Russian teenagers immigrating to the United States in the early-1900s experienced American freedom even before docking at Ellis Island. For the first time in their lives, these boys and girls spent unsupervised alone time together.
The adolescent freedom symbolized more pertinent benefits of living in America, Leon Boonin wrote in his 1940 memoir, “Experiences in Coming to America.” About 30 years earlier, Boonin boarded a boat to leave Russia with four of his brothers, leaving Jewish persecution and their parents’ graves.
Boonin’s nephew, Harry Boonin, has chronicled the lives of Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia with three books, including the “Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia: A History & Guide 1881-1930.” This book also focuses on his mother and father who both immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in the early-1900s.
Why Jews came
In 1920 Philadelphia was a city of more than 1,823,000 residents, 400,744 of which were foreign-born. Russians (Russia, at the time, controlled now-independent countries like Poland, Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania) made up about 24 percent of that group, making them the largest group of immigrants. Fifty years earlier the Irish were the largest group of immigrants in Philadelphia.
This wave of Russian immigration is tied to Jews fleeing violence, or “pogroms.” According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the definition of the Russian word pogrom is “to wreak havoc, to demolish violently.” But, as a reflection of the persecution Jews suffered in the country, pogrom is more commonly used to describe anti-Semitic attacks during which victims were killed, raped and had their property stolen or destroyed.
Pogroms were documented in Russia between 1881 and 1946. It’s difficult to locate the total number of people who died as a result, but between 1918-20 alone, tens of thousands of Jews were killed during these incidents.
In 1906, Harry Boonin’s mother, one of 18 children, came to the U.S. after her brother was killed opposing a pogrom. Despite the move being illegal under the Russian czar’s law, she was one of 125,000 Russian Jews to enter Philadelphia that year, Harry Boonin said. Five years later, his orphan father and uncles came to Philadelphia with hopes of furthering their education as their father had always encouraged them to do.
In 1933, Harry Boonin’s parents, both Philadelphia lawyers, met through a hiking club. At this time, about 22.5 percent of Philadelphia’s foreign-born population were Russian Jews.
Where Jews lived
In the early-20th century, Jewish immigrants populated a cluster of about 24 square blocks in Philadelphia. The city’s Jewish Quarter spanned from Fifth Street to the Delaware River and south of Lombard Street.
As was common for immigrants during this time, boarding homes sprung up in the Jewish Quarter. Harry Boonin said Jewish immigrants mainly worked in retail and sweatshops, five of which were on Lombard Street. Others sold goods at pushcart markets.
Port Richmond was another area where Jews began to conglomerate in the early-1900s, coining the area’s then nickname: New Jerusalem.
Philadelphia was a popular place to settle for immigrants because it’s easy to access by train from Ellis Island. The Washington Avenue Immigration Station, at Washington Avenue and Christopher Columbus Boulevard, was also a direct segue into the city. Between 1873 and 1915, it received about 1 million immigrants — a quarter of which were Jews.
Some 20th century buildings symbolic of the massive waves of Jewish immigration into Philadelphia remain untouched, like the B’nai Abraham Chabad synagogue at Fifth and Lombard streets. But the descendants of the immigrants who filled the Jewish Quarter have scattered.
The children of many immigrants — some foreign-born, some born U.S. citizens — longed for different jobs and living situations than their parents had, Harry Boonin said. Many of the immigrants’ sons were also drafted for World War II, intensifying their desire to experience new things after they’d been abroad.
These children settled in other parts of the city and suburbs, learning new crafts. Harry Boonin, however, followed his parents’ lead by becoming a lawyer and, eventually, a historian of some sort. Inspired by London walking tours, he led his own guided tours showcasing Jewish history in Philadelphia during the 1990s. And though his books have taken years of research to write, his interest was prompted by a seemingly simple question: How did his family come to America?
“I wrote the book to tell their stories, because I feel like someday all of this will disappear,” Harry Boonin said. “I felt like this was an important story to tell.”
— Text by Grace Shallow; first photo via PhillyHistory.org, second by Grace Shallow.