Book Review: Jews in Gotham


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.

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