This area was almost totally Irish when I and my compatriots from Austria and Romania began our life in Providence in the early 1880’s on Robinson St. After 1900, Russian Jews fleeing pogroms came to South Providence. Most arrived with little in the way of possessions – perhaps treasured candlesticks, a prayer book and some clothes stuffed into a box.
There was work at jewelry factories like Ludwig’s or Lederer’s. Others of us peddled - walking the streets with a pack on our backs until we were able to save enough money to buy a horse and wagon. The pay at the factories was $3 per week, but rent was only $4 per month. Few people in the neighborhood owned a single-family house.
My family lived in a four room flat in a new three tenement we bought on Willard Ave: the other two flats were rented out. We were lucky to have gaslights and a bathtub in the bathroom. My neighbors, who were not so fortunate, went to the nearby bathhouse. There were, of course, very poor people living in our neighborhood. They received help from Jewish volunteer aid agencies, such as the Montefiore Ladies Association and the South Providence Ladies Aid Societies.
My home was a stopping point for many immigrants until they could find a job and a place to live. We often had “guests” staying with us, sometimes for a month or more. They were newly arrived immigrants – either our relatives or ‘landsleit’ (Yiddish), who were people from our town in Europe who had no family to take them in. Their arrival meant doubling up on bedrooms or giving up the parlor to a family. Even with the crowding, no one was turned away. We helped them find work and get settled.
We also had health insurance through beneficial associations. For a small sum weekly, you could join a beneficial or assisting society which offered a form of insurance. Some offered sick benefits like the Miriam Association while some had death benefits to pay some funeral expenses.
It was difficult to find kosher food in the neighborhood before the turn of the century, but by the 1920s we could buy kosher meat around the corner from my house. Although many of us went to separate synagogues to pray in the familiar tongues of our native lands, we had one social center where celebrations and meetings took place - Bazar’s Hall. Bazar’s even hosted a branch of the Providence Public Library where the Yiddish books were extremely popular.
Education was of utmost importance and we children actually attended two schools. First we attended the nearby public elementary school, and after our regular school day, we went to the Talmud Torah (Hebrew School) on Chester Avenue. It had a dual purpose as spelled out in its charter: “For Hebrew Education and to keep children off the streets after school hours...”. High School is where we first met people from outside of our neighborhood.
This was our life. Up until World War II, South Providence was a vibrant Jewish community. After the War, people began to move to other parts of the city, and to the suburbs. Urban renewal – hospitals, schools, and parking lots – have since taken over my neighborhood, which now only exists in photos and memories.
Author Geraldine "Jerry" Foster shares her family's personal experiences of life in the heart of Jewish South Providence from the early 1900s to today.