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A shared history of transformation

A Theatre Ariel play opening tonight celebrates the drama and joy of a large Jewish community's transformation into a multiethnic community.

Holocaust survivor Elaine Gross, top, gives student interviewer Ritzy George, of Saudi Arabia, insights into changes over the years in the Northeast.
Holocaust survivor Elaine Gross, top, gives student interviewer Ritzy George, of Saudi Arabia, insights into changes over the years in the Northeast.Read more

Marva St. Eustache, a George Washington High student whose parents emigrated from Haiti, finds it laughable that the Northeast Philadelphia she knows was ever home to cow pastures and asparagus fields.

She can't believe that almost no people of color lived here, that there were no Wawa convenience stores to hang out in, or that, without I-95, it was faster for folks to drive to New York for a night on the town than to Center City.

All this and more she learned from Harold Rosenthal, an aging Jewish activist who has lived in the 'hood for more than 40 years.

"In Brooklyn, where I lived before, there were Jews but they were Orthodox Jews and we didn't get to know them," said St. Eustache, 17.

St. Eustache and Rosenthal, 75, crossed paths last year in the course of an oral history/photography/theater project organized by Theatre Ariel, a local theater company that emphasizes Jewish themes. And the results of their meeting will be evident tonight with the premiere of Back to the Boulevard.

The original play by Julianne Theodoropulos draws from oral-history interviews conducted by some 35 George Washington and Northeast High School students, who were paired with elderly members of the Jewish Community Center's Klein Branch, on Jamison Road at Red Lion.

The Boulevard in the title is, of course, the Roosevelt Boulevard, which extends from the Schuylkill Expressway through the Northeast to the Bucks County line, simultaneously connecting and dividing communities along the way.

Three performances of the play are scheduled at the community center - tonight and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. At the same time, a photo exhibit, entitled "A Community Remembers," will display black and white portraits of the longtime residents, taken by the students.

The whole project - pictures, stories and theater production - was the brainchild of Deborah Baer Mozes, founder and artistic director of Theatre Ariel.

She knew that the once lily-white, largely Jewish neighborhood had become a multiracial, multiethnic community and that many of the current residents were unaware of the past.

So, she enlisted students such as St. Eustache, from Haiti; Ritzy George, from Saudi Arabia, and Yanlim Li, from Hong Kong.

"Most of the young people in this community are immigrants themselves," Baer Mozes said. "And they had no idea how immigrants from another era built the community."

Once unabashedly called the Great Northeast for its size, the neighborhood seemed to think itself great in scope as well. Content to find all they needed within their own loosely defined borders, residents rarely ventured into Center City. Over the years, several grassroots attempts at secession from the rest of Philadelphia came and went.

The Northeast evolved after World War II from farms and fields to a middle-income new-housing mecca. Jews from South and West Philadelphia moved north for open space and the promise of prosperity.

Decades later, the mostly Jewish neighborhood made way for emigres from Ukraine, Russia, Haiti, Southeast Asia, India and the Muslim world. Synagogues, kosher butcher shops and bakeries shut down, while ethnic groceries sprouted.

The play opens a door to that past for the neighborhood's newer residents. It is a funny, sometimes poignant portrayal of change and consequence - a study in contrasts, showing a neighborhood where aging Jewish widows rub elbows with newly arrived Hindus.

Rosenthal, now 75, said his synagogue was among many that closed in recent years as the Jewish population of the Northeast dwindled. But as St. Eustache learned, his story has an inspiring side, too.

In the long tradition of Jewish social activism, Rosenthal, along with his wife and their friends, organized to help African Americans who wanted to move into the area.

When a housing development was under construction, the sales agent would set up shop in one of the sample homes and meet clients there. These houses often had sliding glass doors in the rear that led to what would one day be the backyard. So, when a black family approached, Rosenthal said, the agent would quickly slip out the back door - to avoid overtly breaking the law that prohibited discrimination.

Rosenthal and his wife had a prearranged system with interested black families. They'd pose as buyers and keep the sales agent occupied - and in place - until the black family arrived.

"I thought that was a really smart idea," said St. Eustache. "His story shows there were people here fighting for the cause. They knew what segregation was like, and they wanted to help stop it."

Romie Hecdivert, another George Washington student from Haiti, said the older woman she interviewed emphasized the importance of holding onto traditions, no matter what your ethnicity.

"And that makes sense to me," Hecdivert says. Respect for one another's traditions is, she says, part of what makes the Northeast work.

"There's a sense of family," Hecdivert says, "even though we're all different."

Andre Krug, director of the JCC Klein Branch, says the successful melding of cultures in Northeast Philadelphia is one of the great untold stories.

"We have a huge senior program here, and that's still overwhelmingly Jewish - about 95 to 98 percent," says Krug who emigrated from Ukraine 18 years ago.

"And in the younger population you start seeing the mix that exists in the whole neighborhood: a lot of Russians, Israeli and Indians. The Indian community is growing by leaps and bounds."

"This building became a microcosm that mirrors the neighborhood," Krug says. "And people get along. Absolutely. People get along very very well."

If You Go

Back to the Boulevard will be performed three times this week in the Polonsky Theater at JCC's Klein Branch, Red Lion and Jamison Roads in Northeast Philadelphia, at 7:30 p.m. tonight, 8:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets, $4 for senior citizens and $8 for all others, may be reserved by calling Theatre Ariel at 215-735-9481.

A photography exhibit, "A Community Remembers," is on display outside the theater.