Going Back, Way Back

Chelsea, 1922.

Yom Kippur Day.

The city’s 15,000 Jewish residents are in a virtual holiday lock down.

The city at this point in its history in the midst of a great population and economic rise. It is the Roaring Twenties and Chelsea is rising to its great moment under the sun.

Everyone is working, struggling, scheming, educating themselves and gaining a major foothold in the new land. It is the same in 1000 Chelsea’s all over this nation.

Broadway’s many Jewish merchants close their shops. Jewish businesses in the city are shut down. For Jewish Chelsea, it is a day of solemnity, deep solemnity as Chelsea’s Jews are mostly fresh with the vestiges of the eight-century European traditions which have been transferred to the new land – to Chelsea.

It is a day when kids can’t laugh. When fasting as required causes only the very old or the very sick not to eat – not even to sip water.

There are 17 synagogues, at least that many rabbis and cantors, and they are all full on Yom Kippur.

And people are praying, chanting, singing ancient Jewish songs.

There is a great swirl of people coming and going to synagogue.

It is a time when Chelsea’s Jews walked to synagogue or wherever they would be in the city on that holy day.

For the city’s non-Jewish population, for the Irish, the Italian and the Polish minorities, it was a virtual day off as nearly everything giving life to the city was closed.

Chelsea was quiet on this day in 1922.

The quiet was palpable and the streets filled with the city’s Jewish folks in their holiday finery walking to synagogue.

Many of those families making their way to synagogue would have come across the mayor of the city, Lawrence Quigley, who yearly made the point to greet the city’s Jewish community on their way to synagogue.

Quigley came to the city an immigrant man like those he would greet. But he was an immigrant no longer. He became an American and learned the ways of the new land like those he greeted. He was born a leader in Ireland and transferred the gift here. He was an enormously popular and sometimes controversial figure but when it came to a sacred holiday, he understood that moment and how important it was for the city’s Jews.

Dressed in a tuxedo and top hat, he would often stop to wish families a Happy New Year with a tip of his cap and with a few words of Yiddish. Yes, the late great Mayor of Chelsea could speak Yiddish! Such greetings were talked about at that time throughout the Jewish community and recalled fondly for many generations after by those who could remember that time in the city’s history.

The traditional day of services ended here as it ended everywhere at the same time for Jews all over the world. At sunset, the city’s rabbi’s stood up and raised their arms and said to their congregations gathered before them: “The sun is setting. The gates are closing. God is closing the Book.”

That book, presumably, was and remains the Book of Life, into which God writes who shall live and who shall die. Who shall be happy and who shall be sad. Who shall be rich and who shall be poor. Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low and on and on.

It was a sobering moment then for those in synagogue. It is a sobering moment today for those in synagogue.

After returning home, the fast was broken. From Tudor Street to Marlboro Street, from Ash Street to Third Street, from Everett Avenue to Prattville, the Jews broke the fast with elaborate meals, dairy mostly, smoked fish, boiled potatoes, eggs, bagels and many more treats.

It was perhaps the high point of the Jewish New Year – sitting with one’s family around the table after breaking the fast and celebrating with a grand meal.

Chelsea, 1922 on Yom Kippur Day was one of those moments in the city’s history never to be duplicated.

The Roaring Twenties provided such stunningly hopeful and vibrant moments until the market crash of 1929.

Then came the dreariness of the 1930’s and the Great Depression. Then came the war and then came the decline of the city as so many returning from the war chose to move out.

Then came the bridge dividing the city in two and causing many thousands to flee.

Then the dreariness of the city in its nearly moribund state in the late 1960’s and 1970’s – and then the Great Fire, the near collapse of the city following it.

Today, Yom Kippur is just another day in the bustling Chelsea we have come to know.

It is a different city today. Different people. Different minorities. Different traditions and even a different persona.

One thing remains – the tolerance that allows everyone here to be whom they want and to pray as they like.

Yom Kippur 2012 may be a post-script about what came before in this city but the city survives. Its people have faith. Religion and church remain important to Chelsea’s masses.

The city is a different place today. It wasn’t any better or much different in 1922 than it is today.

It remains a place where people from all walks of life are struggling to achieve the American Dream.

The dream is alive. The struggle remains.

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