New York Jews and the Decline of Urban Ethnicity, 1950-1970

New York Jews and the Decline of Urban Ethnicity, 1950-1970

Seller, Maxine S

New York Jews and the Decline of Urban Ethnicity, 1950-1970. By Eli Lederhendlet. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001. Pp. 206, nores, bibliography, index.

Eli Lederhendler’s thesis is that during the eventful 1950s and 1960s, the Jews of New York City moved from a “natural” Jewish identity based on neighborhood and family ties toward a new, more problematic identity at the same time both more religious and more ethnocentric. Supporting his thesis, Lederhendler has written a richly detailed history in which the story of a changing Jewish community is embedded in a larger story of social, cultural, and political change in New York City. He has skillfully mined a wide range of sources, including fiction and poetry, newspapers, memoirs, and demographic and other statistical data, and he notes the impact on Jewish life of n wide range of literary, political, and religious figures, including Hannah Arendt, Eli Weisel, Cynthia Ozick, Albert Shanker, Meier Kahane and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

The author begins and ends with an analysis of the romance between the Jews and New York City. He notes that most Jews left the city for the suburbs a decade later than other whites, and that in 1970 Jews were still the largest European group in the city, a third of the city’s white population. He does not accept the view that the Jews made New York the vibrant city that it is, arguing the reverse, that the enormous energy of the social, intellectual, artistic, literary, and business worlds of New York City made its Jews what they were. “Jews, individually and as a group, have reaped the windfall benefits that came from living at the epicenter of such great activity. They have, by the same token, risked great losses, as the tenor of life in the city and its human capacities have been challenged” (p. 206).

As old neighborhoods broke up and the influence of family declined in the 1950s, Jews looked for new ways of defining and preserving Jewish identity. Some turned to retrieval of a romanticized East European past, some turned to academic study of Jewish life, some withdrew into separate Orthodox enclaves, some made a cult of the Holocaust and Jewish victimization. Some of the more well-to-do made a new cult of philanthropy. Others, influenced by new religious thinkers like Heschel, Eugene Borowitz, and Joseph Soloveitchik, turned from “Jewishness” to a Judaism enriched with deeper spiritual and ethnical dimensions.

In the turbulent 1960s, Jewish identity for many (black and white) was subsumed under the broader, racial category of “white.” The author does an excellent job of analyzing the increasing tensions between Jews and African Americans, embedding them in events such as the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school strike. He contrasts the liberal Jewish commitment to “civility,” the willingness of urban groups to bargain and share power, with the new, more strident ethnic politics of groups like blacks and Hispanics who lacked any power to share.

Although his argument is always clear, Lederhendler shows readers that his subject is complex, and that there was perhaps as much diversity in the Jewish community as there was outside. Fuller treatment could have been given to gender and to the impact of Zionism and the state of Israel before the Six Day War. But these omissions are minor, indeed, in light of the wealth of information and insight in this book, much of which has not even been alluded to here for lack of space. This book should be of great interest to urban, social, and immigration historians as well as to scholars in Jewish Studies.


University at Buffalo

Copyright Center for Migration Studies Summer 2003

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