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

Rock, Pol­land, Soy­er, Gurock; Deb­o­rah Dash Moore, ed.
  • Review
By – January 2, 2013

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.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

Discussion Questions