Monday, December 6, 2010

Out of the Ashes Rises A Symbol of Hope

December 6, 2010

Congratulations to our Cape Ann Jewish Community, especially to their synagogue design and architectural oversight committee, for the beautiful futuristic building taking shape on historic Middle Street. This modern temple sends a message of hope and inspiration. Our Jewish community is alive and well, moving forward with an edifice that inspires hope for the future while honoring their founding fathers from the past.

Gloucester has been my home for a lifetime and some of my most memorable experiences involved my Portuguese neighbors and lifelong Italian friends. Reflecting on my formative years, our Jewish community the smallest of Cape Ann’s ethnic groups influenced my life more than any other; I am truly grateful.

It has been my good fortune to have lived in some of Gloucester’s most exciting times. The period from the end of WW II – 1945 to the opening of the A. Piatt Andrew Bridge in 1951 (when we were still an island) was for me, undoubtedly Gloucester’s finest hours. It was in this brief period that Gloucester was a community like no other. We were the leading fishing port in the world! Millions of pounds of fresh fish were landed daily. Hundreds of wharf workers and vessel support personnel worked the waterfronts, three marine railways, and numerous processing plants. A fleet of 200 vessels sailed from Ipswich Bay to the Grand Banks, a thousand miles away! The whole city prospered, Main Street was alive! Gloucester was like no other place. It was a special time.

My father worked for Ben Kerr of the National House Furniture Co. at the corner of Elm and Main Streets during the 1940s. Around the supper table we were introduced to the Jewish community, listening to my father’s stories working for the Kerr family. On several special occasions, Dad was recruited by Ben to pump the organ (bellows) in the synagogue. It was quite an experience for my dad; he even donned a yarmulke.

One hot summer night in July of ’45, my mongrel dog was severely injured in a fight. The vet’s phone rang and rang. My father remembered that Dr. Morris Pett was a dog lover. He called the doctor, and was told to come to his office on Middle Street, but to enter the back way with “Rags” wrapped in a sheet. While Dr. Pett’s patients unknowingly waited in his outer room, Dr. Pett sutured my dog’s neck in his rear examining charge! Dr. Pett was a little boy’s hero. He was a kind, compassionate and giving person, a Gloucester legend.

I only recall three Jews that worked the Gloucester waterfront in the mid forties. Nathan Flasher, a lumper (longshoreman) and my friend Gene Marshall, a lumper and marine insurance broker, who rented a one room office in the green building (still there) on the Gloucester House wharf. The third person was a “worker of the wharves”, Harry Slafsky. Across the street from Ed Bloomberg’s Strand Theater (now Palazola’s Sporting Goods store) on the West End of Main Street was Slafsky’s Pawn Shop. Harry was a short, portly man, a natural salesman with an outgoing personality. His pawn shop was not in the busiest section of Main Street, so Harry conducted business daily on the waterfront, reminiscent of the peddlers of old. In those days, Gloucester hosted a large 15 - 20 vessel southern fleet each summer. These southern crew members lived aboard their boats between trips – a captive clientele. Harry, with rings on every finger and a dozen wrist watches on each arm, brought his wares to these customers. This was my first lesson in retail merchandising.

Upon my return from the service in 1961, I took my first job at the Gloucester Safe Deposit & Trust Co. on the corner of Main and Duncan Streets. All the tellers belonged to “Bob” Kramer’s suit club. Every week “Bob” would collect a buck from each of us, placing us in the “lottery” with a chance to win a free suit. The trouble was, after a year of contributing, I never won! I expressed my displeasure to “Bob”. Low and behold, the next week, I was “shocked, shocked” to learn that I had won the grand prize of a nice suit. “Bob” threw in a Dobb’s felt hat to boot. Bob Kramer was my friend, long before and after the suit experience. He called me “Herbie”, my dad’s name. Everyone in Gloucester who knew “Bob” Kramer, owner of Bob’s Haberdashery, loved him.

In Sarah V. Dunlap’s wonderful, informative chronicle “The Jewish Community of Cape Ann”, an oral history, she tells the story of the five musical Sandler brothers. Sandler’s Music Store was on the corner of Hancock and Main Street (where the curtain shop is today). High school kids flocked to the store’s record department to test play hit records of the day in one of six soundproof booths at the rear of the store. On the second floor the brothers gave music lessons.....perhaps Fred Slafsky and “Louie” Norton, my fellow R.O.T.C. band friends, were taking sax and trombone lessons at the time. Both are retired medical doctors today.

Twenty years later in the early ‘70s, I acquired Gene Marshall’s marine insurance business after his untimely passing. I was associated with attorney Solomon Sandler who conducted his law practice directly above my ground floor office, with his son Mark and their associate “Bob” Laramee. Attorney “Sol”, became my marine insurance adviser. He was like a father to me; he was my mentor.

When I reminisce about Gloucester’s Jewish community members, I think of the Alper family. Leo sold me my first college topcoat for one dollar weekly. “Ted” Linsky gave me credit and auto service for years. His son, “Steve”, still continues the Linsky family business. “Lenny” Linsky, was a WWII wounded survivor of the Normandy Beach landing. Richard and “Winnie” Bell were in our restaurant every weekend. Fred Axelrod sold me a suit for my engagement – 50% off! Dr. David Cohen, with his soft, kind voice treated me when I was ill as a youngster. Dr. Broder was my dentist on Pleasant Street. These people and many more impacted my life. They contributed significantly to the prosperity of our community.

Arriving from Europe as peddlers and laborers, Gloucester’s Jewish population, while few in number, would become a major influence in the Cape Ann community. Religiously they moved forward from their humble shul beginnings on Liberty and Addison streets to Prospect, and then Middle Street. Professionally they became prominent Main Street merchants, doctors, lawyers and educators. Their story is a classic American story; it’s what this great country is all about! These are my thoughts when I pass the beautiful temple rising out of the ashes on historic Middle Street.

For those who disagree with the architecture of the new temple, I remind you that the designs of preeminent architect Frank Lloyd Wright were met with serious criticism during his early career. Locally, Gloucester High School was faulted for its design in 1938, dubbed “the factory”. Now 70 years later, it is still a vital component of our community!

After three negative and demeaning letters to the Times, I say, “enough already”! YOU, Mr. Golden, “just don’t get it”. You are too busy looking at the trees! The people of Cape Ann know the “cut of your jib”. On this noble temple project, Mr. Golden, the train has left the station and you’re not on it!

Ron Gilson


  1. So there! So glad your back blogging,Ron..Don't stay away so long...

  2. Keep it up, Ron - you are providing a vitally needed record for future generations to understand what came before them.

  3. Thank you for your encouragement. As an old timer, I sometimes wonder if my writing efforts fall on deaf ears or eyes. I know activists play an important and worthy role. However, intimate knowledge, personal experience and credibility regarding our city's history are all trump cards that must be considered in playing any crucial game of the future.