Met­ro­pol­i­tan Jews: Pol­i­tics, Race, and Reli­gion in Post­war Detroit

Lila Cor­win Berman

  • Review
By – November 18, 2015

How can an eth­nic group pre­serve its urban roots and retain its sol­i­dar­i­ty while aspir­ing to green­er pastures?

Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty his­to­ry pro­fes­sor Lila Cor­win Berman tack­les this ques­tion in Met­ro­pol­i­tan Jews: Pol­i­tics, Race, and Reli­gion in Post­war Detroit. Berman’s nar­ra­tive pro­vides a com­pre­hen­sive ethno­graph­ic study of Detroit’s Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion dur­ing the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and its north­west­ern exo­dus as it grap­pled with evolv­ing notions of civic respon­si­bil­i­ty amid the city’s grow­ing racial ten­sions. Berman fol­lows the Jews’ lin­ear path from their first down­town set­tle­ment in a river­front neigh­bor­hood called Hast­ings to the far neigh­bor­hoods of Twelfth Street, Dex­ter and Bagley, and even­tu­al­ly to the suburbs.

But mov­ing their homes, schools and syn­a­gogues beyond city lim­its did not mean that Jews left the city, Berman argues. Instead, Detroit’s Jew­ish res­i­dents fash­ioned for them­selves a met­ro­pol­i­tan char­ac­ter, a sense of uni­ty that extend­ed beyond neigh­bor­hood lines.

The decades fol­low­ing World War II were marked by quandary: as Detroit’s black pop­u­la­tion began buy­ing homes in tra­di­tion­al­ly Jew­ish neighborhoods,Jews found them­selves caught between a loy­al­ty to the city and a fear of plum­met­ing home val­ues. Evinc­ing the scope of the pub­lic con­cern, the Nation­al Com­mu­ni­ty Rela­tions Advi­so­ry Coun­cil, a Jew­ish boost­er group, pub­lished a Guide to Chang­ing Neigh­bor­hoods” in 1956, urg­ing the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty to con­front the pro­tean nature of its neigh­bor­hoods or risk the abil­i­ty to deter­mine its own polit­i­cal nar­ra­tive about Jew­ish atti­tudes toward racism. For­tu­nate­ly, Jews heed­ed the warn­ing even as they sought pros­per­i­ty in sub­urbs such as Oak Park, Hunt­ing­ton Woods, South­field, Bloom­field Hills, and West Bloom­field. Though the sta­tus of Jews in Detroit looked ten­u­ous at the time — espe­cial­ly after the famous 1967 race riots — his­to­ry has shown that set­tle­ment in the sub­urbs has only broad­ened their influ­ence and reach over the met­ro­pol­i­tan area through busi­ness, phil­an­thropy, and civic organizations.

No city is as noto­ri­ous for hem­or­rhag­ing its mid-cen­tu­ry pop­u­la­tion as Detroit, and no com­mu­ni­ty is as migra­to­ry as Detroit’s Jews, as they forged a clear path out of the city and into a new iden­ti­ty. Berman sup­ports her well-researched con­tention that the post­war migra­tion cement­ed not a white flight to the sub­urbs but an endur­ing com­mit­ment to an expan­sive new urban­ism with­out geo­graph­ic bor­ders.” The book will find an espe­cial­ly pas­sion­ate audi­ence among uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sors and stu­dents of urban plan­ning, reli­gion and pol­i­tics, as Berman offers a new per­spec­tive on the role of Jews who shaped the Motor City’s polit­i­cal, social and busi­ness cli­mate even after they moved beyond its borders.

Discussion Questions