Hel­lu­va Town: The Sto­ry of New York City Dur­ing World War II

Richard Gold­stein
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By – August 31, 2011
The great water­shed in 20th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry was World War II. Pri­or to the war America’s Jews were, by and large, psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly inse­cure and social­ly, cul­tur­al­ly, and eco­nom­i­cal­ly insu­lar. This all changed after 1945 when Amer­i­can Jews entered the Amer­i­can main­stream en masse, migrat­ing from urban Jew­ish neigh­bor­hoods to sub­ur­bia and mov­ing rapid­ly up the eco­nom­ic lad­der. With­in two decades, America’s Jews were dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly rep­re­sent­ed with­in America’s social, cul­tur­al, and eco­nom­ic elite.

This demo­graph­ic trans­for­ma­tion was par­tic­u­lar­ly true for New York City’s two mil­lion Jews, the largest con­cen­tra­tion of Jews in his­to­ry and the city’s largest minor­i­ty dur­ing the 1940’s. While Richard Goldstein’s breezy and jour­nal­is­tic vol­ume says lit­tle about how the war direct­ly impact­ed the city’s Jews, it does pro­vide some clues. Thus, for exam­ple, it dis­cuss­es the 1943 Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein musi­cal, Okla­homa,” which pro­claimed the land we belong to is grand”; the exploits of Brook­lyn native Mey­er Levin, the bom­bardier of the B‑17 Fly­ing Fortress pilot­ed by Col­in Kel­ly; the employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties which war-relat­ed indus­tries offered to Jews and oth­er New York­ers, and the lim­it­ed wartime appeal of the city’s anti-Semit­ic agi­ta­tors, such as Fritz Kuhn and Joe McWilliams.

Hel­lu­va Town ends in Octo­ber 1947 with the dock­ing at Pier 61 in New York City of the trans­port Joseph V. Con­nol­ly. It car­ried the coffins of over 6,200 ser­vice­men who had been killed in the Euro­pean war, and was met by an hon­or guard of ships. One of these was the destroy­er Bris­tol, which had on its deck flo­ral dis­plays in the forms of a cross and of a Star of David. Sailors tossed these into the water when the Con­nol­ly approached. This was anoth­er indi­ca­tion that one of the casu­al­ties of the war was the belief that being Jew­ish and being Amer­i­can were incompatible.
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).

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