A New Book by Jeffrey S. Gurock Explores Jewish Life in New York Through the 20th Century
The Lower East Side, the Grand Concourse, Borough Park, Kew Garden Hills, Riverdale.
Over the last century, these New York City neighborhoods and others have been home to Jews of all stripes. A new book by Dr. Jeffrey S. Gurock, Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University, explores the nuanced and ever-evolving relationship between these communities and the New York City of their times. In Jews in Gotham: New York Jews in a Changing City, 1920-2010—the third in the series City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York (NYU Press)—Gurock focuses on neighborhoods, exploring Jewish life within the streets of the metropolis and showcasing the reasons for New York’s continued preeminence as the capital of American Jews.
YU News: What would you say is one of the biggest moments for Jews in New York City over the last 90 years?
Gurock: In May 1948, there were 20,000 people at the old Madison Square Garden and arguably 50,000 people out on the street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. There was a rally to mark the founding of the State of Israel and speakers from a variety of backgrounds—religious and non-religious—all answered ‘Amen’ to the shehechayanu that after 2,000 years of exile, Jews were back in their land, sovereign. I talk about that moment in my book as a crowning moment after a decade which began with a catastrophe, the Shoah, and ended in triumph.
How did the New York Jewish community process and respond to the Holocaust?
My focus, which is somewhat unique, is not on the activities of the major leaders of New York or American Jewry during the Shoah. My important people are the rank and file, the common people, the shul goers and non-shul goers. How did they react and how did they live their lives as New Yorkers, as Americans and as Jews during this time of crisis? What does it mean to have your husband overseas while you’re stuck with two little children at home? To what extent were American Jews aware of what was going on? To what extent were they involved in the New York and American war effort? To what extent were they comfortable collaborating with other Americans in that effort? Finally, how did Jews, non-Jews, blacks and whites live their lives during this very difficult period?
I have come to believe increasingly that a lot of people really didn’t know the dimensions of what was going on. You have to recognize the gap in cognition between hearing the stories and internalizing them. A 1945 newsletter from the congregation that I would attend as a child—I was born after the war—included a report decrying “the tragic murder of four million Jews by Nazis.” They were off by two million Jews, and they weren’t deniers. They were very horrified about the murder of fellow Jews. But they just didn’t know the extent of it.
There is also a palpable love affair between Americans Jews at this time and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s government. In Jewish documents from this period, you can feel the patriotism coming off the pages. These Jews saw themselves as Americans and were intimately involved in the war effort and happy to be accepted by those around them as contributors. Tom Brokaw called it ‘the greatest generation’—American Jews wanted to be part of it.
As Jews began to move out of the Lower East Side and into other New York boroughs, how did they interact with other ethnic, religious or racial groups who were already there?
The story starts with Jews moving out of Harlem and the Lower East Side in the 1920s. The city after World War I is extremely overcrowded. It passes a remarkable real estate law which states that anyone who builds an apartment building outside of Manhattan or the old neighborhood will be tax-exempt for 10 years. Whole neighborhoods are added to the city: Flatbush, Bensonhurst, Borough Park, Jackson Heights, Astoria, Long Island City, Forest Hills, Grand Concourse, White Plains Road. Jewish builders are involved in this, so Jews move en masse from the Lower East Side and Upper Manhattan to these new neighborhoods, where they live predominantly in Jewish neighborhoods.
Gentiles move too, but although we’re all part of a city on the move until the Great Depression of 1929, we live among them, not with them. There is a lot of tension, a lot of no-man’s-land, a lot of battle lines. There were certain blocks which were Jewish blocks, certain blocks which were Christian. We were neighbors in conflict.
The coming of World War II exacerbated the tension between Jews and the Irish and, interestingly enough, to a lesser extent, the Germans. Except for the German-American Bund, the native born Germans in America were also middle class like us. A good friend to the Jews at this time was Senator Robert F. Wagner Sr., of German extraction. But the Irish were fighting with Jews for jobs and housing. How were boundaries negotiated? Very poorly.
Where were the African Americans during all this? They were so oppressed and depressed they didn’t enter into this counting—until the 1960s.
After World War II, many Jews decided to leave New York City for the first time. What influenced that decision and what influenced other Jews to stay in the old neighborhoods?
Towards the end of World War II, one of the most important pieces of American legislation was passed which impacts our lives to this day. It’s called the G.I. Bill. It sought to help G.I.s readjust to civilian life by offering to pay for their college education—a lot of fellows hadn’t been able to afford college in the Depression. The bill also promised to help G.I.s buy their own homes in suburbia.
Under this mandate, new communities were built all over the country. So in the 1950s, the question for New York Jews became: should we stay in the city or move to the not-so-bright lights of the bucolic suburbia?
Here’s the calculus. What does the old neighborhood have going for it? If you lived on the Grand Concourse or Eastern Parkway, you lived in a Jewish neighborhood where Judaism radiated from the street. Although these neighborhoods were not homogenous—there were always some gentiles nearby—the sense on the street was that everyone was Jewish. On High Holidays, you’d see thousands of people walking up and down the Grand Concourse. Many didn’t go into the synagogues to the chagrin of rabbis, but you didn’t have to go into the synagogue to be Jewish. You were going to bump into people of your own kind on the street!
I interviewed a former great basketball player named Adolph “Dolph” Schayes who told me, ‘When I was growing up, I thought the whole world was Jewish. But I never went to a synagogue. (Today he is very active in a Conservative synagogue in Syracuse, NY). What was my Jewishness? I walked the streets of my neighborhood with my mother. I went to Itzkowitz’s candy store. I had a gang of friends and hung out on the street corner.’ The culture was a street culture. That’s what life in the city was like for Jews.
