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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 416-421

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Religious Roots

John T. McGreevy

Gerald Gamm. Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. 400 pp. Maps, figures, notes, and index. $39.95.

This carefully written, impressively researched book begins with the puzzle suggested in its subtitle: Why did almost all of Boston's 70,000 Jews leave the neighborhoods of Dorchester and Roxbury for suburban destinations during the 1950s and 1960s, even as most of Boston's (largely Irish) Catholic population chose to remain in similar urban neighborhoods? Or what made Malcolm X, himself familiar with Boston, ask in his autobiography, "Who would always lead the whites' exodus? The Jews! Generally in these situations some whites stay put--you just notice who they are; they're Irish Catholics, they're Italians; they're rarely ever any Jews." (as quoted on p. 15)

Gerald Gamm dispenses with the usual suspects. Jews did not leave Boston in greater numbers than the city's Catholics because more Jews were affluent and capable of purchasing suburban homes. Relative Jewish affluence did play a role from the 1920s to the 1940s, Gamm concedes, but the income disparity between Boston's Catholics and Jews ended in the 1960s (the affluent Jews had left) and yet that decade also saw an exodus of working-class, modestly educated Jews.

Proximity to African-American neighborhoods is similarly unrevealing. Both Jewish and heavily white Catholic neighborhoods bordered Roxbury's small African-American community in 1950, but African-Americans searching for better housing invariably chose to enter once-Jewish neighborhoods, not nearby Catholic areas. Arson and crime undermined the security of Jews and Catholics alike. Redlining practices that made it difficult for urban homeowners to receive loan guarantees also made no religious discrimination. Blockbusting real estate agents attempted to stampede white residents out of both areas. Gamm is especially withering in his demolition of one of Boston's long-standing scholarly and civic myths, that the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group (BBURG) arranged for the entrance of low-income African-American families into Jewish neighborhoods in the late 1960s, but bowed to the wishes of powerful Catholic politicians and neglected any [End Page 416] comparable program in Catholic neighborhoods. In their 1992 study, Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon bemoaned BBURG's attempt to "funnel" African-Americans into a "small, cohesive Jewish neighborhood"; Gamm more persuasively concludes that the Jewish exodus predated the formation of BBURG, and that "in no way did the BBURG line target Jewish neighborhoods" (pp. 42, 49).

What, then, is the answer? Quite simply, in Gamm's words, the answer lies in the "rules that define local institutions" (p. 21). Catholic parishes are (by and large) defined geographically. Members must live within a certain area, and the church itself is immobile, making a permanent commitment to a particular neighborhood. As a result, "Catholics can be confident in their church's long-term commitment to its neighborhood, they can reasonably expect other Catholics to stay in the district, and those rational expectations are mutually reinforcing" (p. 60). By contrast, "Jewish institutional membership is entirely voluntary." Synagogues, unlike parishes, compete for members (one city block might contain several synagogues) and Jews "settling in Boston's suburbs could remain active in their old synagogues and community centers, easing the transition to a new community" (p. 20) The contrasting attachment to territory--Catholics so defined by the parish that they answered "St. Peter's" when asked where they were from, Jews comfortable with the pattern of synagogues moving from Roxbury to Dorchester to suburban Newton--explains differing behavior. Catholics poured holy water on the church building at dedication ceremonies, Jews emphasized sacred (and moveable) texts. Put bluntly: Catholics resisted African-Americans more violently and moved less frequently because of their attachment to rooted parish institutions, while Jews avoided confrontation through institutional mobility.

In its broad contours Urban Exodus persuades, and Gamm's achievement is noteworthy. He traces the life history of over one hundred Boston churches and synagogues, itself an accomplishment, and weaves them into a story of...


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