Sentimental Journey For Jews To Hartford's North End
By Tom Condon
October 17, 2012
An old city is a living palimpsest, a parchment constantly being erased and written over by migration and development. But the old is never entirely erased, it is there for the looking.
Last Sunday I went looking, for signs of the large Jewish community that once lived in Hartford's North End.
I joined a couple of dozen people on a bus tour titled "Back of the Old Neighborhoods" sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford. The tour was an outgrowth of a book the society published last year, "Remembering the Old Neighborhood: Stories of Hartford's North End," a comprehensive collection of essays and oral histories from people, mostly Jews, who grew up in the North End in the mid-20th century.
Most of the people on the trip were of that time; Jewish kids born in the 1930s or '40s who played in Keney Park, spent Saturdays at the Lenox Theater and went to Weaver High School. Barbara Siskin, Gail Freedman and Sandy Margolin, class of 1956, are still close friends and remember the area as a wonderful place to grow up.
The first recorded member of the faith in Connecticut was David the Jew, a peddler who in 1659 was arrested for selling to women and children when the men were not at home. Tolerance grows; Hartford would later be the home of the Fuller Brush Company, known around the world for its door-to-door sales.
Sephardic Jews came to Hartford in the Colonial era. They weren't allowed to live in the city but were tolerated and allowed to trade, said tour guide Jai Zion. Courant ads from the late 18th century refer to a "Jew Street" on the East Side near the Connecticut River.
German Jews came to the city beginning in the 1830s, drawn by the city's industry. They successfully petitioned the General Assembly for freedom to worship in 1843, formed Congregation Beth Israel four years later and in 1876 built the state's first new synagogue building on Charter Oak Avenue.
This architecturally eclectic building, Victorian with Romanesque and Moorish Revival touches, is now the Charter Oak Cultural Center, one of the region's most active and vital arts centers. It is a lovely building, marvelously restored.
Pogroms and other unpleasantness brought Eastern European Jews to Hartford over the next half century. In the 1920s, Jews began leaving the East Side tenements for new multi-family homes and apartment buildings in the North End, creating the flourishing, multi-ethnic neighborhood that lives in memory.
We saw Jewish cemeteries, the site of the first (1939) Crown Market on Albany Avenue and a half-dozen former synagogues that are now Christian churches — stopping at two of the most grand, the former Agudas Achim, now Glory Chapel International Cathedral, and the former Emanuel Synagogue, now a Seventh Day Adventist Church. Many on the trip knew these (well-maintained) buildings; Herb and Sandy Margolin were married at Agudas Achim 53 years ago.
It was an idyllic life then, indeed a wonderful place to grow up, and then it all changed. Like other middle-class whites here and across the country, Jews from the North End moved to the suburbs, to West Hartford and Bloomfield, in the 1950s and '60s.
My neighborhood in New London was not unlike the North End of the period, and yet almost everyone moved out, as well. Did we fail to see what was right in front of us, that life was pretty good? I asked people why their families left. It was prosperity; renters could afford to buy. Shameful redlining policies made it hard to stay. New highways made commuting easy. The old standby "The neighborhood was changing," meaning that blacks were moving in, motivated some to leave. Slumlords degraded some properties. The riots in the late 1960s finished it off; business owners who were burned out were understandably reluctant to rebuild.
Some people hadn't been back since their families left, which is too bad, but all shared a very strong feeling for the place and the memories it holds. Something was lost, in the migration to the suburbs, and it is something that is hard to get back.
The Society's next tour is Nov. 11. To sign up, or get the book, call 860-727-6171 or got to http://www.jhsgh.org.
Tom Condon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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