The teenagers of a vanished Jewish community are partying together once again — 50 years after they fled the old neighborhood – thanks to a Facebook group page, “Dorchester-Mattapan for Those Born in the 1940s and 1950s.”
Now dispersed around the world, the young people who grew up in this Jewish enclave are remembering their glory days online – “Was Leonard Nimoy’s father your barber?” asked one post — and organizing face-to-face reunions in the real world.
This members-only Facebook page occupies a special place for its 700 participants, because it revives a community that disappeared virtually overnight: In just one year, 1969, the Jewish population of Dorchester-Mattapan dropped from 50,000 to 6,000.
The page is more than a nostalgia-fest or a party line in cyberspace: It’s also a place to process the bitterness that persists long after this dynamic Jewish community was driven into the ground, in part, by violence, racism, greed, fear and government mismanagement.
The Facebook page has reestablished a sense of community that was taken from us,” writes Steve Zaidman. “It’s given us a chance to reconnect but also to make ‘virtual friendships’ that didn’t exist before.”
Dorchester-Mattapan wasn’t just a place, but a unique culture that shaped lives then and now.
This was the last generation to live in a community that got started in the early 1900s when grandparents and great-grandparents left the downtown Boston neighborhoods that were their first footholds in the New World. These immigrant ancestors took advantage of new trolley lines to travel out to the leafy outer neighborhoods along Blue Hill Ave., a four-mile road lined with shops, restaurants and apartment buildings. Developers squeezed three-story wood-frame homes – Boston’s legendary triple-deckers – into narrow lots. Now the cover photo for the Facebook page, these modest structures were multi-level stages in which intense family comedies and dramas played out.
Without backyards, the teens and children played in the streets, in Franklin Field and Franklin Park, the green heart of the neighborhood laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York’s Central Park.
The Facebook posts recall the many ways kids had fun. Blue Hill Ave. teemed with stores and restaurants offering everything from candy to clothing to kosher cuisine. The G&G restaurant was the culinary epicenter of the neighborhood and the must-visit spot for every Boston politician. There were the teen clubs at the Hecht House, the local Jewish community center. Roller skating at the Chez Vous rink. Foot-long hot dogs at Simco’s “by the bridge.” Saturday morning double features at the local movie palaces, the Morton and the Oriental. A subway ride would take kids to downtown Boston where they could shop at Jack’s joke shop or, for more serious stuff, Gilchrest’s, Raymond’s, and the inimitable – original – Filene’s Basement where many a child was traumatized by the sight of grown women stripping to their underthings to try on bargain dresses. A great ice cream sundae could be had at Bailey’s or Brigham’s and a special treat was a Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin. Multiple Facebook threads have been devoted to the best recipe for a Jordan’s blueberry muffin.
Page members recall the disciplinarian teachers at public schools like the Charles H. Taylor, the Audubon, and the estimable Solomon Lewenberg – “the Sollie” to its alumni. Report cards and class photos are posted, kids wearing the required ties and “hard shoes.” Page cofounder Rona Alex recently rediscovered her childhood best friend after posting her class photo from the Sollie.
Page members also remember the sights, sounds, and smells of five-day-a week Hebrew schools. All that religious education prepared us for Saturday morning services and, especially, for the High Holy Days when the entire tribe walked along Blue Hill Ave. to their shuls and spent the afternoon hanging out on “The Wall” at Franklin Field. The waist-high stone Wall, located along the avenue, offered the best front-row seat for watching the meandering masses. Today the Wall occupies a special, iconic place in the hearts of the Facebook members and the destination for an occasional pilgrimage.
As so many recall online, the entire community decamped for the summer to the shore at Nantasket where teenage days were spent on the beach and nights at Paragon Park or the Surf club. Page members debate the best shows at the Surf and, this being Boston, the joint with the tastiest fried clams.
