and Flora Selesnick on Watts Street in Chelsea, date unknown, Sterling and Selesnick Family Papers in the JHC archive.

"My father's market was a kosher market"

"My father's market was a kosher market, and actually, when he came to this country, he was so young and he had no money. First came to New York, and then he had some cousin living in Chelsea, Massachusetts, by the same name—Abraham Kaufman. So he came, and that cousin had a meat market, so my father went into the same business. That's how he got into it..."

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Students and teacher in classroom at Chelsea-Revere Hebrew School in Chelsea, date unknown, Chelsea-Revere Hebrew School (Chelsea, Mass.) Records in the JHC archive.

"The house was kept as a kosher home"

"Well, the house was kept as a kosher home. We had two sets of silverware, for meat and for dairy, and the same with the dishes. For Passover, all of that was removed and we had Passover utensils. Everything was separate. I remember it was a lot of work for my mother. Then one day, my grandmother said to her, 'How absolutely ridiculous,' she said, 'to change dishes and go through all that work when you have such a clean home. It isn’t even necessary.' So giving her the right..."

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Wedding at the Beth Hamadrath Aperion Plaza in Roxbury, 1936, Sterling and Selesnick Family Papers in the JHC archive.

"She lost her citizenship"

"[My mother] was born in Boston, Massachusetts. I have her birth certificate and everything. But when she married my father, he had not yet received his final citizenship papers. There was a rule, then—there was a law—that if a woman, an American citizen woman, married an alien, she lost her citizenship. I could show you the proof of it..."

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Visit the Neighborhood


Learn about Chelsea’s Jewish history, and hear memories of the neighborhood.

Street in Chelsea, date unknown, Wolfson and Freedman Family Papers in the JHC archive.

Meet the other Narrators

Dorchester and Roxbury Narrators

Learn about the narrators, and hear selected stories of growing up in Dorchester and Roxbury.

Lynn Narrators

Learn about the narrators, and hear selected stories of growing up in Lynn.