A Nostalgic Zephyr: William Hoffman on the Old Jewish West Side

It is difficult to choose from Bill Hoffman’s writings because they are all so compelling. Street by street and door by door and character by character he documented an important piece of Saint Paul—Jewish life on the West Side flats—that no longer exists. Hoffman should be required reading for recent immigrants and for those who have forgotten that their families were once immigrants.

William Hoffman, Those Were The Days (T. S. Denison and Company, 1957); pages 26–27, 29–31.

(Image courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)

Do you remember the blacksmith shop on Texas Street where the mighty smithy, Mr. Reznick, labored diligently with peddlers’ wagons and sturdy steeds? This was Texas Street: an impossible morass of mud after each rain. It was so bad that Chaim Greenstein (Peg Green’s brother) wrote to the old Daily News asking for airplane service from State Street to his home at 320 Texas. There were other neighbors who felt the same way: The Senenskys, Blumstiens, Chases, Macarofskys, Hirschorns, Hoffmans, Gransbergs, Dietzes, Rosenblums, Lynches, Zuckers, Skroopkas, and others I may have forgotten at the moment. But today, most of these families have left long since and Helen Gransberg Turner (“Hawtkeh”), with her own family, reigns as queen of a shrinking dominion.

To live on State Street, which was paved and had sewers and running water, was the Mecca and dream of my mother. It was not her own comfort she was concerned about, but rather that of her daughters. How would any eligible suitor in his right mind ever get down so far as the end of Texas Street to court her daughters? “Gott zu danken” (thank heaven), however, all was not lost, for the tennis courts were across the street on the Minnetonka playground, and my mother took advantage of the terrain to bait the trap.  Most of the “Castle Garden” dandies in their white slacks came down often to play tennis and my mother made full use of her homemade root beer to lure the unsuspecting. Who could resist the cold foaming drink? Finally, it was “Shloymie” Solomon who asked my sister Annie for her hand. What a potent brew that was, full of yeast and probably the forerunner of today’s atomic bomb. …

Harriet Island, known to us as “Bading House,” provided good swimming in the Mississippi River and the best picnic spot. There were cages with animals, slides, and sand boxes. For a hot shower or “vaneh” (bath) we went to the Wilder Public Baths for the weekly “Shabus” (Sabbath) clean-up—towel and soap for one penny. I would have written that even today one old patriarch makes the trip over the Robert Street bridge every Friday with a change of underwear bundled under his arm but now he is gone too.

Oh, that first delicatessen store, Levoonehs (Lebanon) on Fairfield. Do your nostrils quiver with the mixed, intriguing smells of herring, “shmookfleish,” Russian candies, halvah, and pickles? Can’t you see coming out from the back room, portly and genial, “Mr. Levooneh,” father of the Stacker boys and proprietor of the store? He also sold us our “chedar” writing tablets, “gragers” (noise makers) for Purim, and monkey nuts. And on one side on top of the glass counter were stacks of Jewish newspapers: Der Tag, Morgen Journal, and the Forvitz. …

Take hold of my hand and walk along with me. The day is clear, the sun bright, and there is a nostalgic zephyr which whispers softly of the promise along this winding path. This is the little world of our beloved West Side, and who can blame others who wish to claim it, too, for their own. We invite them also, and even those who are reluctant because for some reason or other, in the length and depth of their lives, have once wished to disclaim their childhood and the legacy of their parents.

 

Patrick Coleman is the Minnesota Historical Society acquisitions librarian. He was honored with the prestigious Kay Sexton Award at the twenty-first annual Minnesota Book Awards gala, serves on the board of Coffee House Press, and is a longtime member of the Ampersand Club and the Manuscript Society. He writes the 150 Best Minnesota Books Blog, highlighting books that are important to the intellectual life and identity of the state. Due to his work, the MHS library is one of the preeminent research libraries in the nation.

 

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