Ken Schlossberg holds a book about the Jewish Community in Dorchester that will be made into a video while sitting in the chapel of the Schlossberg & Solomon Funeral Home in Canton.
(Staff photo by Jeff Gahres)

Bringing the past alive

By Jim Clarke / Correspondent
Thursday, November 6, 2003

'Ghetto Memories Revisited' explores Jewish community in Boston

Preserving memories of one's past is a precious commodity in this world of fast-pace and change.

Two local men are doing their part to make sure a once thriving community is never forgotten.

From the 1930's through the 1960's, the Jewish community of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan represented one of the largest Jewish communities in America with a unique cultural, business, and political life.

The old community contained between 80,000 and 100,000 people. Two books by former Sharon resident Norm Morris, as well as a video being produced by Morris and Ken Schlossberg of Canton's Schlossberg and Solomon Memorial Chapel, have brought these memories back to life.

Boston's Jewish community was thriving in the early to mid-20th century. Today, much of what went on in these neighborhoods has been forgotten by those who did not experience first-hand what it was like to live in the community.

Since the 1970's, the large Jewish community of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Matttapan has moved to the city's suburbs, to towns such as Sharon, Milton, Canton and Stoughton.

Morris, through his two books, and Schlossberg, through his upcoming video, want to help those who were raised in the Boston community remember details of their pasts with the use of the materials they have put together.

Schlossberg is the general manager of Schlossberg-Solomon Memorial Chapel in Canton, and resides in Brookline.

Morris is a retired businessman and Major League baseball scout who resides on Cape Cod for seven months a year and on Boynton Beach in Florida for the other five months. Both men grew up in the community.

Schlossberg grew up in the Almont Apartments on Blue Hill Avenue, a short distance from Mattapan Square.

From 1964 through 1998, he worked in Washington as a journalist, staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, and then as the president of his own public relations and lobbying firm.

He represented universities and medical centers that needed federal funds to build research facilities, including Tufts, Boston University, Boston College, Brandeis, and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole.

Schlossberg returned to Boston in the late 1990's because of an illness in his family and stepped in as general manager of the Canton funeral home owned by his family earlier this year.

Since returning, Schlossberg said he has ran into "countless" people from his past who lived in the old neighborhood and heard countless fascinating stories.

Morris was once signed to play professional baseball, playing in Montreal. In 1953, he went into the U.S. Air Force after being drafted for Korea. He ended up coaching baseball in the Far East Air Force in Tokyo, where he played for three years.

Morris was going to sign a contract with the Boston Red Sox. However, he was persuaded to go to college. The college experience led him to land many high level jobs, including becoming a trust examiner for a Boston bank, opening a consulting corporation teaching statistics and analytical auditing to banks around the world, as well as writing many articles on the subject of his teaching.

While teaching in Wisconsin, Morris hooked up with the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team, and scouted for the organization from 1981 to 1988, covering the Cape Cod Baseball League during summers.

While he lived in Sharon, Morris was Chairman of the Cable Advisory Committee at its inception for both the town and also as a representative at the state level.

He was also the president to the Sharon Junior Chamber of Commerce.

"During this period, I coached pitching for varsity high school teams, including Sharon," said Morris. "I also ran a summer baseball camp program for the recreation department in Sharon."

Morris has dedicated much time to recall the details of growing up in a community full of life, a community that survived, and a community that ultimately dispersed to the suburbs in the 1960's and 1970's.

Morris second book, "Ghetto Memories Revisited," is a 386-page historical and sociological look at the neighborhoods throughout the 20th century. It was published last year. His first book, "Ghetto Memories," was published several years ago.

The book covers such topics as immigration to the neighborhoods, the depression period and its effects, the World War II Draft, post war prosperity, schools, social life, and changes the neighborhoods have undergone from the beginning of the 20th century to the present. It simply covers all aspects what it was like to grow up in these Jewish communities throughout the twentieth century.

The book contains a rare collection of photos of people growing up in these neighborhoods in the 40's 50's, and 60's. Pictures include late 19th and early 20th century photos of Eastern European Immigrants to the area, pictures of young families, school dances and social events, pictures of local soldiers in uniform, grammar and high school pictures from the 40's and 50's, local school sports teams, social clubs and news clippings.

The lack of transportation for residents of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury made it difficult for most people to take extravagant vacations outside of the state. However, many pictures showed that residents were more than content with vacationing at Hull's Nantasket Beach and Revere Beach, two thriving vacation spots of the mid-century in the Boston area.

