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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 Dorchester and Roxbury

Elaine Baskin

Elaine (Kellem) Baskin was born in Boston in 1935 to Dorothy (Giller) and Samuel Kellem. Her parents were born in Malden, Massachusetts, and Ukraine, respectively. Elaine lived in Roxbury until she was five, when her family moved to Dorchester. As an adult, she earned a Master’s in Education and raised three children. In her oral history, Elaine recalls growing up in a Jewish area of Dorchester in intimate detail, describing, for example, walking to school by herself at a young age and using her pocket money to buy a pickle on her way home. She also vividly brings to life her grandparents and others of their generation who spoke Yiddish and followed Orthodox tradition. She recounts how her father, who had come to the United States in 1921 and had an eighth-grade education, was successful enough as a tradesman to move the family to Newton in the late 1940s, following the general socioeconomic and geographical pattern of Jewish families of the time. Her parents went on to co-found Temple Reyim in Newton. Elaine currently lives in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Elaine Baskin
Elaine (Kellem) Baskin with doll, 1942, image courtesy of Elaine Baskin.

"I thought everybody spoke Yiddish when they got older"

"The old people all spoke Yiddish. In fact, I assumed at some age, and I don’t know what age it was, that every woman had gray hair and tied it in a bun, in the back, and spoke Yiddish. Why she forgot English and spoke Yiddish, I don’t know, but I guess all the older women I knew spoke Yiddish. Instead of thinking that was their language, I just thought everybody spoke Yiddish when they got older! I do remember that. So, I kind of grew up bilingual..."

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Elaine (Kellem) Baskin and Celia Ida Giller in Roxbury, date unknown, image courtesy of Elaine Baskin.

"My father always had an accent"

"My father always had an accent, but I didn’t know that. Somebody called it to my attention years later, saying, “Your father has an accent.” I said, “No, he doesn't.” But with my grandmother, she thought she was speaking English, and because I was used to hers—but I would have people say, “What is she speaking?” It was a combination of English and Yiddish..."

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Elaine (Kellem) Baskin in Roxbury, 1941, image courtesy of Elaine Baskin.

"Everybody was on the same financial step"

"Dorchester was an easy city. Everybody was friendly, everybody was on the same financial step. As far as I knew. There was no flouting of “My dress is better than your dress.” When we got to Newton—and that was junior high—I was not terribly comfortable. I thought the people had much more money than I, lived in bigger houses. You know, the whole thing..."

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Abbot Gilman

Abbot Lawrence Gilman was born in 1953 in Boston, and grew up in Dorchester. His parents were Miriam (Firger), born in 1913, and Max Michael Gilman, born in 1908. Abbot went to Northeastern University and became a technology entrepreneur. He and his wife, Lisa, have two children, and they now divide their time between Boston, Cape Cod, and Florida. Abbot’s oral history relates how he was named for a Harvard president; his grandparents’ migration from the North and West End immigrant neighborhoods of Boston to Dorchester; the vibrant neighborhood life in Dorchester; the influence of Hecht House and youth groups in his teen years; his love of basketball—and the ethnically diverse makeup of his Hecht House basketball team.

abbot gilman
Stone family gathering in Roxbury, date unknown, Elihu Stone Papers in the JHC archive.

"You need to know what parish you were from"

"The one interesting common thread, however, is whenever you tell someone that you're from Dorchester, if they're not Jewish, they want to know what parish you're from. So, you need to know what parish you were from. I was from St. Brendan’s and then St. Gregory’s. That's where I happened to live. Most people from Dorchester are Catholic, or they're not Jewish; they don’t really remember or recognize that there was a Jewish population in Dorchester!"

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First period campers and staff at Hecht Pioneer Camp, 1939, Boston YMHA-Hecht House Records in the JHC archive.

"They experienced antisemitism"

"...We just had our 50th high school reunion...We had a decent turnout. But there were a few Jewish guys that went to high school with me, who I know very well, who we're good friends with. Went to their weddings, and they went to my wedding. And they didn’t want to go to the reunion because they felt that their experience wasn’t the same as mine. They experienced antisemitism..."

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Playing basketball at Hecht House in Dorchester, circa 1930s, Boston YMHA-Hecht House Records in the JHC archive.

