At Home in America: through the lens of metropolitan and political history.

Author:Geismer, Lily
 
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It is both a challenging and an enlightening task to revisit a book with the benefit of more than three decades of historiographic hindsight. As a scholar of twentieth-century metropolitan and political history, particularly liberalism, I was struck by the ways the book stood at the vanguard of many key trends in these fields. Deborah Dash Moore's At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews addresses the relationship among space, identity, and class formation that has come to define these fields and, in particular, emphasizes the development of middle-class consciousness and politics. Moore raises many key questions about the nature of liberalism that have continued to preoccupy and perplex scholars. While Moore does not downplay the New Deal, her book reveals the value of pushing the timeline backward and examining the 192.0s as a watershed moment in the formulation not only of urban space, but also of modern liberalism. She also gestures to a metropolitan perspective and to the importance of the suburbs to the enterprise of exposing the continued relationship between Jewish identity and liberalism.

Returning to At Home in America illuminated for me just how sidelined the topics of religion and Jewish identity have become in the fields of metropolitan and political history. At the same time, some parts of this 1981 book would have benefited from some of the insights that have emerged from these subfields over the last three decades. Ultimately, fusing the new paradigms of metropolitan and political history with the insights of At Home In America provides an important means for deepening our understanding of the spatial roots and the nature of liberalism and Jewish identity, both in the city and beyond it.

Space, Class, and Identity Formation

Like much of the work that has emerged in metropolitan history, At Home in America highlights the importance of residency in shaping identity, politics, and other facets of individual and collective consciousness. The book is, at its core, an investigation of space and the role of place in shaping ethnic, social, and political identity. Moore documents how Jewish identity did not emerge in a vacuum, but rather in the specific spatial and lived experiences of urban life in New York City. She highlights the importance of the neighborhood as the main force in shaping American Jewish ethnicity and identity as it fostered spatial patterns, personal relationships, and shared values.

At Home in America provides an important example for any scholar seeking to understand how communities spread across several different neighborhoods or municipalities in the same geographic region. Moore's meticulous mapping of the process of dispersal and neighborhood formation in New York is also a model of how to use the methodology of social history to address larger questions of class identity. She shows how a sense of Jewish identity emerged from the lived experience and the specific history of second-generation Jews in New York during the interwar years. Moore highlights the ways in which New York Jews saw themselves in geographic terms. She observes, "New York's Jewish geography always implied an inner social reality." (1) Yet she underscores how the second-generation Jews' selection of a particular neighborhood and apartment also provided a means to demonstrate a more overt class standing and to signal membership in the middle class. This analysis anticipates Matthew Lassiter's important claim that "class identity ... took on a powerful spatial orientation in the postwar metropolis" as "the physical location of homes and schools became the primary markers of a family's socioeconomic status." (2) Moore shows how this spatialization of class identity also strengthened a sense of Jewish ethnicity, "binding it to the neighborhood by ligaments both manifest and invisible." (3)

The second-generation Jews' shared professional experiences and associations, often forged at the neighborhood level, enhanced their group identity and middle-class consciousness. The second generation experienced "relatively rapid" entrance into the larger American middle class, a move that carried the potential to threaten their religious and cultural ties. (4) However, as Moore points out, many second-generation Jews were the children of union members, a status that bestowed upon them a sense of collective action and that further motivated a sense of individual and shared middle-class identity and Jewishness, even if they were not always members of unions themselves. Through these alliances, therefore, the second generation "synthesized its ethnic values and class interests." (5)

Despite her attention to the role of class and ethnicity in shaping the metropolitan landscape, Moore pays less attention to the impact of race and in particular, racial segregation in the construction of metropolitan space in the twentieth century. This absence marks a limitation of the book when read against the now-standard narratives of urban history. Following in the wake of Arnold Hirsch's Making of the Second Ghetto (1983) and Thomas Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis (1996), the field of twentieth-century urban history has remained focused on key questions of race, property, and the role of federal and local policy in the development of urban space and structural inequality. (6) While Moore discusses the prejudice and antisemitism that Jews faced as a result of their residential decisions, she does not position these practices against the backdrop of the growing and systemic racial segregation of the city, nor does she discuss the role of proximity to African Americans in dictating the residential decisions of Jews. (7) This gap in her analysis is perhaps a marker of how much more scholars now know about the relationship between political economy and racial segregation since the time when At Home in America was published. Clearly, some of the practices of residential settlement that Moore examines established the foundation for the kind of racial segregation that occurred in New York in the interwar period. Her mapping of Jewish residential patterns, in fact, parallels the designations and hierarchies solidified in the "residential security maps" drawn by the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) in New York City in the 1930s. (8)

Moore grants second-generation Jews a great deal of individual agency, not only in their housing decisions, but also in redefining the meaning of Jewishness and ensuring their persistence as an ethnic group. She contends that through the building of social, religious, and political infrastructure, the second generation "established the limits of their assimilation into American society." (9) While she does discuss transportation systems and parks, issues of infrastructure so prevalent in other urban histories are less prominent in At Home in America. Beyond the public schools, city agencies play a relatively nonexistent role in the book, and many of the urban planners, large-scale developers, and power brokers who were crucial to the development and transformation of New York and other cities in the 1920s hardly appear in the book. In her discussion of the development of an "ethnically distinct housing market," she does describe the role of Jewish real estate developers, bankers, and investors, but she does not link them to the larger city or to...

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