In suburbia, it is a different situation. The American ethos is, if you’re white, if you’re middle class, if you’re Americanized, we’re one nation under G-d. We get along, we all fight against godless Communism.
At this point it became more important than ever to belong to a synagogue, to affiliate, because the challenge now is integration. Previously, you were living in a Jewish neighborhood. Now you’re living in a mixed neighborhood. Jews tended to live among their own kind, but their children, my generation, didn’t look upon gentiles as enemies. We became friends. The fear was that in a generation we’d be lovers. So parents joined synagogues to keep their kids Jewish. It’s a question that is so basic to American Jewish history: how do you deal with acceptance?
First of all, in the 50s, if you wanted to leave the prewar neighborhoods, one option was suburbia—another was Queens. One of my challenges in writing this book, is that I’m writing about my own life, and though you shouldn’t use your own life as the only barometer of what’s going on, it’s a story you can use to view an era in comparison to other stories. What I’ll say about my life and the baby boomer generation that I was part of is this: we had greater educational advantages than our parents, who were working class people. We became more affluent. We moved, not because we were pushed out of the neighborhoods, but because there were whole neighborhoods available.
In my particular case, once we were grown and married, a whole group of us moved, and we didn’t leave the city—we went to Riverdale. People who are doing better move to better neighborhoods, leaving behind the older people, who either ultimately die out or move to Florida, and transforming the neighborhood. Instead of being a home for the Jewish working-class, the people who worked in the garment industry and so forth, these neighborhoods slowly filled with working-class blacks and Hispanics.
Secondly, in the 70s, you had some neighborhoods that physically deteriorated, and Jews fled. One example is the Grand Concourse. People moved out almost overnight, en masse, to Co-op City. I think the leitmotif of all this is that every story, every understanding we have about Jews is a complicated and a nuanced one. Some felt they were chased out of neighborhoods. Some left willingly. Some hung on, and were very aggressive in hanging on.
Can you talk a little about how New York Jews influenced the city politically over the last two generations?
After 300 years of New York being a municipality, Abraham Beame became the city’s first Jewish mayor in the late 70s. He was followed by Edward Koch and, much later, Michael Bloomberg. Each one comes out of a very different Jewish milieu.
Beame became mayor during a time of tremendous urban crisis, and though he was quite an independent politician, he was tarred as being part of the old line of politics and blamed for the decline of the city. He ran as a Jewish candidate, the son of immigrants who grew up in the city, was educated in the city, and wanted to give back to the city. Koch saw himself as a national figure, someone who would revive New York. And Bloomberg is the quintessential outsider—he doesn’t come from New York. He also doesn’t see himself as particularly Jewish, although he hasn’t denied it. He sees himself as a more universal figure, and I think that reflects different generations of New York Jews, politically.
Is there a quintessential “New York Jew?
Someone recently asked me at a conference, ‘What is a New York City Jew?’ The whole point of my book is, there is no such thing. Jewish identity depended on where you lived, what school you went to, how you were raised, what your religious and political values were.
How do you feel the American dream has shifted over the period that you’ve written about?
I think it’s a generational thing. For the Jews of the pre-World War II period, the goal was to leave the working class environment and achieve a certain modicum of economic mobility and establish themselves in the city. If you move from being a sweatshop worker to owning your own shop in the garment district, that’s the American dream.
But baby boomers have greater goals. They want more mobility and complete acceptance in America. The pre-World War II generation felt that there were significant barriers to their advancement in the form of anti-Semitism. The post-war generation had a greater sense that this country belonged to them, but had serious doubts, in the 70s and 80s, that New York City was going to survive—because of the fiscal crisis, the decline of the neighborhoods, the riots in summer of 1978, the big black-out. Are we comfortable in this city? Do we want to stay here?
Do you think those feelings have further evolved in the 90s and 2000s?
In contemporary times, New York Jews have reached a comfort zone with other people in the city and their big concern is, ‘What will be the fate of all of us in New York City?’
I don’t feel, as I did a decade ago, a great sense of internecine urban tension among groups. I suppose that makes me an optimist. It may have something to do with Bloomberg being so calm and non-confrontational, but I think it’s part of a bigger story. It may also be because aside from the Orthodox community, the levels of Jewish assimilation are so high that not only do you feel a kinship with other New Yorkers, in fact you may literally be their kin.
I mentioned before that Jews used to walk the streets of New York on the holidays and not go to synagogue. It happened in the 20s, in the 40s, and it still happens today. You might find if you walked into a gentrified neighborhood on the chagim, where all the stores are closed because it’s almost a civic holiday, that Jews are walking the streets again with lovers and friends—but perhaps this time, their spouses aren’t Jewish. There’s still that sense that everyone’s Jewish, even though some may no longer even be ethnically Jewish. There’s a universalism which is, I think, regnant.
How do you feel Yeshiva University’s role in Jewish New York has evolved over the course of the time span your book covers?
I wrote a history of Yeshiva University 25 years ago. In Jews in Gotham, I picked up that story after YU has already been transformed from an immigrant institution to a second-generation institution up in Washington Heights. During the interwar period, YU, like most Jewish institutions, struggled for economic survival and its reach beyond Washington Heights was extremely minimal.
Yeshiva University became increasingly important after 1945 for two reasons. For the Jews of suburbia who wanted to affiliate, YU was out there trying to help them retain and grow in their Jewishness, although there is no question that it was in competition with other Jewish denominations. YU also started contributing more and more to the greatness of New York City. The best proof of this is that we established a totally nonsectarian, bias-free medical school in the east Bronx called the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. YU’s purview expanded in both the Jewish and larger worlds. Prior to World War II, we were not really known except within our own limited constituency. Afterward, we spread our wings both as an American institution and Jewish institution. We still do that today though the challenge and promises are different.