This semester I am writing a walking tour of Philadelphia’s Jewish Quarter for the Powel House in Society Hill. You may be thinking, Philadelphia has a Jewish Quarter? Well, no. But in the late 19th and early 20th century what is now known as Society Hill was home to a large number of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Russia. These immigrants lived, worked, and were educated in the Quarter. They built synagogues, schools, intellectual societies, charities, and small businesses. Many of these Jewish immigrants worked in factories throughout the area. This history is visible in the built environment of the area, if you know where to look. But that’s the problem, most visitors to the city don’t where to look or even that this history exists. Before my work with the Powel house, I didn’t either.
A Lithuanian immigrant, Wolf Klebansky, bought the Powel house in 1904 and lived in the house next door. While he considered selling the Powel house, he ended up using it as factory for fine Siberian Horse Hair. While this may seem odd, it was actually fairly common at the time, as horse hair was used to make hair brushes. Klebansky and his wife were leaders in the community. Klebansky helped found a synagogue, Kesher Israel, in the community and Mrs. Klebansky was president of the Jewish Sheltering Home.
While the Klebansky's were prominent members of the community and are an important connection between the Powel House and the Philadelphia Jewish Quarter, the Jewish Quarter extended far beyond their reach. I have researched synogogues, places of business, schools and charities that all existed within the Jewish Quarter.
Through the Special Research Collections at Temple, I was able to search through newspapers featuring Wolf Keblansky and the papers of Congregation B’hai Abraham, the first orthodox synagogue in Philadelphia. The Temple library also has access to the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, which has been incredibly helpful for my research. Many of the most interesting buildings and organizations in the Jewish Quarter did not archive their records and as a result the Jewish Exponent was essential in writing their history.
While working on this project, I had the opportunity to go on a tour of the Philadelphia Jewish Quarter with Harry Boonin, author of The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia. While not a professional historian, Boonin has been giving tours of the Philadelphia Jewish Quarter for many years and has written a few books on the subject. Boonin's walking tour was one of the most enjoyable parts of my research thus far. This tour made clear to me how much the development of Society Hill and South Philadelphia was shaped by Jewish immigration. Most of the historically Jewish buildings are no longer in use or have been converted to housing.
Boonin showed us a house at 236 Catherine Street that was formerly the Hebrew Literature Society. There is no historical marker or any indication of what the building once was, but through the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent I have found that it was found in 1885 and held lectures, classes and recreational activities for recent Jewish immigrants. The society also held citizenship courses for recent immigrants. Lectures were held in both English and Yiddish and activities were aimed at both children and adults. Without the Exponent, this history would be lost. While the Hebrew Literature Society is an important historical institution in its own right, it also tells us about the needs of the community, the influx of immigration and the types of social activities common at this time.
Without the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and people like Harry Boonin, this history would be lost. The lack of academic analysis or public recognition has emphasized the importance of our work for the Powel house.
Readings from our class this semester have had a profound effect on my research and the writing of this tour. While she does not focus on Philadelphia in her analysis, in Pennsylvania in Public Memory: Reclaiming the Industrial Past Carolyn Kitch has made me critically aware of the way our memories or erasure of industrial history effects the way Philadelphia and individual communities within are remembered. Kitch's work has motivated me to engage more thoroughly with the jobs and work lives of those living in the Jewish Quarter and how our collective non-memory of this effects interpretations of the city.