Philip Perlmutter was so adept at examining the historic divisions between Jews and Catholics, and so successful at improving relations between them, that two decades ago, Pope John Paul II made him a Knight of St. Gregory the Great.
“You just can’t think of the interfaith dialogue in Massachusetts without thinking of Philip Perlmutter,” Monsignor Peter Conley, then editor of the Boston Archdiocese newspaper The Pilot, told the Globe in 1994.
That is not to suggest that a dialogue with Mr. Perlmutter was always gentle or reassuring. Acerbic in person and on the page, he could use sharp wit to underscore the differences between a Jewish deli and a Starbucks in Newton, but he never sugarcoated opinions that were not popular with his liberal friends, such as his opposition to affirmative action.
“Simply put, there is no evidence that government policies based on racial, ethnic, religious, sexual preferences, or proportional representation can assure more personal and group freedom and self-respect, socioeconomic equality, or an end to bigotry,” he wrote in the Globe in 1995.
Mr. Perlmutter, a former executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, died of complications from pneumonia Dec. 29 in Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, Calif. He was 87 and in recent years, he and his wife left their longtime Newton home to live closer to their daughter in California.
In essays and books, the scope of his writing ranged widely. He took as topics interfaith relations, Middle East politics, gender, and the complexity of bigotry through history as it affected different ethnic groups. Amid the seriousness, though, he could be deft and amusing, such as when he drew distinctions between Barry’s Village Deli and Starbucks, both just off Newton’s Waban Square.
“Barry’s is ethnic, brash, noisy, and neighborly, like a New York Jewish deli,” he wrote. “Starbucks is nonsectarian, quiet, polite, and dignified, like a library reading room.”
Starbucks customers are “restrained, more individualistic, more refined. They wait patiently and politely in line to make a purchase. No kvetching.” At Barry’s, according to Mr. Perlmutter, “customers are uninhibited, perhaps liberated, certainly not candidates for a self-esteem workshop. What’s on their minds is on their tongues, no matter how little you care to hear them.”
Mr. Perlmutter left no doubt that he was a Barry’s customer. Every reader knew what was on his mind.
In the 1995 Globe piece, he looked at those who gained admission to schools or were hired because of affirmative action and wrote: “Who can respect the beneficiaries of invidious favoritism? And how can such recipients respect themselves when they are gaining something denied others?”
In addition to writing in the Globe, he wrote books such as 1992’s “Divided We Fall: A History of Ethnic, Religious and Racial Prejudice in America,” and for magazines and newspapers such as America, The Pilot, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Social Justice Review.
For America, a national Catholic weekly, he wrote about moving to Greater Boston in 1960 after living in St. Louis, where he directed the American Jewish Congress office.
“Yankee Protestants were less flagrant in their anti-Semitism,” he wrote in the 2000 article. “They limited themselves to excluding Jews from housing in the suburbs of Wellesley, Weston, and Belmont; from positions in the city’s major law firms and banks; and from membership in the downtown and country clubs. They disliked Catholics a bit more than Jews, but whereas they had been able to discriminate against Catholics in the 19th century, they could no longer do so once Catholics in the city outnumbered and outvoted them.
“Nevertheless, it was in Boston that I learned about Catholics as real people, as committed believers, as victims of Yankee intolerance and as dear friends.”
Mr. Perlmutter grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y., where his parents divorced and he lived in a tenement with his mother, who sewed leather purses in a sweatshop.
“My neighborhood in Brooklyn taught me to be tough, but it also gave me a sense of community and a feeling of being part of a majority,” Mr. Perlmutter told the Globe in 1990. “It wasn’t until I went into the Army that I realized that there were so many non-Jews in America.”
He served in Europe during World War II, and while there, studied at what was then the Biarritz American University in France. Back in New York City, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from New York University and with a master’s degree from Columbia University. Years later, he received a certificate in advanced graduate studies from the Boston University School of Education.Continued...