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Book Review: Jews in Gotham

December 15th, 2012 by

Have you ever lived in New York? Have you ever met a Jew from New York? There is a wonderful three part series of books on the Jews of New York called City of Promises – General Editor of the series is Deborah Dash Moore of University of Michigan. The last in the series is Jews in Gotham: New York Jews in a Changing City by Jeffrey S. Gurock, a professor of history at Yeshiva University. This last volume of the series encompasses the years 1920 to 2010. There is quite a bit covered in the book, so if you like history or find New York interesting, you will get much from this book.

New York Jewish reaction to World War II, the Holocaust and Nazis gets a whole chapter in the book. How rabbis responded, how young Jews responded, how the New York Times barely covered the Holocaust.

Jeffrey Gurock highlights various families throughout the book, with a few famous ones, such as that of Ralph Lauren or the family of Bess Myerson, who went to Hunter College around the same time as my mother and went on to become Miss America. The Myerson family was described because they sent their children to Yiddish schools; despite this, when Bess won the Miss America contests, she spoke perfect English.

Adolph Schayes who grew up in the Bronx and went on to become an early NBA star, recalled “as a kid, I thought everyone was Jewish.” Gurock brings numerous examples of how New Yorkers just accepted being Jewish, but when they left New York, that’s when they really felt Jewish. Three major feminists of the 1970’s, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan had difficult awakenings at women’s conferences where Israel was denounced and in Copenhagen “Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan all being Jewish gives the women’s movement a bad name.”

Other issues covered in the book include Jewish-African American relations and how those deteriorated and activism for Soviet Jewry. He talks about Queens, Harlem and the Bronx and how those developed as Jewish neighborhoods. Here’s a good line from a section on the Jewish cooperative movement: “But what should a leftist Jewish ‘landlord’—seemingly an oxymoronic term—do with a comrade who could not keep up with the rent?”

I was hoping for more about Brownsville, the area of Brooklyn where my father was born, but it is mostly gets mentioned as the home of the criminal Bugsy Siegel and of the film critic Alfred Kazin in Jews in Gotham. However, it does get a few pages of lively description in volume two of this series, Emerging Metropolis by Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer, which covers the years 1840-1920. Even Yeshiva Chaim Berlin gets a mention in that book. I’m still reading Emerging Metropolis, but it’s a great book so far.

Speaking of Chaim Berlin, I found my father’s yearbook this past week – he had gotten tagged as “class scholar.” Not surprising. Maybe I’ll find a way to write a bit about the yearbook in a future post.

Here is Deborah Dash Moore on Jews in Gotham:

Update: City of Promises won Jewish Book of the Year of 2012 National Jewish Book Award Winners.

15 Responses to Book Review: Jews in Gotham

  1. Hannah says:

    Another book which looks good and that I’d like; I’ll bookmark it for Friday’s review. I hope that you can soon share more about your father’s yearbook.

    • Leora says:

      Thank you for the encouragement on finding a way to write a post using my father’s yearbook. I never wrote about him when he was alive – he was much too private a person. Even now, it feels strange and a bit too forward of me.

  2. This does sound like an interesting book especially as my husband coming from Brooklyn… When you are ready, write about your Father.. when you are comfortable…hugs.. Michelle

    • Leora says:

      For various reasons, Michelle, I may never write about my father. Sometimes life needs to stay private. One of the reasons I prefer to share photos, especially nature photos … I can talk about what I find special or just show it in a picture.

      • Leora.. As a child there were many secrets I kept and for years after that.. then more secrets from my first marriage. To become whole I had to speak out and let it out as keeping it in was festering. I was embarrassed, but I need not be as it wasn’t me who abusive. So I am much more open now and I feel it has let me be free from my past. That is why I do it… hugs..Michelle

      • Leora says:

        This is not about secrets but about privacy.

      • Oh no…I didn’t mean that..I just meant what I was doing..Oh dear..I didn’t mean you had secrets…sorry Leora…I respect that. I do…

      • Leora says:

        Oh, I hope we can close this discussion. Maybe the next comment can actually be about the book in this post …

  3. Jewaicious says:

    Excellent review, Leora! I will definitely read this book, and the entire series, if I can find it. My library system doesn’t seem to have any of the books in the series. :( So weird. L.A. is a Jewish hub, in America. I searched the entire system, both as the City of Promises, and as individual books. I can not buy it…the leading online site has it for $79

    • Leora says:

      Ah, no wonder not many people have read the books. I was the first to add them to Good Reads.

      Our library ordered the whole series – that’s how I read them (that’s how I read most books, via library). Can you request a library order them?

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