"It couldn't be an all-Jewish place"

"When I was at the Hecht House playing basketball, freshman and sophomore year, our sophomore year, we had a very, very, very, very, very good basketball team. Half of the team were Black kids, because we got money from the Red Feather organization, so there was no—the Hecht House was not allowed to discriminate, and it couldn't be an all-Jewish—even though it was YMHA, it couldn't be an all-Jewish place ..."

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Arthur Goldstein

Arthur Goldstein was born in Roxbury in 1936 to parents Ida (born in 1911 in New Hampshire), and Hyman Goldstein (born in Ukraine in 1909). He lived in Roxbury until 1946 when his family moved to Dorchester. In his career, he worked as a CPA, and he and his wife, Edith, had three children. He now lives in Randolph, Massachusetts. Arthur’s oral history details the streetscape of Blue Hill Avenue and neighborhood life in both Roxbury and Dorchester; his family’s poverty; their desire to assimilate into American life; and their emphasis on education as the foundation for a successful and meaningful life. Like some other narrators do, he describes his first neighborhood in Roxbury as a “ghetto,” explaining the word not as a derogatory term but as a way of describing a concentration of Jewish families in one area. “It was just everybody together … basically, everybody you knew was Jewish.”

Arthur Goldstein
Stone family in Roxbury, date unknown, Elihu Stone Papers in the JHC archive.

"My grandmother had gold coins sewn into her clothes"

"And the family story was that my grandfather and my father’s older brother, 1925, came over, and my grandmother and my father and his brothers and sisters left, and my grandmother had gold coins sewn into her clothes, and they had the cow, and they went across the borders and went to Hamburg, and got a ship from Hamburg and came over to Boston, because there was already relatives over in here, and my grandfather had already bought a house here."

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Man playing golf, circa 1930s, Boston YMHA-Hecht House Records in the JHC archive.

"There were certain places that you don't go"

"There were times when I was younger, a few times when a gang of kids, white kids, beat me up a couple times. It was always underneath, a little bit. For instance, the country club, up until the early 1960s, did not allow Catholic, Jewish, or Black members. Yeah. And you knew that. There were certain places that you don’t go, and you don’t do..."

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Associated Boston Hebrew School Summer Outing at Franklin Field in Dorchester and Roxbury, 1919, Bureau of Jewish Education (Boston, Mass.) Records in the JHC archive.

"You would sit on the Wall"

"Okay, so at Franklin Field, it was physically a wall, because you had the street, you had the sidewalk, and then you had this granite wall that was about two and a half, three feet long, that ran the whole length of Franklin Field. Probably ran a half a mile...You would sit on the Wall, and everybody would congregate. Since at that time, everybody was observant, you would hardly see any cars go by. There was no traffic. Because if a car went by, you’d say, 'Oh my god, who’s that? They're gonna be stricken dead by God!'"

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Marshall Silberberg

Marshall Silberberg was born in 1944 in Roxbury, and grew up in Dorchester. His mother, Frances (Greenside), was born in Boston in 1899; his father, Saul Silberberg, was born in Poland and came to the United States as a refugee in 1938. Marshall discusses his father’s deafness and his challenges both learning to read lips in English and fitting into American life as a recent immigrant. Marshall gives evocative descriptions of the stores, streets, and sounds of his Dorchester neighborhood; he also recalls going to Temple Beth Hillel Hebrew School five days a week and later being a member of Hecht House. At different points in his interview, Marshall speaks about “blockbusting” and its impact on both Black and Jewish communities in Greater Boston. Marshall currently lives in Randolph, Massachusetts. 

Marshall Silderberg
Looking toward Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury, 1947, Elihu Stone Papers in the JHC archive.

"These were all the noises that I would hear"

"Don’t forget that I lived on Blue Hill Avenue, which was a main thoroughfare, so you’d hear cars beeping. There was a fire station on Floyd Street. ...So every time somebody pulled the fire alarm, the fire engine would come right onto Floyd Street, which is diagonally across the street from my house. Streetcars would go up and down Blue Hill Avenue, and every so often you’d hear a bell ring—a 'ding ding ding.' They didn’t have horns; they had bells. The conductor would pull a ding, all right? Again, these were all the noises that I would hear—automobiles, sirens, horns beeping."

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Stone family at school graduation in Roxbury, date unknown, Elihu Stone Papers in the JHC archive.

