A History of Boston’s Jewish North Shore
Source: The Salem News, 7-1-09
In 1775, he was one of those who joined General John Glover’s regiment. Yet, you only have to hear his name to realize that Abraham Solomon was different than his fellow soldiers, even signing the muster roll in Hebrew. For that matter, Solomon’s name on the rolls is one of the earliest references to Jewish people on the North Shore. But not the first. Sephardic Jews — with roots in Spain and Portugal — came to Salem as early as the 1600s.
Most arrived much later, explains Alan Pierce, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pouring in from Eastern Europe, hoping to escape violent religious persecutions and economic privation. These latecomers would have a profound impact on the region. Their story is included in Pierce’s book, “A History of Boston’s Jewish North Shore,” a small but invaluable paperback that charts the growth of the Jewish community, its institutions, places of worship and people. It includes many photos, but also text describing communities in Lynn, Salem, Beverly, Peabody, Marblehead and Swampscott. Essays and brief oral reminiscences give a vivid picture of the people.
“My family came to Beverly in 1906,” Joseph Rubenstein told the Beverly Hebrew School in 1992. “When I went to Hebrew School … I had to go through an Italian section and they always picked on us and I used to get into stone fights.” The animosity did not last, he recalled. Friendships developed. “We were always friendly with the gentiles,” Rubenstein said. “We were highly respected in the community.” During World War II, Rubenstein noted, dozens of Jewish men enlisted. “One of them died in the Bataan death march … the other died when his ship was sunk at sea.”
Pierce’s own family was part of it, their name changed from Perevoskon at Ellis Island. They settled in Peabody, finding work in the city’s grim leather factories. In later years, however, fortunes improved. The children and grandchildren of these Jewish families became factory owners themselves, as well as merchants, doctors, teachers, judges and political leaders. For his part, Pierce, 60, worked briefly in the leather industry, which only drove him to do better. “I wanted to sit in an office and have a suit,” he laughs. He studied government and law, eventually becoming a Salem attorney. He currently lives in Beverly. Over time, Pierce began to focus on his Jewish roots. He describes attending synagogue, letting the sound of Hebrew wash over him — the echo of ancient words more important than their meaning. He would go “into a zone.”
Soon, he began to see the importance of preserving a record of the Jewish presence on the North Shore. He joined the Jewish Historical Society. With the late Avrom Herbster, he authored “The Jewish Community of the North Shore.” His latest effort expands on that one. “This book is dedicated to our children,” Pierce explains. “It’s important for my sons’ generation to see how we used to be. It helps to define who I am and who we all are.” Jewish retailers are noted going back to William Filene who opened his Salem shop prior to the Civil War. Plush Jewish institutions were established, like the Kernwood Country Club in 1914 and Marblehead’s Dolphin Yacht Club in 1950.
Today, some leaders worry over a diminishing Jewish cohesion. Intermarriage is common. Loyalty to Israel, the Jewish state, sometimes seems weakened. Yet, Pierce notes, “A lot of synagogues are reaching out to make interfaith couples feel wanted.” Some converts, he adds, bring more devotion than those born to the religion. As for Israel, Pierce has no doubts that a bedrock of support remains. “The Jews of the North Shore have always been leaders in support of Israel. … In times of stress or crisis communities come together.” It matters to him, Pierce says, that he was born in 1948, the year that Israel became a state. All this makes it increasingly important that Jewish history be remembered and respected. “What I hoped the book would give us,” Pierce says, “is an idea of how valuable the Jewish community is.”