The Rise, Decline and Reemergence of Jewish Harlem

Six Questions With Dr. Jeffrey S. Gurock on His New Book, The Jews of Harlem

It was once home to the third-largest Jewish community in the world, but today, New York City’s Harlem neighborhood is firmly established in the American mind as traditionally African American. How did that come to pass, and why? How did these two minority communities interact with each other as they shared the same city streets, and as one gradually eclipsed the other? Will Harlem ever reclaim its Jewish history?

Dr. Jeffrey S. Gurock, Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History, first explored these questions in 1979 with the publication of his book When Harlem Was Jewish 1870-1930 (Columbia University Press). But nearly 40 years later, he found himself drawn to the Jews of that neighborhood again as the racial and religious scene uptown has begun to change. YU News sat down with Gurock to discuss his newest book, The Jews of Harlem: The Rise, Decline, and Revival of a Jewish Community (New York University Press), which steps back into the past to examine the roots and surprising epilogue of Jewish life in Harlem.

1. What first prompted you to write about Harlem?

I was a child of the 60s and I grew up during a time period in New York and U.S. history where there was competition and great struggle between Jews and African Americans. When I was thinking of doing my dissertation, I wanted to write about Jews and blacks during the era of segregation. My professor at Columbia University said, “Don’t look at the attitudes of leaders, look at the places where Jews and African Americans interacted.” I looked out the window on Morningside Heights and saw Harlem. I knew that I had a topic. But as it turned out there was much more to the Jewish Harlem story—especially the question of what it meant to live as a Jew as you moved out of the iconic immigrant hub of the Lower East Side.

2. For readers not familiar with When Harlem Was Jewish, can you encapsulate why Harlem was such an important Jewish community in the early 20th century?

It was the third largest Jewish community in the world, second only to the Lower East Side and Warsaw. If you walked the blocks of Harlem, every place you’d turn you’d see Jews. For brief shining moments it was an extraordinary Jewish community with all the institutions. That’s not to say it was entirely religious—people weren’t necessarily going into its many shuls, they were walking up and down the street on Jewish holidays looking to be seen. There’s more than one Harlem. There’s the working class Harlem, the middle class Harlem. From Zionist to radical to Orthodox to people who aren’t interested in religious life, Jews of every kind were moving uptown. By 1917, there were 175,000 Jews in Harlem—some rich and some poor—living in tenements on blocks that had more than 1,000 people per acre.

3. Why did Jews begin to move away from Harlem?

During World War I the city becomes very overcrowded as many African Americans and poor whites working in war industries moved in, and there is deterioration in existing neighborhoods. To combat this, New York City’s Board of Estimate offered 10 years free of real estate taxes to anyone who builds an apartment building in the outer boroughs or other parts of the City. Jews start moving to whole new areas like Flatbush, Boro Park, the Grand Concourse and so on, and as they move out, the areas they leave are filled by African Americans and Latinos.

4. What will your readers learn about the complicated relationship between African Americans and Jews in this area?

The way I see it, there’s no one Jewish voice or attitude toward African Americans in evidence in Harlem, and no one African American voice on Jews. Some Jews were advocates of civil rights and were staunch integrationists and some were complicit in exploiting the African American community. Similarly, there were African Americans who were collegial and others who were anti-Semitic. There’s never been just one voice among Gotham’s many racial and religious groups.

5. Why did you decide to revisit this topic nearly 40 years later?

With New York changing and gentrification in the air, there was a whole new aspect to the Harlem story that begs to be told. In this book, I also broaden the scope of my discussion to touch on areas I didn’t explore in the original work—there’s much more focus on the cultural imprint of the Jews in Harlem. For instance, there was a Jewish presence in terms of music: Al Jolson, the Gershwins, Fanny Brice. The famous Apollo Theater was owned and operated by Jews, who brought some of great African American talents to the neighborhood.

6. What is the future of Jews in Harlem?

Right now there are more whites than African American in Harlem. That’s been the case for almost a decade. Jews are returning to Harlem, but Judaism as a religion has been slow to come back to a community that once had hundreds of synagogues and educational and cultural institutions. Most of these young gentrifiers are not particularly interested in maintaining their Judaism; it’s part of the general malaise of our times in America everywhere. However, on the positive side, there are a number of small start-up initiatives to be noted: a new Harlem Jewish Community Center, a Hebrew language charter school and of course, Chabad, which has been in the neighborhood for a decade. It’s only the beginning. Let’s see what happens.