The Jewish Quarter
of Philadelphia

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     East European Jews began to settle around the eastern end of South Street in the early 1880's. Surprisingly, the boundaries of the area were defined early. In "Our Philadelphia Letter" for August 20, 1886, a regular column of the American Hebrew, the Jewish quarter of Philadelphia was described as " ... bounded by Third and Eighth and Lombard and Christian Streets." As the years passed, the quarter grew slightly to the north, taking in Pine and Spruce Streets, and it shifted slightly to the east. Until the turn of the century, Jewish immigrant communal life did not spill south across Washington Avenue, although isolated pockets of Jewish residential life sprang up early in South Philadelphia. This book focuses on an area bounded by Spruce Street on the north, Christian Street on the south, 2nd Street on the east, and 6th Street on the west. Several other nearby blocks and properties are included.

South 4th Street, Philadelphia, Sep 1925

     When east European Jews began to settle in the area around South Street, German Jews described as "uptown" the area in which they lived to distinguish it from the area where the east European Jews were settling, which was "downtown." Market Street, the main east-west thoroughfare which runs from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River separated the two camps, uptown being north of Market Street and downtown, south of Market Street. In the English-language news­papers of the day, the area where the immigrants settled south of Market Street was described as a slum district, and in truth it was. Since so many Jews settled here, it did become a de facto ghetto, although few referred to it as such. But however others referred to it, the east European Jew simply called the area, in Yiddish, the Jewish quarter.    East European Jews not only put down roots around South Street, they settled elsewhere in the city, notably, on North 2nd Street and streets surrounding it in Northern Liberties, in isolated areas of South Philadelphia, and in "Jew-town," the area around Tulip and William Streets in Port Richmond. When writers wanted to describe these non-contiguous areas where Russian Jewish immigrants settled, they sometimes referred to them collectively as the Russian colony, a term used to describe the vast settlement of Russian Jews throughout Philadelphia. We will focus our attention on only one part of the larger settlement, the Jewish quarter. Unlike Jewish quarters in the Old World, in Philadelphia a wall did not surround the quarter and there was no Judengasse (Jew Street). Or, was there a wall in the minds of the immigrants? And was South Street, Jew Street?

     East European Jews were called Yid (singular) or Yidn (plural). The word carried with it a pejorative conno­tation for those who wanted it to, but when used by east European Jews themselves, like the famous Yiddish actor Boris Thomashevsky, the word Yid was spoken and written with much love, affection, and humor because the east European writer or speaker knew all that was wrapped up in those three letters. The words Yid and Yidn clearly differentiated the newcomers from the Yahudi (singular) or Yahudim (plural) who were the Jews from uptown, that is, the German Jews. Yidn could sometimes be seen in caftans, with peyes (side curls). Some women wore the flowing skirts and fatsheyles (shawls) of the shtetl. The Yahudim dressed exactly as non-Jewish Philadelphians but could be distinguished from non-Jewish Philadelphians by the fact that they were members of the Mercantile Club and could be seen entering the beautiful temples of the city.

     Why did Russian Jews settle in the Jewish quarter of Philadelphia? David B. Tierkel, editor of the Yiddish newspaper, the Philadelphia Jewish American, addressed that question as early as 1908: "Twenty-five years ago when Jews came from Russia in masses, they found South Street to be the most prominent business street in South Philadelphia. Several German Jews had businesses on South Street. The Russian Jews could talk to them and the new arrivals began to settle around South Street." Tierkel added that rent for houses in the small streets surrounding South Street was just a few dollars, and these properties were located only five or six blocks from Strawberry and Bank Streets where many of the immigrants were employed in the gar­ment industry. (Strawberry and Bank Streets, many of whose commercial buildings have been preserved and put to more modern uses today, are found outside the old Jewish quarter in the square bounded by Market and Chestnut Streets on the north and south and 2nd and 3rd Streets on the east and west.) Unstated by Tierkel, but surely a major reason for settling in the Jewish quarter, was the location of the area, only several blocks from the Emigrant Depot on the wharf at Christian Street and the Delaware River.

     The immigrants were hemmed in on all sides. To the south was Washington Avenue. In the early years there were not thick settlements of Russian Jews south of Washington Avenue, as there would be after the real estate boom of 1900. To the first generation of east European Jewish immigrants, Washington Avenue was a border. Those who wandered south of Washington Avenue were subjected to random beatings. A Jew was wary of crossing that wide-open street on which the trains ran. To the north, above Spruce Street, commercial property values were high and there were few resi­dential buildings. East of 3rd Street the Polish and Irish did not flee upon the Jewish invasion. Living in a narrow bandwidth of streets that ran down to the docks at the Delaware River, they stayed and often singled out for abuse Jews who stumbled across 2nd Street. West of the Jewish quarter were African Americans in the northern streets and Italians in the southern streets. The scant evidence that has come down to us on Jewish African American and Jewish Italian relationships on this western border fails to picture the hostilities that existed between Jews and other ethnic groups.






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