"Your parents emphasized you were going to college"

"Oh, the younger generation? Oh, yeah. Jewish parents; are you kidding me!? Come on! “You go to college!” All right? I mean, there was no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Your parents emphasized you were going to college, to get an education. They didn’t want you living in the ghetto. It wasn’t a ghetto, but you know what I'm saying. “Go out, get an education, become a doctor or lawyer or business man. Get out of the neighborhood.” "

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Marshall Silberberg at age 2, circa 1946, image courtesy of Marshall Silberberg.

"These were all little mom-and-pop stores"

"There are days when I can close my eyes and just walk down and point out each store. I can remember getting my first haircut with Mr. Fishman. I was so scared I think I ran out of the store and threw up in front of his store. I mean, these were all little mom-and-pop stores. There was Maxi’s fish market. You’d go in there, and there was fish all over, all picked in ice. The ice would be dumped up in the middle of the street in the summertime. ...I had Walnut’s Candy Store across the street from my house, which was great. It was a candy store, and they sold ice cream. I'm in heaven, you know?"

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Ethel Sinofsky, z"l

Ethel (Chase) Sinofsky was born in Roxbury in 1921 to Lillian (born in Syracuse, New York) and Samuel Chase (born in Russia) and died in Newton in 2023. Ethel lived in Roxbury with her parents until 1946, when she and her new husband moved to Newton, Massachusetts, and raised their three children. In her “Jewish Neighborhood Voices” interview, Ethel discusses her upbringing in Roxbury, where her father started an umbrella factory, and details the insular Jewish neighborhood, her education, and the local businesses. She discusses growing up on a street with Leonard Bernstein as her neighbor. Ethel also speaks about her marriage and the impact World War II had on her wedding. She reflects on her fearfulness and tentativeness as a child and gaining confidence with age—particularly as she anticipated turning 102. Ethel lived in Newton until her passing in 2023. She became a great grandmother just before her death.

Ethel Sinofsky
Ethel Sinofsky on the steps of Roxbury High School in Roxbury, 1936, image courtesy of Ethel Sinofsky.

"It was a Jewish area, mostly immigrants"

"Within several years, we moved—he bought a house that was being constructed on Brookline Street in Roxbury, a two-family house. We moved into that when I was two years old. I don’t remember anything about that time. It was a Jewish area, I guess mostly immigrants. They seemed like regular United States citizens to me, as I was growing up. There was a doctor next door and a pharmacist on the other side. Very interesting people. And there was a temple at the end of the street. It was a very small street, and they built a very large temple. Leonard Bernstein’s father was the president at one time."

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Temple Mishkan Tefila in Roxbury, date unknown, Bureau of Jewish Education (Boston, Mass.) Records in the JHC archive.

"I just knew God was there"

"It was the Temple Mishkan Tefila, and it was a huge edifice. The ceiling was painted blue, and it was so high I just knew God was there. You know? As a child."

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Ethel Sinofsky and her father at Brookledge Street in Roxbury, 1945, image courtesy of Ethel Sinofsky.

"My husband-to-be came home from overseas"

"It was during the War, and I worked there until my husband-to-be came home from overseas. He came home on a Sunday night, and we were married the following Saturday. That was a funny story, because I had gotten the license. He had written and said, 'Get the license.' All he had to do was come home, get his blood test, and pick up the license. But with all the excitement of his just having seven days’ leave to do all this, come home—and we had a wedding—my mother and dad made a wedding that—and we wanted to be married in a temple, and our temple was all booked up. Because of the War, everybody was booking it up, and we didn’t give them enough notice. So we married at the Temple Israel meeting house."

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Paul Sugarman

Paul Sugarman was born in Boston in 1931 to Rebecca “Ruth” (Chofnas) and Samuel Sugarman, who were both born in Boston, in 1906 and 1903 respectively. Paul grew up mostly in Dorchester, and lives in the Boston area to this day. In his oral history interview, Paul remembers living on Blue Hill Avenue amidst a strong Jewish community, represented by synagogues, Jewish storefronts, and gatherings at “the Wall” at Franklin Field. He reflects on the economic situation of his family and more broadly of the neighborhood’s residents, as well as the pressures of assimilation—and the impact this had on children growing up in the neighborhood. He went to Roxbury Memorial High School for Boys, and attended Boston University for both his undergraduate and law degrees. In his interview, Paul discusses the difficulty many Jewish lawyers faced in finding a position, and the importance of Jewish-owned law firms in hiring them. Paul joined one such firm in 1958 and has led a long career in civil and appellate litigation; today that firm is known as Sugarman & Sugarman. 

