City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York
Call it the Big Apple. Gotham. Or even, just New York, New York. Anyone who picks up any of the three volumes that make up City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York will find unexpected treats. These comprehensive studies, edited by distinguished Jewish historian Deborah Dash Moore, cover familiar territory but also offer facts, insights and analyses that add immeasurably to our understanding of the greatest Jewish metropolis of all time. And for those who would like to see for themselves, each volume contains a “visual essay” and illuminating text by Diana L. Linden, an art historian, showing original documents, maps, paintings and photographs delineating Jewish life in the city for more than 350 years.
Starting with the first volume, Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World, 1654-1865, Howard B. Rock, emeritus professor of history at Florida International University in Miami, chronicles the struggles and triumphs of 23 Dutch Jews who left the Dutch colony of Recife, Brazil, following its fall to Portugal and sought to replicate their positive experience in another Dutch colony, tiny and primitive New Amsterdam, where the Dutch West India Company had established itself. Unknown to them, the leader of the colony, Peter Stuyvesant, a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, was an ardent anti-Semite. But the Jews persevered as they fought for the rights to own businesses and property. In 1730, Shearith Israel became New York’s first synagogue.
Colonial New York became the freest place in the Western world for Jews, with little political or economic persecution and relatively little anti-Semitism. This set a challenge for New York’s Jews, Rock says, as they learned to survive and even flourish in an open society without the baggage of Europe that hampered Jewish life elsewhere. Some of Rock’s storytelling is dry and academic as it follows Jews through the early years of the republic, but it hews closely to the historical record, giving examples of Jews trying to assimilate without losing their ethnic and religious identity.
One surprise is the disclosure that before the Civil War New York’s Jews sided with the South because of their commercial ties to the region. Jews voted Democratic, even in 1864. And when Rabbi Morris Raphall of B’nai Jeshurun gave a spirited speech in which he cited biblical ties to slavery, few members of his congregation objected. Few Jews were on the side of abolition but, once war broke out, Jews supported the Union.
The middle volume of the set, Emerging Metropolis: New York Jews in the Age of Immigration, 1840-1920, explores the conflicts and challenges of the newly arrived Jews from Central and Eastern Europe from the 1880s to 1920, and their efforts to integrate into the social, religious, political and cultural aspirations of other New Yorkers. It wasn’t always easy—German-born Jews did not get along with their Russian coreligionists. Nevertheless, there were many ways in which the new immigrants, particularly women, cooperated, according to Annie Polland, vice president for programs and education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and Daniel Soyer, professor of history at New York’s Fordham University, who coauthored this volume.
These struggles changed the city as the community, in a burst of creativity, made itself felt in politics, journalism, business and the arts. Architecturally distinctive synagogues like Central Synagogue and the Eldridge Street Synagogue were built, department stores like Bloomingdales, Abraham and Straus and Macy’s grew in prominence, and groups like the Educational Alliance provided aid to new arrivals.
Jews were integrating into the society while retaining their distinctiveness. They invented a multifaceted community that later helped shape New York’s diverse urban culture. When asked about the songs of composer Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern said, “He is American music.”
In the finale, Jews in Gotham: New York Jews in a Changing City, 1920-2010, Jeffrey S. Gurock, distinguished professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University in New York, brings the most recent eras to life in vivid and exciting prose, melding history with anecdotes and lively tales familiar to current readers. Gurock emphasizes neighborhood life as a main city feature and recounts how deep roots in certain New York areas supported vigorous political, religious and economic activity. Gurock also deals with the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and how that tragedy awakened the nation to sweatshop conditions.
The author notes that New York Jews’ reaction to the Holocaust did not resonate, and many were not happy with the protest by 500 Orthodox rabbis who marched on Washington. Gurock notes how The New York Times slighted the Holocaust, rarely putting the plight of European Jews on the front page.
New York’s free city colleges provided the educational, intellectual and political impetus for immigrants and their children throughout the Depression and onward. The City College of New York alone produced almost a dozen Nobel Prize winners in science and medicine.
Most recently, the Jewish triumphs have given way to changing ambitions and a large-scale shift after World War II to the suburbs of Long Island, Westchester County and New Jersey, though the city retains its prominence in finance, law, real estate, the arts and medicine.
This well-documented trilogy says it all about the largest Jewish city in Jewish history.