Remaking ourselves at home.

Author:Moore, Deborah Dash
Position:Essay
 
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Columbia University Press published At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews, 1920-1940 as the first volume of a new series, the Columbia History of Urban Life, edited by Kenneth Jackson. Jackson established the series to pick up where Oxford University Press's Urban Life in America Series was leaving off. (2) This earlier series was dying at the time and he wanted to promote research and writing on cities, including New York. (3) A professor of urban history, Jackson arrived in 1968 at Columbia University, where I was a graduate student, though I never studied with him. He did, however, carefully read the manuscript version of the book. (4) At Home in America appeared in January 1981. Its research, writing, and rewriting occurred during the decade of the 1970s.

Jackson's decision to start his new series with a book on second-generation New York Jews explicitly affirmed their centrality to urban history. It validated my focus on the neighborhood as an organic unit of Jewish life in the city and my decision to begin the second-generation story with Jews' migration out of the Lower East Side. I drew on historians' theories of immigration to understand how Jewish migration among neighborhoods modified the development of community and ethnicity. Historians emphasized both the "push" and the "pull" that were prompting people to move, and they recognized how migrants carried cultural baggage that often was transformed by the encounter with a different society. (5) By contrast, sociological writing on areas of second settlement assumed that migration led directly to assimilation into American culture and society. (6) Instead, I argued for recognition of urban neighborhoods as the mediums--the physical, social, and economic spaces--in which ethnic cultures evolved. Jews crafted a sense of place in what urban historians at the time called the "inner city or streetcar suburb." Through their embrace of apartment house living, second-generation Jews helped to ensure the growth of an innovative and financially resilient urban culture. (7) I integrated into my narrative the roles of Jewish builders in fashioning the cityscape. Different types of multifamily housing--from modern tenements to elevator apartment buildings--gave form to a distinctive interpenetration of public and private lives. I noted the importance of class differences separating second-generation neighborhoods, but emphasized that more than class distinguished one Jewish area from another. Religious and political differences also shaped a neighborhood's character and, within any single section, significant Jewish variety flourished. Neighborhoods were far from homogeneous. So many Jews lived in New York City--roughly two million at its peak--that the city supported enormous Jewish diversity. Several of New York's neighborhoods housed as many Jews as the total Jewish population of many other American cities. Linking neighborhood, city, state, and nation, second-generation Jews developed a system of philanthropy that claimed to represent the "Jewish community."

New York Jews created both a vision and a practice of a multiethnic and multi-religious city. They linked their ideals and way of life to progressive politics that contributed ideas, values, and votes to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Second-generation Jews worked with Jewish and American local institutions to expand the city's commitment to religious and ethnic diversity. They especially looked to public schools, synagogues, and political clubs to sustain their synthesis. As second-generation Jews became public school teachers in significant numbers, they gradually modified aspects of public school curricula and rituals. Dedicated Jewish educators even gained recognition for aspects of Jewish culture, especially modern Hebrew language instruction. Their struggle for respect for Jewish values embedded in the rise of Zionism and modern Hebrew, supported by Jewish secondary school teachers, contributed to changing Christian assumptions that colored public school programs. Students and their parents welcomed the opportunity to learn Hebrew in high school. It bridged a gap between home and school. The Board of Education's willingness to offer Hebrew as an elective signaled its recognition of Jewish culture as worthy of inclusion as part of New York's cultural mix. As students had long studied Greek and Latin, so it also became possible for them to study Hebrew. Simultaneously, rabbis and Jewish laymen developed the synagogue center as a family-based religious institution where men and women, and children could extend the boundaries of Jewish religious life. Jews also established and joined political clubs that enabled them to gain leverage in city governance. They aimed not only to further their personal ambitions, but also to implement policies that would help workers as a class. In the process, Jews came to identify with and beyond their neighborhoods; they came to see themselves as Brownsville Jews, New York Jews, or American Jews, for example, with distinctive blended identities.

My book title argued a thesis: that New York Jews actually found themselves at home in America during decades of peak antisemitism. I did not ignore the forms of disdain and discrimination that Jews confronted in those years. However, I stressed the significance of their responses. Ronald Bayor had recently published a book on ethnic conflict in New York, and I did not need to repeat his account. (8) Instead, I answered a question that Irving Howe had asked in the eighteenth and final section of World of Our Fathers. He called this section "At Ease in America?" under the larger rubric of "Dispersion." (9) I pointed out that the census demonstrated how dispersal from the Lower East Side had coalesced into new Jewish concentrations in several diverse neighborhoods. Rather than evenly distributing Jews throughout the city, migration produced a concentrated dispersion and a greater segregation of Jews from other New Yorkers when calculated citywide. These patterns indicated the terms upon which Jews grew to be at home in America--less as an assimilated group than as an ethnically distinctive one. In my last chapter, I suggested that patterns established during the interwar years extended into the postwar decade.

In the early 1970S, I faced several interconnected...

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