Much documentation is included in pictures, such as war, immigration, and naturalization documents, as well as school class listings.

In addition, many pictures show the neighborhoods as they existed more than 50 years ago; the houses, the local businesses, the landmarks and the cars.

"Ghetto Memories has had the effect of bringing together several generations of people who grew up in this area and are now scattered throughout the country," said Fred Canton, who also grew up in the community and now lives in Newton..

"I personally have renewed friendships that faded because of distance. I know people living in California and Texas who were able to reconnect with childhood friends because of this book," Canton added.

The Franklin Field Association, a group of people who grew up in the old neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, numbers about 3,000 nationwide. It was this association that was most helpful in producing pictures, stories, and buyers of the books.

As a result of the national and local interest in Morris's books, Schlossberg and Morris have decided to form a non-profit corporation-Ghetto Memories Associates, to produce a documentary video. The video will be designed to bring to life the community that once existed and create a historical record for posterity.

"I had the thought that there was material for a documentary video there and then I saw Norm's book and thought it was the perfect script," said Schlossberg. "I sent it off to a friend who is in the documentary production business. He read it and was very excited. That is when I decided we really had to move ahead and bring the book alive."

The DVD version of the video will include special features providing more background information on the economic, political, and cultural world in which the community existed.

"The DVD technology also adds a lot of interesting possibilities. Imagine, we can have yearbooks for high school classes. Everybody can look up their high school class and, then, with E-mail, get in touch with people all over the country."

"If you figure that at one time there were eighty to a hundred thousand people living in the community, then there must easily be a million (people) as an extended family now," said Schlossberg.

"We hope that this project will produce a living record of what it was like growing up in the neighborhood at a special moment in time that our grandchildren and their grandchildren will be able to watch and remember," Schlossberg said.

"The camaraderie was second to none," said Morris. "We all socialized together. And we walked everywhere. When we went out, it was in groups."

"Its like belonging to a club with thousands of members," said Schlossberg.

His plan is to get the word out about the non-profit group and expand it to other people and local business who want to get involved by lending financial support by raising funds or supplying information to aid the project, such as old video footage, pictures, and stories.

"I have no doubt that we will find lots of individuals and businesses and institutions that will want to pitch to make the project a reality," he said. "Two years down the road, we will have a video that our children and grandchildren and their children will keep and look at as a prized possession."

"We want to get people involved with an interest in Jewish history," said Schlossberg, who will be setting up a website for the project.

"We have to create a demand for the DVD/video," he added.

The project, according to the two men, should take two years to complete with approximately six months needed to get organized.

Morris added that the ultimate goal of the VHS/DVD presentation would be to "recreate memories we had."

"Growing up in the 20's and early 30's wasn't easy," said Morris. He and Schlossberg explained how people joined social groups in Boston during this time, creating a negative environment during the depression years. At the time, being in a workers union was looked upon by some as being a form of socialism.

"You had to live there to understand," he added.

Schlossberg said he got the ideas for the documentary from a similar documentary he saw depicting the Jewish neighborhoods of Baltimore, Maryland, as well as various videos showing what life was like for various ethnic groups within New York City's five burrows in the early to mid-20th century.

While viewing the Baltimore video, Schlossberg realized that Boston's Jewish community was just as thriving as Baltimore's during this time period and that there were so many parallels between the two communities. He then decided to join forces with Morris with his resources and information obtained from his two books.

"The Jewish people themselves, very much as the Italians of the North End and the Irish of South Boston, were moving into an are where they, and their families, could feel most comfortable among people from the same original European backgrounds and religious beliefs," said Morris in his book.

Morris explained that the neighborhoods were like big families, with mother's looking after everyone's children. If a child got hurt or was in trouble, people would treat the child like it was their own. People, for the most part, did not have cars in the city. Some children, Morris said, would get around from school to school, field to field, by piling into taxi's or grabbing onto anything that would get them place to place. Kids would play sports in the parks and in the streets and would stay out until dark.

Schlossberg estimates that the cost of making the documentary will be anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000. He anticipates getting some film from the city of Boston and the public library for the project. He said that he would appreciate it if anyone from the area with old film footage from the 1930's through the 1960's of the neighborhood would contact him.

Also, documents and still photos from this time period would also be helpful. Individuals or organizations with materials that could be helpful or for more information regarding the "Ghetto Memories" book series or plans for the video documentary should contact Schlossberg at 781-828-6990 or Morris at 561-736-0006.

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