Ross tours focus on people of Jewish Boston
By Michael Kenney, Globe Staff, 6/10/2000
For Michael A. Ross, what typifies the Jewish experience in Boston is not found in the early immigrant settlements of the North End nor in the later middle-class enclaves of Dorchester, but rather on one short block of town houses at the foot of Beacon Hill.
It is to that block of Otis Place that Ross leads his tours of the Jewish Friendship Trail.
At one end of the block, just off Mt. Vernon Street, is the house where merchant and philanthropist Edward A. Filene lived from 1920 to 1937. At the dead end is the house where lawyer and activist Louis D. Brandeis lived before his appointment to the US Supreme Court in 1916.
Together, says Ross, Brandeis and Filene exemplify the Jewish ideal of tzedakah, or righteous giving, Brandeis as an advocate for workers' rights and social justice, and Filene as a merchant who ''felt an obligation to help his workers.'' Not only did he and his brother, A. Lincoln Filene, expand their parents' department store, but they supported the Filene Cooperative Association, an experiment in employee self-government, and the credit union movement.
It is people, more than places, that are the focus of a Ross tour and of his just-published guidebook. And not just the prominent.
When leading a tour though the North End, Ross says, he is invariably asked how the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews got along in the years around 1900 when the three groups were evenly divided there.
''I say they got along well because they didn't understand each other,'' Ross says. ''One-third spoke Yiddish, one-third spoke Italian, and one-third were Irish. They just smiled and nodded to each other.''
Ross began leading walking tours some years ago, but more and more found them to be ''an excellent tool to motivate me to learn the history and share what I had learned.''
He leads about a dozen tours a year, mainly for synagogue groups. Often someone in the group has a family connection to the sites on the tour. On the tour he led last weekend, Ross says, an elderly woman remarked that her father had worked in one of the cigar-making shops in the Puffer's Building on Cambridge Street. Along with garment ''finishing,'' Ross says, cigar-making was a major occupation for Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe around 1900.
Ross acknowledges with a laugh that his guided tours can run twice as long as the 90-minute self-guided versions laid out in his BostonWalks guidebook.
''I like to talk and I like to tell the stories,'' he says.
A favorite is how the West End House, one of three educational and recreational clubs in the old West End, came to be.
''Originally, it was the Excelsior Club and that started with a group of boys hanging out on a street corner,'' Ross says. ''They wanted to perform Shakespeare plays. Their parents all spoke Yiddish, and they thought it would help them to learn English. They put on a few scenes and James Storrow came to one of the performances. He was president of the School Committee at the time, and he came backstage and invited them out to his house in Lincoln in the summer.''
When the Excelsior Club was established, Storrow, a Yankee philanthropist, paid their rent at several buildings in the West End, and then left money in his will to build the West End House on Blossom Street.
While that was originally a boys' club, the corresponding club for girls was Hecht House - which for Ross, comes with its own set of stories. ''I like the little clubs they had there,'' Ross says, ''like the `soap and water' club. They didn't have plumbing in the tenements, so once a week, they'd take the girls to the public bathhouses and teach them cleanliness skills.''
Ross, 53, is a real estate lawyer-turned-realtor. He grew up in Brookline, just behind the Kehillath Israel synagogue on Harvard Street, went to Brookline High School and then graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and got his law degree at American University in Washington. He ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature from Brookline in the early 1970s, but now lives in Belmont. He practiced law with his brother, David Ross, and they are now partners in Old Cambridge Properties.
History tours are so clearly his passion that Ross even relates his real estate work to them.
''It's truly fun,'' he says. ''I see houses that relate to the history I'm studying and ties in with my walks.'' When he spotted a listing for a house for sale in Weston earlier this year, his reaction was ''Oh, that was Lincoln Filene's house.''
This story ran on page F01 of the Boston Globe on 6/10/2000. Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.