At home in the city: Jewish urban history between the new and old worlds.

Author:Kuznitz, Cecile E.

I purchased my well-thumbed and well-annotated copy of At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews at the University of Maryland bookstore a few months after completing my undergraduate degree at Harvard University. At the time, I was working in Washington, D.C. at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, pursuing my fascination with historic urban architecture--a fascination that dated from my high school years in New York City. When I began my studies at Harvard, I hoped to develop this long-standing interest in an academic setting, but I quickly felt frustrated. Classes in art history made me realize that I did not wish to focus on the aesthetic qualities of buildings; a seminar at the Harvard Graduate School of Design taught me that drawing and drafting were best left to others. Eventually, I was inspired by scholars like Sam Bass Warner, Jr., who looked at vernacular buildings not as art objects, but as social and cultural documents.

Things got more complicated when I tried to combine this approach with my burgeoning interest in Jewish history. One professor told me that my desire to study ethnic identity through the built environment was impossible, since "buildings can't look Jewish." Of course, I set out to prove him wrong. Using Warner's Streetcar Suburbs as a model, my undergraduate thesis examined the history of a second-generation Boston Jewish neighborhood through the lens of its physical development. (2)

During my undergraduate forays into architectural and urban history, I had never come across Deborah Dash Moore's work. Imagine my excitement, then, when I encountered At Home in America\ Here was a book that focused on second-generation New York Jews--Jews like my own Brooklyn-bred parents, the children of immigrants from Eastern Europe. As a devoted New Yorker, I also appreciated Moore's stress on Jews' affinity for metropolitan life, what she termed elsewhere as their "urban vision." (3) Most importantly, hers was the rare work that took the urban landscape seriously. Her attention to the concrete aspects of Jewish life in New York--the structures, streets, and neighborhoods in which it unfolded--resonated with me, as did her descriptions of not only prominent landmarks but also vernacular buildings such as apartment houses.

Several years later, as a graduate student in Jewish history at Stanford University, I set out to explore how the Yiddish culture of interwar Vilna--a place renowned as a center of both traditional and modern Jewish life--was reflected in the very topography of the city. While the parallels did not occur to me until years later, many of the physical characteristics of Vilna strongly resembled those in Moore's depiction of New York during the same period. I focused on the relatively new neighborhood of Pohulanka, which became an important site of Jewish activity in the ipzos and 1930s. Pohulanka's wide, leafy byways are reminiscent of the "clean broad streets" and "tree-lined pavement" of Moore's contemporaneous Bronx and Brooklyn neighborhoods. (4) Both areas featured recently built apartment houses, and Moore's analysis of the American structures as carrying a distinct appeal for modernizing Jews rings true in Poland as well. Such buildings allowed them to preserve the urban density necessary for creating a close-knit community while enjoying up-to-date amenities. In both cases, Jews also chose these spacious, verdant settings as the home of the more modern, often secularly oriented institutions they founded.

In Eastern Europe, as in the United States, such areas developed in counterpoint to older neighborhoods--in my case, the Jewish quarter at the heart of traditional Vilna, in Moore's case, the immigrant enclave of the Lower East Side. The Jewish quarter's dark, winding lanes, similar to the Lower East Side's "dingy, narrow alleys," presented a clear contrast to the newer parts of town. (5) Both were referred to as "ghettos" with a complex mix of emotions ranging from nostalgia to disdain. While these districts often served as positive symbols of Jewish tradition and community some observers were quick to distance themselves--literally as well as metaphorically--from the dilapidated buildings and unhygienic conditions that prevailed there. By the interwar period, only the most impoverished Jews remained in these venerable neighborhoods. (6) Nevertheless, even as more affluent residents chose to make their homes and build their institutions elsewhere, they remained in close proximity to these historic areas, still major touchstones for Jewish culture.

While Moore briefly discusses attitudes toward the Lower East Side, she leaves the task to later historians to explore more fully the range of connotations that this neighborhood elicited. (7) Still, a comparison of the images of these two "ghettos" would be revealing. The Lower East Side had a much shorter history of Jewish settlement than the Vilna ghetto, where Jews had lived since at least the seventeenth century. By the 1920s, only 15 percent of New York's Jewish residents remained in that immigrant quarter, whereas perhaps half of Vilna's Jews resided in the ghetto area. (8) Moreover, given the timing of immigration and the much greater size of the American metropolis, most Bronx or Brooklyn Jews had abandoned the "old neighborhood" more recently, and they lived farther from it, whereas Pohulanka was but a short walk from the old Jewish quarter. While residents of both cities expressed nostalgia for their respective historic districts by the time of the interwar period, these factors may have made Moore's subjects less likely than mine to reflect upon--and to romanticize--an area they had so recently left and could now choose to avoid. (9)

Comparisons between interwar Vilna and New York may be surprising, given their very different scales, both geographic and demographic, and given the dissimilar histories of the two cities and their Jewish communities. Yet, in both cases, Jews comprised a similar proportion, between one-quarter and one-third, of the total population. (10) In addition, both locales experienced a period of physical expansion after World War I that created new neighborhoods beyond the old downtown. In each case, a stratum of Jewish society--in Vilna, a secularizing middle class, in New York, the upwardly mobile children of immigrants--established themselves in such areas so that social and cultural change was mapped onto urban geography. In New York, poor and wealthy Jews were unlikely to be neighbors, and some middle-class districts developed a reputation for Orthodoxy, while others were known for radicalism. (11) Although the smaller size and overall poverty of Vilna precluded such specialization, Yiddish was much more likely to be seen and heard in some parts of the city than in others. (12)

Moreover, the development of both cities is part of a much larger pattern of Jewish urbanization that extends to many communities and historical eras, particularly the Western world in the modern period. (13) Moore stresses the appeal of urban density in the United States, since, through residential concentration, "New York Jews often acquired a psychological attitude of a majority, in a country where they were a small minority." (14) Furthermore, Moore maintains, the...

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