Jewish New York
By Geraldine Gudefin
Whether they are thinking of bagels or Woody Allen, to many Americans, Jews are intimately connected, if not synonymous with New York. Jewish New York, an edited volume from New York University Press out this month, explores the historical developments that have led to this association and asks: "when and in what sense did New York become a city of promises for Jews"? The book is a condensed version of the prize-winning City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York (2012), the first comprehensive history on the subject. Synthesizing three volumes into one single tome, it is also half the length, at 500 pages. The book, which contains essays by Jeffrey S. Gurock, Annie Polland, Howard B. Block, and Daniel Soyer, has greatly benefited from the careful editing of Deborah Dash Moore, a prominent historian of Jewish America. Organized into broad themes, the book is divided into four parts that follow a roughly linear chronological arc, from the colonial period to the present, with eleven chapters and a visual essay by art historian Diana L. Linden.
The first section (1654-1865) examines the colonial period and the years before the Civil War. Chapter 1 recounts the community’s beginning with the arrival of Jewish refugees from Recife in 1654, as well as Jewish participation in the American Revolution, with many insights into Jewish religious life, and efforts to obtain religious liberty, economic freedom, political citizenship and social equality. Chapter 2 investigates Jewish life in New York between the American Revolution and the Civil War, as the city transformed into an immigrant city and a major metropolis, tracing the influence of American republicanism on the Jewish community, and the emergence of Judaism as an urban religion, in the context of Jewish immigration from Central Europe. The chapter is filled with interesting details about Jewish communal, religious, and economic life during the era; making clear, the Jewish community, like the city itself, underwent profound transformations: "Jewish identity and Jewish integration remained challenging and elusive as Jewish life increasingly became more complex, diverse and urbanized, no longer centered on the synagogue. Instead, Jewishness acquired secular urban dimensions rooted in common experiences of immigration, occupational choices, and residence."
Part II describes social, religious, and political developments between 1865 and 1925. Chapter 3 chronicles the encounters between Jews of Central European descent with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and the multifaceted process of Americanization undergone by immigrants. Of particular interest is the rich description of Jewish immigrant economic life, which includes fascinating details about labor activism, as well as immigrant banking and businesses. Chapter 4 examines the vibrant organizational life of New York Jews, including the rise of denominationalism, Jewish philanthropy, and Jewish culture, such as Yiddish theater and journalism. Chapter 5 focuses on Jewish political activism at the local, national and transnational levels, illuminating the important role New York Jews have played beyond the city.
Part III covers close to a century, 1885 to 1975. Chapter 6 focuses on Jewish neighborhoods and internal migrations. Although we tend to imagine the Lower East Side as the center of New York Jewish life in the twentieth century, on the eve of the Great Depression, far more Jews lived in Brooklyn and the Bronx than in Manhattan. This chapter does a great job documenting how Jews established new residential neighborhoods in Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, starting in the first decade of the twentieth century. Included in this chapter is a discussion of the myriad problems that Jewish residents of New York confronted (such as residential discriminations, and evictions), and their relationship with other ethnic groups . New York Jews, who constituted over a quarter of the city's population in the 1950s, harbored mixed sentiments towards New York, feeling both alienated from the metropolis, and yet more secure than ever, particularly since "New York had already become in some senses a 'Jewish city,'" after countless contributions to political, economic and cultural life. Chapter 7 revolves around the second generation, with a particular focus on religious innovations, Jews’ participation in higher education, and their adaptation to New York's changing economy. The chapter also recognizes the pivotal role that the second generation played in "culture making," particularly in fashion and publishing. Chapter 8 surveys the literary and visual arts and music, beginning in the early 1900s. As this chapter demonstrates, in the 1920s, Jews and New York became synonymous as "New York Jews infused American culture with a range of expressions influenced by their own experiences as immigrants or children of immigrants in the nation's largest, most cosmopolitan, most multiethnic and multireligious city." Chapter 9 analyses New York Jewry in the context of World War II and its aftermath: its responses to the Shoah and to the establishment of the state of Israel, politics and intellectual life during the Cold War, and the fight for Soviet Jewry.
The book's final part is devoted to post-World War II developments (1960-2015). Chapter 10 follows up on the themes of Chapter 6, examining internal migrations; the transformations of Jewish neighborhoods (Brownsville, Crown Heights, East Tremont); racial segregation; and the relations between Jews and non-Jews, particularly between Jews and African-Americans, against the backdrop of “urban renewal.” This chapter examines confrontations over housing and schools to show that "Jews exchanged old turf for new turf, but the battles behind those exchanges produced a Jewish New York that differed in significant ways from its working- and middle-class, progressive roots." In the decades that followed the war, Jews left New York in large numbers, seeking better horizons in the suburbs or even in other parts of the country, particularly Miami and Los Angeles. Moreover, the 1970s "severely tested New York Jews' faith in the metropolis", leading to further out-migration. In two decades, the Jewish population of New York had decreased by 43 percent. Chapter 11, which reviews the evolution of New York Jewish life since the 1970s, underscores its ongoing diversification and vitality. The book closes with a visual essay that offers a fascinating examination of the identity formation of "American Jews" over the course of nearly four centuries.
By synthesizing a wide swath of historiography, including the most recent secondary literature, Jewish New York successfully provides an engaging narrative of the mutual encounters between Jews and New York. The book persuasively shows that these encounters were profoundly transformative and enriching both for Jews and their city. One finds unsurprisingly the manifold contributions to the arts, social democracy, and religious and ethnic pluralism, without glossing over the myriad challenges New York Jews faced over the centuries, notably prejudices and discrimination. We learn, for example, that both the Civil War and World War I witnessed surges in anti-Semitic sentiment. Until World War II, landlords and universities routinely discriminated against Jews. Moreover, at every given point in history, New York’s Jews have been deeply divided across religious, ethnic, social, and political lines. During the Civil War, they fractured on the question of slavery, like other communities. And afterward, they became " differentiated by class, country of origin, religious inclination, politics and language." With the rise of “denominationalism,” particularly in New York — which emerged as the center of both Reform and Orthodox Judaism in the mid-nineteenth century — fractures deepened. In recent decades, Jews in New York parted, for example, over which tactics to adopt to help Soviet Jewry, racism, and other topics.
The book's longue durée allows readers to contextualize and understand the processes that have led to this astounding diversity, particularly demographic transformations which resulted from multiple waves of immigration and urbanization, as well as the experimentation enabled by religious liberty in the United States. Ultimately, those interested in Jewish history, urban history, or the history of New York, should find Jewish New York a highly enjoyable read, made all the more pleasurable by the beautiful illustrations sprinkled throughout the book.
Geraldine Gudefin is a Doctoral Candidate at Brandeis University.