Paul Sugarman
Going to a wedding in Roxbury, 1945, Elihu Stone Papers in the JHC archive.

"World War II was personal"

"My grandparents still had relatives over there, so that they got word of what was going on, and my grandparents on my father’s side made an extreme effort to have what was left of her family over there before the War to come to the United States when that choice was still available. They wouldn't come. 'Who’s going to bother us? We're okay. We don’t want to go all that way. It’s a strange country. We don’t talk the language.' There were a million different excuses. But they never came, and of course, the result is now history. ...It wasn’t until after the War that all of these horrors became so stark, because of the information that we finally had. But we knew bad things were happening to our people, and for that reason, World War II, to the kids of the neighborhood, was personal."

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Looking toward Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury, 1947, Elihu Stone Papers in the JHC archive.

"You could buy herring out of a barrel"

"They were all Jewish businesses. The stores on Blue Hill Avenue would close on Friday for Shabbos and open on Saturday night. Saturday night was the shopping time, and it would come alive. In the better weather, there were stands, fruit stands for example, that went onto the sidewalk. It was just lined up, one store after another. Maxi’s Fish Market— And there was even a specialty shop where you could buy herring out of a barrel. All this guy sold was herring, pickled herring, and he had this large barrel, and he would reach in and wrap it up in a newspaper and hand it to you. That’s all he did. There was the butcher shop. There was the fruit market."

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Children playing horseshoes at Hecht Pioneer Camp, 1939, Boston YMHA-Hecht House Records in the JHC archive.

"Most of the people...were lower middle class"

"I think most of the people around there, including my parents, were what we would now refer to as lower middle class. I think that’s the best way to put it. We were not poor. There was food in the house, always. But it was tight. You didn’t spend money that you didn’t have. There were no such things as credit cards. ...But I’ll say this: There was no question in our family that we would go to college. I mean, it was their dream. My mother would save every little nickel, dime, put it away, put it in a savings account. She used to say, 'That’s for your college.' Eventually, it was. It wasn’t much, but—and there was some scholarship money in college, a little bit some, and I took advantage of that."

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Laura Till

Laura (Markowitz) Till was born in Boston in 1951 to Lillian (Levy) and Nathan Markowitz, who were both born in Boston. From the age of three until junior high, Laura spent her childhood in Dorchester, and briefly in Roxbury. Her family moved to Malden before she started high school. In her “Jewish Neighborhood Voices” interview, Laura discusses her experience growing up in Dorchester in a multifamily home with her grandparents in the post-World War II era; the atmosphere of their triple decker, surrounded by a Yiddish-speaking immigrant community; the stores of Blue Hill Avenue; the high holiday gatherings on Franklin Field; the impacts of redlining and blockbusting on the Jewish community and migration out of Dorchester. She now lives in Natick, Massachusetts.

Laura Till
Laura (Markowitz) Till with her grandparents in Roxbury, circa 1955, image courtesy of Laura Markowitz Till.

"My grandparents [were] on the lower floor"

"I lived in both Roxbury and Dorchester. In both cases, we were living in a multifamily home, with my grandparents on the lower floor. That's my memory of the housing situation, is living in houses that were pretty close together and mainly multifamily. As far as the overall feeling of being in Dorchester and/or Roxbury at that time, it did feel like there were quite a few immigrants, mainly Jewish immigrants at that point. I do remember hearing a lot of Yiddish being spoken, and a lot of kosher butchers, kosher bakeries, and the small kosher stores that were in the area."

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Associated Boston Hebrew School Summer Outing at Franklin Field in Dorchester and Roxbury, 1919, Bureau of Jewish Education (Boston, Mass.) Records in the JHC archive.

"Franklin Field was a very popular place"

"I do remember Franklin Field, especially during the Jewish holidays, because at that point, it was a very popular place for people to go during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, because nobody was driving, nobody was doing anything other than going in and out of the synagogues, and people, if the weather was nice, would just congregate and walk around and talk to each other. I remember doing that with a friend of mine who obviously was also Jewish. We used to walk down there. I just thought that that's the way everybody spends the High Holidays, walking around a field."

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Laura Till and friend on tricycles in Dorchester, circa 1954, image courtesy of Laura Markowitz Till.

