Sunday, August 19, 2012

Walking Through Jewish History in Philadelphia


Two cups of coffee were just what I needed to get me going this morning, right before I hopped the El downtown to join a walking tour put on by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.  Though Jewish history in Philadelphia goes back to colonial times (a topic I'll cover in depth in the future), today's focus was on the late 19th century immigrant experience.


Relive the Philadelphia experience of Eastern European Jews who settled along South Street in the late 19th century. Explore their humble synagogues and homes and learn about their thriving marketplaces that became prominent businesses.
This community's boundaries generally corresponded to a good chunk of the southeastern portion of the original borders of the City of Philadelphia (the district which is today known as Center City) prior to the 1854 consolidation of all boroughs, townships, districts and unincorporated communities within Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania which formed today's city; along with most of what is today's Bella Vista neighborhood.  From 2nd Street in the east over to 6th Street on the west; from Spruce Street on the north on down to Christian Street to the south.

Now as expected, my hearing impairment prevented me from hearing much of what was being said by our guide, but that's okay.  I ended up with more pictures than one would ever even think of shaking a stick at (don't even think about doing that, I am quite serious!), and also with a determination to learn much more on my own.  This, I will do in the coming years.  And decades.  :)

The full, long-winded and very photo-heavy (heh) version of this photo diary will be posted on my own blog in the coming days, once I finally get around to setting it up.   I'll notify youze when.  For now, some brief words, and a few pics of Old Jewish Philadelphia.  Continued below the jump...

We met up at Society Hill Synagogue at 2 PM, and covered a winding path of about a mile of streets and centuries-old rowhouse blocks (and decades of just one small period of history!) over the subsequent couple of hours.


Past numerous synagogues, bath houses, places of business, prominent homes...

The melting pot.


One of Philadelphia's 14,000 Middle Eastern restaurants I have to try, right off one of the alleys we strolled through.

Stepping out of chronological order for just one second, here is where I did have lunch just before the tour...

...Hamifgash, 811-13 Sansom Street.  Had a Romanian Kabab stuffed pita sandwich.  It was very good.

As I noted to another gentleman on our tour, I must have passed this building (mostly at night) about 100 times in my life (long before I finally moved here, I've always wanted to live in Philadelphia; and growing up in North Jersey, I used to take the train down here to my favorite city almost every weekend at times), and never even thought twice about it.

So much history out there, so much more I need to learn!

I took a picture here just because I thought this corner looks awesome (it does!), and it actually turned out to have some significance in the late-19th Century Philadelphia Jewish community.  I need to reconcile my notes, and do some further research before I'm able to expand upon this, however.

Our group, with me bringing up the rear (I was busy snapping pics and admiring random ancient cornices) turns down and along the world's famous South Street.  :)

Yeah, I'm telling their story one day...

Jewish and Irish, side by side.  I could not possibly feel more at home.  Heh.

That's about it for now.  And if anyone ever finds themselves in town, we should maybe meet up for a sandwich here...

...after touring some of the above spots!


  1. Thanks for sharing Jay. This is very interesting and I look forward to more.

    1. Thanks. :)

      I had initially intended this to be all kinds of educational, and whatnot, but then once I got on the tour all I could mostly hear was bus engines and roaring motorcycles and whatnot. As expected. It's okay, though. I'll pick up the stuff on my own, then!

  2. Jay, thank you for this terrific piece!

    I am adding "JayinPhiladelphia" to our blogroll.

    1. Thanks. I still need to come up with a name for it, too. Hmmm, perhaps just "Blog?"

  3. By the way, this, "Romanian Kabab stuffed pita sandwich."

    Romanian Kabab stuffed pita sandwich?


    I don't know what that is, exactly, but it sounds friggin' delicious!

    Also, am I to understand that you are part Irish and part Jewish? Is that correct? The Irish and the Jews both represented major immigration into the United States in 19th century because of the potato famine and Jewish persecution in eastern Europe.

    Neither were considered white when they first started showing up and both overcame very serious discrimination.

    Y'know, this one might be worth a look-see:

    Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration.

    "Hungering for America tells the stories of three distinctive groups and their unique culinary dramas. Italian immigrants transformed the food of their upper classes and of sacred days into a generic "Italian" food that inspired community pride and cohesion. Irish immigrants, in contrast, loath to mimic the foodways of the Protestant British elite, diminished food as a marker of ethnicity. And, East European Jews, who venerated food as the vital center around which family and religious practice gathered, found that dietary restrictions jarred with America's boundless choices.

    These tales, of immigrants in their old worlds and in the new, demonstrate the role of hunger in driving migration and the significance of food in cementing ethnic identity and community."

    1. Yeah, it was great! Ground beef with parsley and tons of garlic, it's apparently a popular item in Israel. I've had the similar-seeming kofta / kefta numerous times... not sure if there's a difference, or what exactly it is. It's probably in the spices. I need to do some research.

      That book sounds great, and is just the kind of thing I'm really into. Back in Portland, I was half-obsessed (heh) with learning everything I could about the Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrant neighborhood just to the south of downtown, Old South Portland, which was bulldozed wholesale for a tragic 'urban renewal,' so-called, project in the 1960s. Seemed to be one of the great lost neighborhoods / communities of history, there wasn't / isn't even much about it on the internet.

  4. So interesting. I know Philadelphia a little, not only because I spent a year at Swarthmore College (best not to advertise the date) but because relatives used to live there.

    Off topic, because I don't know quite where to post it: Mike and others will be interested in Barry Rubin's latest update on Facebook:
    "I passed the catscan test. no more damage. i have been released from the hospital, am at home, and am very grateful to you all."

    1. Daphne,

      thank you so much for the Dr. Rubin update.

      We need him healthy and writing for many years to come.

    2. We sure do! He's prolific, and so often brings a fresh perspective to bear on issues.

    3. Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the news!