The idyll of Dorchester-Mattapan came crashing to an end in the 1960s when the community fled to the suburbs. Like countless Jewish communities around the United States, the Jews left the old neighborhood as they prospered and as black families moved in. Crime rose precipitously and members of the Facebook page recount stories of burglaries and muggings. A red line was crossed in 1969 when two teenagers threw acid in the face of a congregational rabbi in the doorway of his home. Two synagogues were torched a year later.
Unlike other communities, however, the flight to the suburbs was accelerated by external forces. As chronicled in the book “The Death of an American Jewish Community,” ruthless real estate agents engaged in aggressive blockbusting tactics. Meanwhile a consortium of 22 Boston savings banks, the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group (BBURG), provided low-income black families with newly accessible FHA-backed mortgages within certain areas, including a corner of Dorchester.
In a 1969 JTA article on the acid attack, the rabbi, Gerald B. Zelermyer, said, “The affluent [Jews] have left. The less affluent, who need help, mostly remain.”
The decimation of the old neighborhood still provokes anger among the Facebook posters who saw their teen years disrupted by a move to the suburbs. While many families moved en masse to towns like Milton, Randolph, Sharon, Brookline, and Newton which recapitulated the Yiddishe ta’am, the Jewish feel, of bygone days, others moved to areas where they were a small minority, and sometimes unwelcome. The demise of the neighborhood left an open wound for many. One Facebook post suggested suing the banks who gave out the cut-rate mortgages.
None of this online nostalgia, bellyaching and group therapy was envisioned by its founders, Rona Alex, Stephen Pugatch, and Diane Davidson Jacobs who launched the site in 2010 as they saw more and more old friends joining Facebook. “We never thought it would fly,” says Rona. “I was over the moon when we hit 50 members. Now we have over 700 who live in Massachusetts and in such distant places as England, Israel, and Thailand.” As interest has grown, the original Facebook page has spawned several others, including one devoted to politics and another to music.
The high-spirited young people who once flirted on Blue Hill Ave. are reconnecting with old flames, announcing anniversaries, uploading photos of their children and grandchildren, and gossiping about divorces. They are offering condolences for the loss of friends’ parents who once fed them and kept them in line.
Members are sharing information about the best retirement communities in Florida and the most authentic Jewish foods. As in days of old, they welcome non-Jewish neighbors into the virtual neighborhood; They put up with the High Holy Day greetings and ask the occasional question about Jewish customs.
The camaraderie is spilling from the Internet cloud onto terra firma. Spurred by the page, people are visiting the old neighborhood and posting the photos online. Reunions are taking place, including a sold-out event on December 13 in Stoughton, Mass. Apologies are being offered to those turned away.
“I love this page,” posts Linda Freeman. “It’s reconnected me with old friends that I doubt I would have ever found again and all the memories that we share together. We are our own tribe and I feel privileged to be part of it. Our experiences cannot be explained to any other group of people anywhere in the world. We are the last generation to have these memories. We have to keep the stories going.”
Personally, as a member of one of the last Jewish families to leave the area, I only experienced its dying days. My childhood was filled with departing neighbors and closing Jewish institutions. When our Cub Scout troop sponsor, the Jewish War Veterans Post, closed its doors, I joined the group at St. Gregory’s church. When our synagogue was sold to a church, I was bused to Hebrew school across town. And when our family finally left for suburbia in 1970, there was no one to commiserate with. The advent of the Facebook page has given me and my peers, for the first time in over 40 years, a virtual neighborhood and a support group. I have located my childhood best friend, discovered a former babysitter, and met with a fellow Dorchester-Mattapan resident who lives nearby in suburban Maryland, far from the old shtetl.
Jews are famous for their exiles and the Dorchester-Mattapan dispersion is just another example. Thanks to the Facebook page we can experience the lost culture of that neighborhood once again, enjoy the friendships, and find some closure for this formative chapter of our lives. Despite the trauma of our early years, page members express gratitude for having grown up in Dorchester-Mattapan, and for the Facebook page that has brought us back together.