White Eth­nic New York: Jews, Catholics and the Shap­ing of Post­war Politics

Joshua M. Zeitz
  • Review
By – February 20, 2012

If the gen­er­al­ly dis­cred­it­ed melt­ing pot was based on a roman­ti­cized view and did not actu­al­ly exist, what occa­sions dif­fer­ences in eth­nic groups, one from anoth­er? This is a cen­tral ques­tion which Joshua M. Zeitz explores in his provoca­tive book, White Eth­nic New York. Zeitz argues that where­as race offers a sim­ple and rec­og­niz­able expla­na­tion for polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty, he avers that in real­i­ty it is eth­nic­i­ty — the inter­sec­tion of reli­gion, nation­al ori­gin, and class — that influ­ences how peo­ple vote and demon­strate their social values. 

An exam­i­na­tion of New York’s Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion in the post-World War II peri­od, con­trast­ed with their near­est neigh­bors, Catholics of Ital­ian and Irish descent, reveals sharp dif­fer­ences. Peo­ple lived insu­lar social lives based on occu­pa­tion, res­i­dence, schools and class­rooms, and of course types and fre­quen­cy of atten­dance in wor­ship. This cre­at­ed par­al­lel worlds with­in the same city, thus con­tribut­ing to eth­nic chau­vin­ism and inter-reli­gious estrange­ment. Zeitz sug­gests that the cul­ture of Ital­ian and Irish Amer­i­can Catholi­cism— its teach­ings, its offi­cial mores, its fam­i­ly arrange­ments — stressed obe­di­ence and com­mu­ni­ty, while Jew­ish the­ol­o­gy and sec­u­lar cul­ture paid con­sid­er­able trib­ute to indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, intel­lec­tu­al free­dom, and dissent.” 

Change occurred slow­ly, at the cost of intra­group cohe­sive­ness. Vat­i­can II, the rise and dis­so­lu­tion of Com­mu­nism, school decen­tral­iza­tion and the Viet­nam War are all cit­ed as accel­er­a­tors of change, as well as racial polar­iza­tion and pol­i­tics. But where­as race played a sem­i­nal polit­i­cal role else­where in the Unit­ed States, accord­ing to Zeitz New York City was unique in its feal­ty to a cos­mopoli­tan out­look” and accep­tance of difference. 

This inter­est­ing book is not for the casu­al read­er. It offers schol­ar­ly research and a syn­the­sis of his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al trends. But Zeitz pro­vokes and chal­lenges assump­tions, thus con­tribut­ing to our under­stand­ing of a chang­ing polit­i­cal landscape. 

Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

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