The Jews of Harlem

Jef­frey S. Gurock
  • Review
By – January 4, 2017

Jef­frey S. Gurock has had a long rela­tion­ship with Harlem. His pater­nal grand­par­ents, immi­grants from Gomel in White Rus­sia, arrived in Amer­i­ca in 1905 and set­tled in Harlem. At that time Harlem con­tained the third largest Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the world, sur­passed only by War­saw and the Low­er East Side of New York City, and was a step­ping stone for Jews able to escape the slums. Gurock’s fam­i­ly moved dur­ing the ear­ly 1930s from Harlem to the Bronx, anoth­er step up the eco­nom­ic and social lad­der, where he was born, raised, and still lives. He grad­u­at­ed from the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, the Jew­ish Har­vard,” and then went on to Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty for grad­u­ate work in Amer­i­can history. 

At Colum­bia he fell under the influ­ence of three promi­nent his­to­ri­ans: the urban his­to­ri­an Ken­neth S. Jack­son, the social his­to­ri­an David Roth­man, and the Jew­ish his­to­ri­an Nao­mi W. Cohen. One can see Harlem from the cam­pus of Colum­bia, and ten­sions between blacks and Jews were rife dur­ing the 1960s when it came time for Gurock to choose a dis­ser­ta­tion top­ic. And so it is not sur­pris­ing that he chose to inves­ti­gate the Harlem Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty dur­ing its hey­day. He fol­lowed the advice of Jack­son to focus not on Harlem elites, but to con­cen­trate on the inter­ac­tion between ordi­nary blacks and Jews, to write his­to­ry from the ground up” as it was described then. The dis­ser­ta­tion, after suit­able revi­sion, became Gurock’s first book: When Harlem Was Jew­ish, 1870 – 1930 (Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1979). This was the begin­ning of a career that would soon cat­a­pult him into the high­est ranks of Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ri­ans. Since 1979, he has writ­ten or edit­ed sev­en­teen addi­tion­al books and authored many schol­ar­ly arti­cles on a diverse group of top­ics, includ­ing Jews in sports, the the­olo­gian Morde­cai Kaplan, and Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty, his home insti­tu­tion, where he has a chair in Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry. Gurock has become the most impor­tant and pro­lif­ic con­tem­po­rary his­to­ri­an of New York’s Jews and the unques­tioned author­i­ty on the his­to­ry of Amer­i­can Orthodoxy. 

Now, after a forty-year hia­tus, he has returned to his first inter­est, to see what has hap­pened to Harlem and its Jew­ish res­i­dents since 1930. One of the fac­tors prompt­ing Gurock to take a sec­ond look at the area has been the recent eco­nom­ic revival of New York City in gen­er­al and of Harlem in par­tic­u­lar. Dur­ing the past cou­ple of decades the city has expe­ri­enced a star­tling turn­about from the dark days of the 1960s and 1970s when arson and aban­don­ment had deplet­ed the city’s hous­ing stock and the crack cocaine epi­dem­ic had made some of the city’s neigh­bor­hoods vir­tu­al­ly unliv­able. By the 1970s, Harlem’s pop­u­la­tion had declined by more than 30%. Since then the city has expe­ri­enced a near-mirac­u­lous recov­ery. Its pop­u­la­tion has increased, neigh­bor­hoods once con­sid­ered slums have been gen­tri­fied, real estate prices have sky­rock­et­ed, its cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions have become even more impor­tant, tourism has increased, its streets are safer, and its uni­ver­si­ties have become more attrac­tive to out-of-state stu­dents. This has occurred despite the col­lapse of man­u­fac­tur­ing in the city, most notably the gar­ment industry. 

Harlem has been a ben­e­fi­cia­ry of this renew­al, and whites, includ­ing Jews, have moved back into the area, attract­ed by real estate prices low­er than in oth­er parts of Man­hat­tan and by the area’s prox­im­i­ty via the sub­way sys­tem to mid­town and Wall Street. Some blacks jus­ti­fi­ably fear that the less afflu­ent are being pushed out of Harlem, and that its future as the cul­tur­al cap­i­tal of black Amer­i­ca is endan­gered. Today, Gurock notes, there are more whites than African Amer­i­cans in Harlem,” and the largest group in Harlem are Lati­nos, pri­mar­i­ly Puer­to Ricans. (The same phe­nom­e­non of whites mov­ing into black neigh­bor­hoods has also occurred in Brook­lyn, and has result­ed in the same complaints.) 

Much of the rise and decline of Harlem’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty cov­ers events and per­son­al­i­ties dis­cussed in When Harlem Was Jew­ish. At the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Jews com­prised the largest eth­nic group in Harlem. By the 1920s, how­ev­er, there were clear signs that the future of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty was bleak. This was due to many fac­tors, includ­ing immi­gra­tion leg­is­la­tion of the 1920s dras­ti­cal­ly lim­it­ing Jew­ish immi­gra­tion from East­ern Europe, the migra­tion of blacks from the South into Harlem after World War I, a boom in res­i­den­tial con­struc­tion through­out the city, a decline in the num­ber of the city’s neigh­bor­hoods restrict­ing Jew­ish set­tle­ment, and Jew­ish upward eco­nom­ic mobil­i­ty. Not pre­dict­ed was the rapid­i­ty of this hol­low­ing out of Harlem’s Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion. Between 1923 and 1925 it shrunk from 160,000 to 123,000, a decline of over twen­ty per­cent. Two years lat­er Harlem had only 88,000 Jew­ish res­i­dents, and in 1930 less than six thou­sand. By then, Gurock writes, the era of Jew­ish res­i­den­tial life in Harlem was well-nigh over.” Blacks occu­pied the apart­ments desert­ed by the Jews, and by 1930 there were 165,000 blacks liv­ing in Harlem, most of them poor. 

The revival” peri­od is cov­ered in the con­clud­ing six­ty pages of The Jews of Harlem. This is the least sat­is­fy­ing part of the book because the pres­ence of Jews in Harlem dur­ing the last eighty-five years has been spo­radic and sparse. Thus Gurock devotes three pages to Al Jol­son, who grew up in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. and whose only rela­tion­ship to Harlem was as an enter­tain­er. The Great Depres­sion is bare­ly dis­cussed, and there is no men­tion at all of World War II, despite its impor­tant social impact.

Gurock believes approx­i­mate­ly sev­en thou­sand Jews now reside in Harlem, large­ly in the same areas where the more afflu­ent Jews lived a cen­tu­ry ago. In a recent inter­view Gurock was asked to pre­dict the future of Jews in Harlem. While Jews have returned to Harlem, he not­ed, Judaism as a reli­gion has been slow to come back to a com­mu­ni­ty that once had hun­dreds of syn­a­gogues and edu­ca­tion­al and cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions.” The young gen­tri­fiers” of Harlem, by and large, exhib­it lit­tle inter­est in Judaism. Nev­er­the­less, there are signs of a Jew­ish reli­gious and cul­tur­al revival in Harlem with the estab­lish­ment of the Harlem Minyan (2012), the Harlem Hebrew Lan­guage Acad­e­my Char­ter School (2013), and the Harlem Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter (2016). It’s only the begin­ning,” Gurock said. Let’s see what hap­pens.” The move of mid­dle-class blacks and whites, includ­ing Jews, into Harlem and the dis­place­ment of poor blacks reminds us that New York City, and Harlem in par­tic­u­lar, is ulti­mate­ly a work in progress.” 

Relat­ed Reads:

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