Book Review // City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York

November, 01 2012

The Big (Jewish) Apple

City of Promises:
A History of the Jews of New York
Edited by Deborah Dash Moore
NYU Press
2012,  $99.00, pp. 1108 (3 volumes)

Brownsville, where I grew up in the 1950s, was an Americanized shtetl. Nobody feared pogroms, but the wounds of the war in Europe were still raw—more recent then than 9/11 is today—and every Jew knew that beyond the neighborhood’s porous borders we were regarded as somehow different. In 1953 that difference was brought home when the funeral cortege bearing the bodies of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg passed our block. How could Jews have betrayed America? Alternatively, how could America have blamed the loss of our nuclear monopoly on the Jews?

Later that year, though, as if the execution had finally put a protracted embarrassment to rest, something happened even closer to home—in our living room—that my grandmother embraced as a sign, if not of forgiveness exactly, then of a new level of acceptance: Perry Como sang Kol Nidre on network television.

Como’s groundbreaking performance isn’t mentioned in City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York, but nearly every other historic and cultural milestone is (including Gertrude Berg’s performance on The Goldbergs in the 1930s—long before All in the Family). The three-volume boxed set bills itself as the first comprehensive history of the largest and most important Jewish urban community ever.

Yes, Jews are known as the people of the book, but three volumes? Just about Jews in New York? Well, why not? Whether relating their history in three volumes was a marketing or an editorial decision, the authors successfully synthesize primary and more familiar sources (including Moses Rischin’s The Promised City) to recount in accessible detail more than three centuries of Jewish life and influence in a city they were both a part of and apart from.

In Volume 1, Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World, 1654-1865, Howard B. Rock, a history professor at Florida International University, explores the arrival of Jewish settlers from Brazil (a byproduct of expulsions by the Spanish and then the Portuguese) and their embrace of “republicanism” as a governing principle of politics and their religion.

Volume 2 is entitled Emerging Metropolis: New York Jews in the Age of Immigration, 1840-1920. Annie Polland, vice president of education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and Daniel Soyer, professor and chair of history at Fordham University, recall that three in four of the 33 million newcomers to America between 1815 and 1915 arrived through the Port of New York, and recount how they shaped and were shaped by the city where they ultimately settled.

In the third volume, Jews in Gotham: New York Jews in a Changing City, 1920-2010, Jeffrey S. Gurock, professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University, examines the acculturation of second- and third-generation American Jews in distinct neighborhoods, the racial and other tensions that generated political ambivalence as centrifugal social forces drove them to the suburbs (from which their children are now returning to gentrify old neighborhoods), and the numbers of Jews, which dipped from nearly two million to below one million a decade ago.

At the end of each volume, Diana L. Linden, an art historian, provides what Deborah Dash Moore, a professor of history at the University of Michigan and the editor of City of Promises, describes as an “alternative narrative,” through cultural icons ranging from Jacob Riis’s photograph of a Jewish cobbler to Benny Leonard’s boxing gloves and to the transformative advertisement that proclaimed “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish Rye.”

Taken together, the three illustrated volumes largely live up to Professor Moore’s mission: to explain how and why New York became the capital of Jewish America. The history unfolds with minimal overlap and generous use of anecdotes and personalities—many of them unfamiliar to most readers—and fascinating factoids.

Who knew that the retelling of Romeo and Juliet in 1957 by Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim was originally called East Side Story and focused on the conflict between a Catholic and Jewish family but was recast because ethnic and racial tension trumped anti-Semitism as more contemporary? Or that Jews appear to have played a disproportionate role in slavery (“Jewish ship-owners participated in 8.3 percent of the New York slave trade.”)? Or that the garment industry was propelled by the demand for uniforms during the Civil War? Or that, historically, most Jews have not been regular congregants at synagogues (we also learn why so many synagogues are distinguished by Moorish architecture) and that relations among them, already riven by their nation of origin, have historically been fractured by their disparate solutions to reconciling Old World ritual with New World cultural norms?

In what appears to be less a nod to political correctness than to previous omissions, the authors acknowledge that racism against blacks has been more profound than anti-Semitism, and that Jews of both genders contributed to their own community and to the city in general (New York’s “most outspoken Jewish abolitionist” was a woman). Moreover, the tone is not hagiographic: Readers are reminded that Jewish husbands deserted their families in epidemic numbers a century ago and that Police Commissioner Theodore A. Bingham might have been only barely exaggerating when he claimed in 1908 that “perhaps half” the criminals in the city were Jewish.

For academics (not a put-down), the authors rarely resort to jargon (I did have to look up the definition of “filiopietism”; on the other hand, was it necessary after more than 350 years of Jewish influence in North America to define “klutz”?).  What I would have liked to learn more about in this otherwise comprehensive history is the extent to which the Jewish experience differed from that of other immigrant groups and to what degree—beyond sheer numbers—the integration of Jews in New York’s economy and culture diverged from their evolution in other American cities. In other words, what distinguished Jews from other groups? Did class or even national origin set them apart more than religious affiliation?  “Am I glad to be born a Jew?” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is quoted in 2001 as saying in response to a reporter’s question. “I never even thought about it in that context. You are what you are.”

Yet there is something unique about New York and the outsize role Jews have played in defining it, at least as far as the rest of America is concerned. “If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish,” the comedian Lenny Bruce observed. “It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish.”

Similarly, in concluding her visual essay accompanying the volume Jews in Gotham, Diana Linden traces the metamorphosis of a stereotype from Gertrude Berg’s Molly Goldberg. “Her intimate Jewish world, tied to immigrant life through its accented English, yielded in popular culture to enticing notions that anyone could become a New York Jew,” she writes. “All one needed was the right food and a measure of chutzpah.”


Sam Roberts is urban affairs correspondent of The New York Times and author of the forthcoming book Grand Central.


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