3. The Founding of the Community
The Adams Street Shul

Congregation Agudas Achim Anshei Sfard

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Mordechai & Chana Bella Marana in the Old Country.
Mordechai and Chana Bella Marana, in the Old Country

From 1880 to 1920, worsening pogroms throughout Eastern Europe sparked massive Jewish immigration to America.  Jews came to New York and to New England from Russia, the Ukraine, and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Adams Street Synagogue was founded by Jews who came here in the late 1800s.

How he got to Watertown Square [from Ellis Island] I don't know... some fellow was with his girlfriend and he saw this fellow with a bag and he put him on a bus and gave him a nickel and said,  "Make sure you let him out on the corner of Watertown and West streets... and cross the street with him and tell him where to go... and someone will see him."   And that's how my father got to his brother.

Newton was enjoying a period of explosive suburban growth, triggerred by the introduction of commuter train service and the electric streetcar.   The neighborhood of Nonantum featured inexpensive houses and had long been an ethnically mixed immigrant community --- home to each wave of newcomers.

Megillat  Esther scroll, brought to the USA by immigrant Sarah  Judith Gilfix,  daughter of Mordechai Marana, who wrote it.
This Megillat Esther was brought to this country by immigrant
Sarah Judith Gilfix, daughter of Mordechai Marana, who wrote it.

...$12 a month rent was what we paid on Cook Street.  We had one gas lamp in the kitchen, nothing in the dining room... we used to go upstairs with a lantern to the bedroom... two bedrooms, no bathroom...

By 1901, at least half the Jewish families that had come to Newton had settled in Nonantum.  Many of Nonantum's Jews had lived briefly elsewhere in New York or New England before finding their way to Nonantum with their young families.  Many of them were related.

[Mother] came over here in 1902... when she was fourteen.  She came with a big puffed blanket.  They put her on board with a baker, and he was supposed to be her father in order to get her on that boat.  She had no parents and the grandparents were elderly and very ill.  And this man was given x number of dollars... which I can't remember -- to see her come over here...    And they brought her first to New Jersey...    then she came to her one relative which was her sister in Lawrence...   she used to go to work in the factory.  Six in the morning she had to be at work.  She would get up at five and save two cents which was the trolley fare.  And they worked until six... slave work...    She had to earn her way in the house too.  She paid board, but she helped too.

There was no kosher food sold in Newton, but there was a trolley line to Boston.  They could get to the old North End (which was Jewish before it was Italian) and later the West End (which was a focal point in Boston's Jewish life until it fell victim to urban renewal in the late 1950's).   This enabled them to get kosher food.

So every Saturday night you'd go to Newton Corner and take the streetcar to the West End and you'd buy all the things you'd need for the week and carry it home in the streetcar and then carry it two miles back to the house.  Sometimes it was one o'clock in the morning before you got there.  

So every Thursday and Saturday, like the postmen sleet or rain wouldn't stop them, they'd go down to the West End.  Thursday to shop, get their chickens whatever [for the Sabbath] and then Saturday night for the week...

My mother would take two of us with her to the West End to help her carry.

The Sabbath is more than a day of rest --- in the liturgy its coming is likened to that of a bride --- and the excitement in anticipation of sundown on Fridays was one of the memories that remained with nearly everyone.

We looked forward to Fridays.  Rushing home from school and having these delicacies that my mother started to make at four or five in the morning...

I remember the smell of burning feathers...

Yes, she would come to see my father on a Saturday and she always had a handkerchief tied around her wrist --- she was wearing it, she wasn't carrying it


I knew that when I got home from school the whole thing was complete.  The floor was shining bright, the stove was like a mirror and she [Mother] wore a white apron a bit like linen, like the table with the white napkins...

The lockshen [noodles] was cut at home...

Billy lived across the street from us and he used to come over on Friday nights to put the lights out for us, and Saturday morning he'd come and stoke the fire for us...

Benjamin and Sarah Judith Gilfix, with their children: Joseph,  Rose, Jacob, Philip, and Isaac; c. 1906.
Benjamin and Sarah Judith Gilfix, with their children: Joseph, Rose, Jacob, Philip, and Isaac; c. 1906.


The reminiscences of second generation members evoke immigrant Jewish life in pre-World War I Nonantum.

Although differences in culture and outlook inevitably caused disagreements from time to time, the overriding impression which emerges is of their deep family affection, the bond of their orthodox Judaism, and their sense of responsibility for each other.