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American Jewish History 89.1 (2001) 149-151

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Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed. By Gerald Gamm. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. xii + 384 pp.

Suburbanization was undoubtedly the most influential post-World War II demographic factor shaping American Jewry, and this was particularly true for Boston which was virtually denuded of Jews during the 1960s and 1970s. The Boston suburb of Newton received its nickname "the garden city," one person quipped, because there seemed to be a Rosenbloom on every corner. Owing in part to the concentration of universities in the area, the suburbanization of Boston's Jews has been studied more extensively than most other cities. This cottage industry began with Albert I. Gordon's pioneering Jews in Suburbia, and includes Yona Ginsberg's Jews in a Changing Neighborhood: The Study of Mattapan and Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon's The Death of an American Jewish Community: A Tragedy of Good Intentions. 1

Gerald Gamm's Urban Exodus is the latest and most honored contribution to this genre. Gamm's 1994 Harvard dissertation, "Neighborhood Roots: Exodus and Stability in Boston, 1870-1990," won the American Political Science Association's annual award for the best dissertation on urban politics, and Urban Exodus received the Robert E. Park award of the American Sociological Association in 2000 for the most distinguished book in urban and community sociology. But Urban Exodus is more than a pioneering work in comparative sociology. It is also a thoughtful and challenging contribution to American Jewish history, and tells a story that occurred in Detroit, Washington, Newark, Cleveland, Minneapolis, New York, and elsewhere.

It is difficult to conceive of two books in American Jewish history more different in their assumptions and conclusions than The Death of an American Jewish Community and Urban Exodus. Levine and Harmon argued that the demise of the Jewish community in Mattapan, the southern part of Dorchester, during the 1960s was caused by an unholy alliance of real estate interests, banks, and politicians, eager to benefit from the federal government's largesse in subsidizing of urban development programs. These "elusive forces," organized into the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group, directed Boston's growing Black population into [End Page 149] Jewish areas rather than into Irish, Italian, and other ethnic enclaves. Jews, they believed, would be less resistant to the racial transformation of their neighborhoods and less prone to violence.

Gamm strongly disagrees, and Urban Exodus focuses on another aspect of this story--the different rates by which Jews and Catholics left Boston. In Boston, as elsewhere, "the exodus from Jewish neighborhoods occurred earlier, faster, and more thoroughly than the exodus from Catholic neighborhoods--and with much less violence" (p. 13). By the 1970s, Jewish Boston had become part of the Black ghetto. The G&G delicatessen, the center of Jewish Mattapan, indicated this when it added bacon and eggs to its breakfast menu. But this transformation had begun decades earlier. During the early and mid-1950s, a time when the Jewish community of Roxbury-Dorchester was still viable, five important Jewish institutions left the area for Brookline and Newton: Hebrew Teachers College, the Maimonides day school, Orthodox congregations Beth El and Atereth Israel, and Conservative synagogue Mishkan Tefila. "These institutions," Gamm writes, "relocated once their leaders had become convinced that the urban exodus posed threats to institutional survival, but before those threats were fully manifest" (p. 233).

According to Gamm, who teaches politics and history at the University of Rochester, the difference between the demographic mobility of Jews and Roman Catholics stemmed from the different institutional structures of the two groups. As a result of a close examination of church and synagogue records, census data, newspaper accounts, Boston government records, and other primary source material, Gamm argues that "what primarily distinguishes Jews from Catholics is not a different capacity for racist behavior but a different attachment to territory. Catholics have a strong sense of turf, regarding their neighborhoods as defended geographical communities (pp. 15-16)." And this, in turn, has been shaped by how...


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