A Stroll Down Our Collective Memory Lane

The warm breeze, aroma of springtime earth, and visions of buds on trees are like a sensory prize at the finish line of this year’s marathon of a winter. Surviving the winter deserves a party, and Alan Maltzman’s two-hour Jewish cultural walking tour of Boston is the perfect way to celebrate. 

A high-tech retiree, Maltzman founded Boston CityWalks in 2006. His menu included tours of the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, downtown Boston, the Freedom Trail and
Cambridge. After repeatedly hearing, “Where’s the Jewish tour?,” he decided to add one to his roster in 2009.

Malzman’s goal is to combine history and architecture, with anecdotes and humor. He delivers on all counts.

First, some tips: There are a lot of cobblestones and much of the walk is uphill, so wear comfortable shoes. Bring a snack and some water. And carry a map of Boston — it helps with orientation when roaming through back streets and alleys.

The tour covers a lot of ground, both literally and historically. We begin at the Milk Street Caf, and end at the Holocaust Memorial. In between, we explore old City Hall, Boston Latin School, Beacon Hill’s Back Slope, the VilnaShul, the North and West End, and more. Maltzman’s narrative thread on local Jewish immigration answers questions about our arrival as a people to Puritan Boston’s shores.

The knowledgeable Maltzman, 67, is a Northeastern Universitytrained industrial engineer. His professional niche was starting up new manufacturing plants for Digital Equipment Corporation, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq; hence his interest in architecture. Born in Chelsea, he grew up loving Boston.

“I thought I knew it all, but when I started these tours I realized how little I actually knew. I now have a library as big as the Library of Congress on the history and architecture of Boston,” he said.

The Famine Memorial (Washington Street/School Street corner), sculptor Robert Shure’s commemoration of the 1845 potato famine that brought the first Irish immigrants to Boston, was our first stop. The significance, explained Maltzman, was that acceptance of the Irish immigrants opened the doors for other groups, including Eastern European and German Jews.

As we meandered towards Beacon Hill, Maltzman peppered facts and figures with delightfully arcane tidbits. We learned, for example, that the Boston Latin student body was 25% Jewish until the first ethnic survey in 1920. After that, the percentage dropped to under 10%. Ho Chi Minh was a chef, Malcolm X was a busboy and the first recipe using chocolate (Boston Cream Pie) was created at the Omni Parker House Hotel. My favorite was the story of how Filene’s got its name. Willem Katz, its founder, was a German Jew who wanted to Americanize his name before emigrating. Not finding “katz” in the dictionary, he substituted “cats,” which led to “feline” and a retail dynasty.

The mid-1880’s Back/North Slope of Beacon Hill was home to the poorest immigrants, including Jews, Italians and Irish, and other “undesirables” such as prostitutes. Maltzman pointed out the architectural differences between North and South Slopes: wooden houses (versus brick); tenement-type structures (versus single family, multi-storied homes); and the presence of stores, noticeably absent to this day in the Boston Brahmin residential area of Beacon Hill.

The Vilna Shul, the former Vilner Congregation, was for me the highlight of the tour. It is now Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, with a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service and public programs and events. Of the 50 synagogues that existed within Boston city limits during the 1920’s, this 1919 building is the only one still standing. The second-floor sanctuary is an amalgam of Lithuanian Orthodoxy, New England classical Baroque, art nouveau biblical murals, and pews salvaged from the 1840 Twelfth Baptist Church. Eclectic is an understatement.

The first floor community room houses a small but densely informative History of Jewish Immigration in Boston. It is the only museum of its kind in Boston. We got just a peek; I definitely plan to return.

On our way to the Holocaust Memorial, we stood across the street from the location of the pre-urban renewal West End House. The club was a cornerstone for West End youth for almost 70 years. In 1971, it moved to the Allston-Brighton area and, in 1976, it became one of the first to include female members. There is a West End museum, which was not included on this tour but is open to the public.

The 1995 New England Holocaust Memorial was the last monument we visited. It is no coincidence that it sits on the Freedom Trail. Architect Stanley Saitowitz designed the six, 54-feet high luminous glass towers that sit above six pits. The towers represent six concentration camps; the pits symbolize crematoria. Etched in the towers’ walls are the tattoo numbers of the six million murdered. Walking through the internally lit towers, past the engraved words of survivors, one is struck by the power of memory and impact of the evil that was World War II.

Elie Wiesel, who spoke at the Memorial’s dedication, said at his 1986 Nobel Peace prize acceptance, “For us, forgetting was never an option. Remembering is a noble and necessary act.”

Strolling down our collective memory lane on a beautiful spring day in Boston felt like just such an act. Thank you, Alan Maltzman, for your Jewish Cultural Tour and for providing a means to perform the mitzvah of remembrance.
To sign up for a Boston Jewish Cultural Walking Tour, visit zerve.com/BostonWalks/Jewish. The cost is $25 for a two-hour tour.

Pictured above: Alan Maltzman is the owner of Boston CityWalks and is a tour guide for the Jewish Cultural Walking Tour of Boston.

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