"My parents always reminded me...[about] antisemitism"

"I kind of dismissed my parents when they talked about anti-Semitism. I said, 'I don’t have any restrictions.' ...But my parents always reminded me that it wasn’t very long before that there was institutionalized antisemitism, that you had to list your religion on job applications, and colleges only accepted X number of Jewish students. ...The world was trying to make Jews feel better after that, and we had sort of a façade of feeling a little safer, which my parents always reminded me that, 'Hey, it’s not gone.' And they were right. Because clearly, in this day and age, we're seeing a lot more of those issues coming up."

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Jack Weiss

Jack Weiss was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1943 to Ruth (Cohen), born in Boston’s West End, and Murray Weiss, born in Revere, Massachusetts. Jack grew up in Roxbury, and now resides in Lake Worth, Florida. In his “Jewish Neighborhood Voices” interview, Jack reflects on his childhood in Roxbury, focusing on his memories of food, on gendered experiences he observed his mother and grandmother have, and the pressure his uncles felt to assimilate and leave their Jewishness behind. He also discusses his later life working as a credit manager at General Electric Credit Corporation and then at Barney’s department store, and how his relationships with both his family and with Judaism have changed and shifted throughout his life.

Jack Weiss
Jack Weiss on a street in Roxbury, date unknown, image courtesy of Jack Weiss.

"[My grandmother] didn't trust anyone"

"I would say that being exposed to other people other than Jewish people in the First National was a great eye-opener, because my life at home was so narrowly focused—Jewish, Jewish, Jewish. Ultimately, my grandmother always claimed that she had to hide in the woods or the Cossacks would have killed her. She didn’t trust anyone, and it was a very terrible way to be brought up. She always used to say, 'The only one you can trust is your family.'"

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Jack Weiss playing football, date unknown, image courtesy of Jack Weiss.

"It was Jewish, Jewish, and Jewish"

"It was Jewish, Jewish, and Jewish in all 15 apartments."

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Bessie Cohen, circa 1910, image courtesy of Jack Weiss.

"They did not want to be Jewish"

"My mother had two brothers, and they both did not want to be Jewish. When they were very young, they managed—I remember one of them telling me they paid $50 each and they changed their name from Cohen to a name called Addison, A-D-D-I-S-O-N, which is very WASPY. We don’t know how they came to it, but my grandmother, she had two brothers, and when they came to this country, somehow that's the name they ended up with—Addison..."

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Ken Wolkon

Kenneth “Ken” Wolkon was born in Dorchester in 1939 to parents Pauline (Kaplan), born in Boston, and Samuel Wolkon (born in 1900 in then-Poland, today Ukraine). Ken grew up in the Grove Hall section of Dorchester, and in his “Jewish Neighborhood Voices” interview, he recalls an insular Jewish childhood in the neighborhood. He discusses the impact of Hecht House and the YMHA Day Camp, and his high school experience at the Boston Latin School. He also discusses the redlining and blockbusting that sparked Jewish residents' movement out of Dorchester, his own family’s eventual move to Brookline, and details of his later life.  

Ken Wolkon
Children at YMHA Day Camp in Dorchester, 1946, image courtesy of Kenneth Wolkon.

"We knew that it was terrible for Jews"

"...I don’t think that we knew terribly much about what was really going on in Europe. I don’t think—the Holocaust, first of all, it wasn’t named that yet. It wasn’t described that way. We knew that it was terrible for Jews, but we didn’t know the extent of it. Or at least I didn’t. "

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Hashachar Hebrew School in Dorchester, date unknown, Bureau of Jewish Education (Boston, Mass.) Records in the JHC archive.

"I did not even know what a Protestant was"

"That whole area was very heavily Jewish. I did not even know what a Protestant was until well into high school. "

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Charlotte (Stone) Shaw and Harmon Stone in garden, date unknown, Elihu Stone Papers in the JHC archive.

"[Franklin Park] allowed people to grow Victory Gardens"

"So you had Franklin Park. And during at least the latter part of the war, I can remember going to—across the street from the Y, they had a gorgeous area called the Rose Garden. I don’t know whether that still exists. And they allowed people to have what they called Victory Gardens, growing their own vegetables. That Orthodox uncle that I mentioned before used to have a garden. I used to go over and help."

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Visit the Neighborhood:

Dorchester and Roxbury

Learn about the Jewish history of Dorchester and Roxbury, and hear memories of the neighborhoods.

Image of G&G Deli, date unknown, from the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center collection

Meet the other narrators

Chelsea Narrators

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

Lynn Narrators

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