Saturday, November 12, 2005

 

Palimpsest



The Boston neighborhoods of Dorchester, Mattapan, and West Roxbury once hosted thriving Jewish communities. The people there were mainly orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe who immigrated in the late 1800s and moved to the area from their first Boston homes in the tenements of the North End. This southward displacement criss-crossed that of earlier Jewish immigrants from Western Europe who, having reached middle class, were already moving from their homes in the then-South End to Brookline and Newton.

Knox and I learned all this today as we were biking around the city with Dick, a guy we met through the folks at Hub on Wheels, who is also interested in designing a bike tour of Jewish Boston. Dick has already thought a lot about what such a tour would include, and today was all about going to see the sites on his list.

It's amazing how much history one can glean if one looks in the right place. These neighborhoods are currently populated by working-class African-American communities. Many of the churches, however, were once synagogues, and magen Davids and menorahs still adorn the fa├žades. Hebrew schools have found new life as parochial schools or community centers. The G & G Delicatessen, once the hub of neighborhood life and local politics, is now a hardware store, yet its old name is still laid out in a floor mosaic at the entrance.

I'm just beginning to learn about this whole topic; at the moment I'm working my way through Hillel Levine's and Lawrence Harmon's The Death of An American Jewish Community: A tragedy of Good Intentions, a book that appears to lay blame for the fragmentation of the Jewish neighborhoods on the notorious policy of redlining and unscrupulous practices by some real-estate brokers. I'd also like to read Gerald Gamm's Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed for a different take on the same subject.

If you have any ideas for sites and history we can include in this bike ride-- and particularly if you can recollect what Jewish life was like in these neighborhoods-- we'd love to hear from you.

Comments:
Victor --

Hope you enjoyed the Harmon/Levine book, I lived in Mattapan in the late sixties and remember much of what they wrote. I was fortunate enough to visit the G & G a few times and attended one of their famed election eve rallies.

I once took a friend on what I called the "historic Mattapan tour" of the Lewenberg, the "wall" at Franklin Field and later Almont Field, Temple Bnai Moshe on Morton Street where we played football, and the old Roger Wolcott School (now Walgreens) where we played stickball.

Check out the Mattapan Friends Association (you can google it) for more memories.

Regards,

Howard L.
 
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