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.
In New York City after the war, he met Rosanne Perlmutter, a concentration camp survivor. They married in 1950, and she became an award-winning teacher of sociology and psychology at Newton North High School.
“His love for his wife was legendary,” said Barbara Gaffin, a Jewish activist who worked with Mr. Perlmutter and formerly was associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.
“He adored his wife. He lived for his wife,” said Mr. Perlmutter’s daughter, Cathy of South Pasadena, Calif. “ ‘Devoted’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.”
Indeed, she said, Mr. Perlmutter was strict about when the workday ended because that was when he got to go spend time with his wife.
Gaffin recalled that “he used to say: ‘At 5 o’clock, the lights go out in the office, and anybody who doesn’t leave at 5 doesn’t love his wife.’ ”
Before spending 15 years running the Jewish Community Relations Council and retiring in 1990, he was New England regional director of the American Jewish Committee in Boston. He also had worked for the Anti-Defamation League in New York City.
His older brother, Nathan, who formerly was national director of the ADL, died in 1987, the year he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
A service will be announced for Mr. Perlmutter, who in addition to his wife and daughter leaves a son, Jeff, who also lives in California, and two grandchildren.
In leadership roles, Philip Perlmutter was the “quintessential professional,” Gaffin said. “He was an extraordinary teacher.”
Sheila Decter, director of the Jewish Alliance for Law & Social Action, formerly worked for Mr. Perlmutter and called him “a very good mentor” who cared about those in his office.
Although he “wasn’t a believer in what was politically correct,” she said, those who took time to talk with Mr. Perlmutter left respecting his intellect.
“He didn’t come by his opinions lightly,” Decter said. “His opinions were a product of serious readings and writings.”
can be reached at