7th Street Memory Box: Portraits and Interviews

by City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and The Historical Society of Pennsylvania

With 7th Street Memory Box — part of Journeys South — photographer RA Friedman devised a method to display his work in a public and interactive way that referenced the past by borrowing old technology. Creating a zoetrope — an early animation device — Friedman set in motion the portraits of South Philadelphia elders.

Alice Freeman

“When I grew up, I worked on Seventh Street. There was a lot of stores and I used to work different stores. They used to ask me to work for them, and I worked out on the street with a big heavy kerchief and heavy gloves, a dollar a day. And that’s how I saved up money so my boys can go to college.”

“I had four brothers and four sisters. And guess what? Some of them slept in the bathroom because we didn’t have enough room. Some of the girls. But the boys – father had the backroom and he used to sew so he had a table. So the boys used to sleep on the table, some of them. That’s how we managed.”

“Every Friday, Mother used to light the candles and do the prayers. Yes, indeed. You would know it was a Jewish home and we had different things that were Jewish. Oh, yes, definitely.”

“My father wanted the boys bar mitzvahed. I guess, being from Russia, he knew about all that and he wanted them bar mitzvahed. But look, we couldn’t afford any parties or anything like that. They took them in synagogue, they said their prayers, and that was it.”

“My mother used to sing. Jewish songs, I don’t remember them. In Yiddish. Because she didn’t know how to talk English. Mother didn’t know how, neither did my father. Mother used to talk to us in Jewish and I used to answer her in Jewish.”

“She loved Hanukkah. Oh, to her, Hanukkah was just wonderful. She didn’t have much money to give to the children, but she used to give them pennies and that was for Hanukkah. Oh, yes, pennies but we were all happy, even to get a penny. And it was Hanukkah. We had candles. That’s one thing we did have and she used to put that in the living room and we used to light the one candle, the second, and then the third, and the fourth. Oh, yes, we did.”

Click here to read the full interview with Alice Freeman!

David Welsh

“My grandfather passed away when I was a young person, and my grandmother did, too, so I did not know them very well. He was a very Orthodox Jewish person, very strict in his religious teachings. That part I remember. I was afraid of him. He was a very stern man.”

“There were many homes that were converted into synagogues. Like they would take two homes, and do a breakthrough. There’s a lot of that in South Philly. As a matter of a fact, the oldest one is at Fourth and Mercy, and it’s still a functioning synagogue. I think it was just declared a historical site.”

“I was married in the synagogue at Sixth and Wolf. That was two homes that were made into one.”

“The Stiffel Center – I think it was built in 1928 as a Jewish Educational Center. I came here then. Sunday School. All Hebrew stuff. Jewish stuff. You went to a teacher to learn how to be bar mitzvahed. That was not part of this. There was a little group. We had a group called ‘Young Israel.’ A bunch of us as young adults came here. We’d play basketball in the auditorium.”

Click here to read the full interview with David Welsh!

Lena Henry

“When we lived down there on Fourth and Snyder, everything was Jewish, so I learned how to eat lox and bagels and gefilte fish. After I got married—she was Jewish, my mother-in-law—she taught me how to make latkes, because my husband was Jewish. A lot of different things, so I have cultures from both Italian and Jewish.”

“I came to the Stiffel Center as a teenager. Downstairs where the lunchroom is was a ping-pong table, and it was called the “canteen.” We danced down there. Upstairs was the gym and they played ball, and I played basketball, and—what else did they have here—and they had, also, a Jewish school for the kids to learn Hebrew, so I’ve been coming to this place for a long, long time.”

“I used to go to 7th Street every day. There was John’s Bargain Store there too, which is now some kind of construction company. The Grand Movie was there, which is closed today. You would go, pay, and you would get a dish and see a movie. We used to go to the movies every Saturday.”

Click here to read the full interview with Lena Henry!

Nathan Pepper

“I understand Yiddish good. Yeah, I understand that. I speak Yiddish. I read Hebrew. Well, I went to Hebrew school.”

“We were kosher. My dad was very Orthodox, what they call “ultra Orthodox.” He was almost like a rabbi—whenever they wanted to ask him questions, like they asked a rabbi, they would ask him. An Orthodox household, but I was more or less liberal—I tried to be you know. I wasn’t as observant as my dad. He tried to teach me, but I was more Americanized.”

“When he went to synagogue, he had the observant clothes. They wore, like, silk, like the jackets and the pants and stuff like that you know. You couldn’t mix materials because that’s like mixing a sheep with a cow – two different animals on one, you know. Like in the Ark they had two of the same animals when they went in, so that’s the way it was. So if the material came from different animals, you couldn’t mix them. Like you couldn’t rayon or orlon or you know, stuff like that. It had to be all silk or all rayon. It couldn’t be a mixture.”

“We had the Friday night. Challah, the wine, you know, gefilte fish. The ritual was after they say the prayers with the candles. The woman makes the prayers over the candles and if you ever see it down here on Friday, if you’re ever here on Friday, they do that here. That’s to bring in the Sabbath. Then they say the prayer over the wine, they make the prayer over the bread, and they do gefilte and then they do the soup and then they do the chicken, and then they do the dessert.”

“On Sukkot, we built our own sukkah. We put the slats up, my brother and me, we put the slats up and we put the curtain on the side and we had to make sure that the slats had air so you can see the stars, the moon and stars.”

“The first one I went to, when I was a young kid, was a house on Jackson Street between 4th and 5th. It was near the corner and they used to pray in that house. They used as a synagogue. Then when I went to bar mitzvah, my dad belonged to another synagogue near Dickinson Street. Watkins Street, 6th and Watkins. That’s where I got bar mitzvahed, there at 6th and Watkins.”

“Well, the businesses were practically all Jewish. They had a synagogue practically on every corner—every other corner. They had more synagogues than bars, let’s put it that way. Seventh Street was all Jewish, was all businesses.”

Click here to read the full interview with Nathan Pepper!

Sam Blyweiss

“My parents both come from Russia, small town in Russia. They were married there. He came first and then they sent for her. 1910, they were married. I was born 1916. My father had some trouble over there. He had trouble with some Cossacks. They used to come around with horses and beat up people, so he left. He left there. He was very religious, my father.”

Click here to read the full interview with Sam Blyweiss!

This project has been funded by The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage through the Heritage Philadelphia Program.

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