As history, this would be a very narrowly focused study—an account of the residential patterns of Catholics and Jews in the Dorchester and Roxbury areas of Boston from the late nineteenth century into the 1970s. But during that century what had been small Yankee towns became Jewish and Irish Catholic suburbs, and then areas of African American urban settlement. So the study has the makings of an ecological inquiry into ethnic residential succession. Gerald Gamm makes it that and more. Relying on parish and synagogue archives, denominational newspapers, and even personal inspection of buildings, he introduces the reader to the little world in which decisions whether to stay or to move out were made.
The basic thesis that is used for purposes of interpreting the historical data is that synagogues were congregationally organized and for purposes of survival needed to follow their membership into new residential areas, while Catholic parishes were territorially organized by mandates from a monarchical ecclesiastical regime; and for purposes of flourishing as church communities they needed to encourage their members to stay in the parish neighborhoods. There was an ironic outcome from the contrasting rules of religious organization: The Jews, who coexisted relatively peacefully with their new African American neighbors, abandoned their old neighborhoods quickly as they experienced upward mobility and moved their households and synagogues to more upscale neighborhoods while the Irish, who took a comparatively combative approach to their non-Irish neighbors, both Jewish and African American, stayed in place more tenaciously.
Examining the Catholic parish communities more closely, whether the neighborhood immediately surrounding the parish church was populated by parish member families, turned out to be a key variable. A complete institutional framework—church, rectory, school, and convent—with members comprising the neighborhood was the most stable pattern of all. The strict territorial rules that required that "sacraments of record" be received in the parish of residence meant that someone who moved away, even if only a few yards across the parish boundary, would be disconnected from family still in the parish at certain key points in the life cycle. Moreover identification with the parish and its school served to keep people in the neighborhood so that parish members frequently spent their entire lives living in the same vicinity. Such stability, while not complete, was also under less pressure from upward mobility in the case of the Irish Catholics, who did not rise as fast as the Jews.
The historical data include some sensitive accounts of Jewish congregational life. Decisions to move the synagogue too soon led to schisms, too late led to dissolution. Sometimes schisms helped prompt decisions to reorganize elsewhere. The fact that the synagogues were moving during the passage of time in which the Jewish denominational identities were forming brings to light the fact that the Orthodox synagogues organized in areas of first generation settlement while Conservative synagogues organized in areas of second generation settlement. Then the Orthodox synagogues would move to areas that the Conservative synagogues were leaving. Moving a synagogue was no small matter; it involved in many instances selling the building to a non-Jewish religious group, something contrary to tradition. It involved abandoning structures that had been constructed through generosity and sacrifice.
This is simply a great read. I recommend it to scholars and students in social history, urban sociology, sociology of religion, and religious studies. For that matter, the general reader—if such exists in this electronic age—would enjoy this book as well.