City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York, With a Visual Essay by Diana L. Linden

NYU Press  2012


In September, 2012 New York University Press published City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York in three volumes. This is the first comprehensive history of the city’s Jews from the first settlement of Jews in 1654 through the early years of this century, and it will appeal both to scholars of American Jewish history and to less specialized readers, Jews and Gentiles alike, interested in the story of the largest urban concentration of Jews in history. The three volumes have more than seven hundred pages of interesting text, are appropriately footnoted, and come with valuable bibliographies. Each also has a visual essay of approximately thirty-five pages containing photographs, portraits, maps, newspaper articles, and drawings which highlight the topics and individuals discussed in the text. Diana L. Linden, an art historian and former Museum Educator at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, wrote these valuable visual essays and selected the images and artifacts.

Deborah Dash Moore, the director of the Jean and Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan and the author of several valuable monographs in American Jewish history, was the general editor of the project. She was aided by an advisory board comprised of some of the major scholars in American Jewish history, and the project was funded by several foundations and individuals, including the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation and the Marian B. and Jacob K. Javits Foundation. Howard B. Rock, a professor of history emeritus at Florida International University, wrote the first volume, Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World, 1654-1865 (369 pages). Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer authored the second volume, Emerging Metropolis: New York Jews in the Age of Immigration, 1840-1920 (364 pages). Polland heads up programming and education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street in the center of the old Jewish ghetto, and Soyer is an American Jewish historian at Fordham University, the city’s Jesuit university, and the author of Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880-1939. The final volume is Jeffrey S. Gurock’s Jews in Gotham: New York Jews in a Changing City, 1920-2010 (326 pages). Gurock, the leading authority on the history of American Orthodoxy, holds the Libby M. Klaperman chair in history at Yeshiva University.

The title of the overall project, City of Promises, recalls Moses Rischin’s classic 1962 volume, The Promised City: New York’s Jews, 1870-1914. The word “promise” found in both titles reflected a shared optimism about the Jewish condition in the city. Rischin’s optimism reflected that of his Harvard mentor, Oscar Handlin, whose own history of America’s Jews was cheerfully titled Adventures in Freedom: Three Hundred Years of Jewish Life in America (1954). Rock, Polland/Soyer, and Gurock by and large share this optimism and this is reflected in their triumphalist and celebratory conclusions. Thus Rock, in discussing the grief of the city’s Jews on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, writes that it motivated them to forge a bond with blacks based on their shared experience of bondage. By 1865 “Jews were well on their way toward a commitment to and a leadership role in the advocacy of civil liberties and civil rights.” One only wishes that in the next century and a half the history of black-Jewish relations would have been so smooth and virtuous.

Similarly Gurock notes at the conclusion of his book that despite “the diminution of New York City’s Jewish population, its over a million Jews still sustained sufficient diversity to fuel activist dreams, to create communities of solidarity, and to transform promises into realities.” The 2012 New York City Jewish population survey, however, questioned whether such optimism was warranted in view of the high intermarriage rate, the low birth rate, and the growing alienation from other Jews and from Jewish institutional life of the majority non-Orthodox population. Gurock’s optimism is also reflected in his treatment of contemporary Conservative Judaism. The movement currently is in a state of crisis. Its membership has been shrinking, some of its schools have closed, it is experiencing financial hard times, and many of its pulpit rabbis as well as Ismar Schorsch, the former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, have questioned its long-term viability. Gurock ignores all this and instead focuses on the movement’s attempt to incorporate within its liturgy and theology the demands for gender equality coming from feminists such as Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Bette Friedan, and Paula Hyman.

The titles of each of the three volumes of City of Promises reveal their central themes: the crucial role of immigration; the adaptation of Jews and their descendants to an open, dynamic, and democratic society; and the challenges Jews have faced in reconciling integration into American society with the maintenance of ethnic and religious distinctiveness. These themes are not unique to New York’s Jews, in fact they are the classic themes of American Jewish historiography, but the size of New York’s Jewish population and its distinctive make-up has put a unique stamp on their history. Unlike any other city, New York has housed large numbers of Orthodox Jews, radical Jews, working-class Jews, and Yiddish-speaking Jews, a vibrant literary and artistic Jewish sub-culture, and Jewish settlement houses, trade schools, labor unions, newspapers, magazines, and book publishers. Even today most of the major Jewish headquarters and Jewish institutions of higher education are located in New York City. New York City (and now its suburbs) remains the place where the Jewish action is, and when one thinks of America’s Jews one inevitably thinks of New York City. The size of the city also has offered employment opportunities to Jews in education, publishing, real estate, merchandising, finance, and entertainment, as well as the fantasy of fame and fortune. It has also offered the possibility of severing one’s ties to the Jewish world and disappearing into the general population. New York has been and continues to be “a city of promises,” but not all of these promises are compatible with Jewish ethnic and religious vitality.

For better or worse, the American Jew has been identified with “Jew York.” Whether in films, television, or books, the Jew has usually been pictured as a New Yorker, often from Brooklyn. This stereotype was based, as stereotypes tend to be based, on a kernel of truth. For much of the twentieth century nearly half of the country’s Jews lived in the city. During the 1940s over forty percent of the Bronx’s population was Jewish, the highest percentage in history for any of the city’s five boroughs. This was at the same time when Jews were beginning to move en masse out of the city into what one historian has aptly called the “crab-grass frontier,” encouraged by low-cost housing loans provided by the federal government to the families of veterans and by the post-war economic boom. While Jewish neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan markedly declined during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, with their residents being replaced by Blacks and Hispanics, the Jewish population of the suburbs of Woodmere, New York, and Englewood, New Jersey just as dramatically increased. But in their occupational choices, patois, politics, cuisine, and literary and artistic preferences the new Jewish suburbanites remained New Yorkers. Jewish New York had simply expanded its geographical dimensions, even if, as Philip Roth’s short story “Eli, the Fanatic” noted, old-line and assimilated Jewish suburbanites did not always welcome this intrusion of the urban unwashed.

One aspect of the history of New York’s Jews that could have been more fully explored by Gurock was the effect of World War II on their identity as Americans and as Jews. Howard B. Rock argues that the Civil War “was a transformative moment in the Jewish community’s embrace of American democracy and Jews’ confidence that they had an increasing secure place in the growing republic.” But the impact of World War II was even greater in this regard, in part because the country’s Jewish population in 1941 was nearly twenty times greater than in 1861 and because Jewish interests were much clearer in the later conflict. That America’s greatest enemy in Europe was also the greatest enemy of the Jews, that hundreds of thousands of New York Jews served in the military, and that many Jews in the city also found ways to become involved in the war effort intensified the Jews’ sense of being an integral part of America. These, combined with the post-war decline in anti-Semitism, encouraged Jews to speak out on some of the most important issues of the day, particularly civil rights and the new state of Israel.

Gurock concludes his volume with a tribute to Michael Bloomberg, the city’s third Jewish mayor. Unlike his predecessors Abe Beame and Ed Koch, Bloomberg, who had been born in Massachusetts, was an outsider to Jewish New York. He lived, as Gurock notes, “apart from the boundaries of neighborhood and enclave, a man of the world”. But Bloomberg’s willingness to confront the challenges facing New York offered “the best chance for Jews to live safe, secure, and meaningful lives with all others within a city of promises.” It is one of the ironies of the history of Jews in New York City that for twelve years the city’s Jews, an increasingly religious and sectarian population, were dependent on a secular and largely unaffiliated Jew to achieve their own promises.

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