In June, UJA-Federation of New York released a new demographic survey of the Jews of New York City and three neighboring counties. The million-plus Jews who live here constitute the largest Jewish community in the country by far, and the second largest, next to greater Tel Aviv, in the world. As Josh Nathan-Kazis summarized the findings in the Forward, “the average New York Jew looks a little less like Jerry Seinfeld and a little more like Tevye the Milkman.”
On the Seinfeld, least-Jewishly-engaged side, there was an eight-point drop since 2002 in the percentage of New York Jews who feel that being Jewish is important, a six-point rise in those who have never participated in a Passover seder, and a seven-point rise in those who have never lit Hanukkah candles. About a third of all Jewish households identify today as nondenominational or with no religion. In the words of the survey’s executive summary, “half of the non-Orthodox couples wed between 2006 and 2011 are intermarried,” and “on Jewish engagement, intermarried respondents significantly trail the in-married.”
Tevye, though, is doing quite well, thank you. Roughly a third of New York Jews identify as Orthodox, and their birthrate so far outstrips the others that more than 60 percent of Jews under age 18 are Orthodox. If the lion’s share of them stay that way—a reasonable assumption, given the intensive Orthodox education and socialization they receive—tomorrow’s New York Jewish community will have many more Tevyes. And since the most prolific elements of Orthodoxy are also the most culturally insular (37 percent of all Jewish children are Hasidic), the emerging profile of the New York Jew will not only be more Orthodox, but also poorer and far less educated, politically liberal, and cosmopolitan than it is today.
With barely the time to digest this extraordinary metamorphosis of Jewish New York, we are presented with a handsome three-volume history of the community, the first-ever attempt at a comprehensive account of its evolution, under the editorship of Deborah Dash Moore of the University of Michigan. Volume 1, Haven of Liberty, by Florida International University emeritus professor Howard B. Rock, covers the period until the Civil War; Annie Polland of the Lower East Side Tenement and Daniel Soyer of Fordham University survey developments through 1920 in Emerging Metropolis; and Yeshiva University’s Jeffrey Gurock’s Jews in Gotham brings the narrative up to 2010. In addition, art historian Diana Linden contributes a “visual essay” to each volume consisting of images of people and artifacts of the period together with her own commentary.
The overall series title, City of Promises, is a takeoff on the name of Moses Rischin’s classic 1962 work, Promised City, which conveyed the widespread Jewish assumption that their New York, as it emerged between 1870 and 1914, was a substitute Promised Land. City of Promises’ editor and authors are historians, not prophets, and could hardly have foreseen the shadow that the UJA-Federation survey would cast on their sunny promissory theme. Yet the new, sobering data about New York’s Jews serves to highlight a strain of undue optimism in two of the three books in the series.
The Polland-Soyer treatment of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, City of Promises’ best volume, is largely immune from this criticism. It masterfully weaves together the complicated themes of that period—mass migration, Jewish poverty, conflict over the Reform movement, Jewish political involvement, changes in the structure of the community—coherently and elegantly, warts and all. Polland and Soyer also make illuminating use of census data and communal archives to illustrate how social trends affected real, flesh-and-blood people whose names we know and whose lives we can chronicle.
In Howard Rock’s portrait of pre-Civil War Jews in the metropolis, an otherwise engaging and sensitive account, belief in American exceptionalism spills over into New York Jewish uniqueness. We are told that the city’s Jews of that era were the first to enjoy political and economic freedom, internalize a republican outlook, democratize their institutions and develop secular forms of Jewish identification. He does not address the work of David Sorkin and other historians who have shown similar developments at the time and even earlier within other merchant-led communities of “Port Jews,” such as Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and Trieste. And after accurately describing the pro-Southern sympathies of most New York Jews and their reluctance to condemn slavery, Rock engages in wishful thinking with the extraordinary, unsupported assertion that grief at Lincoln’s assassination unleashed a rethinking that led, in the next century, to Jewish devotion to racial equality.
The Gurock volume, covering the most recent period, is a treasure house of information about the changing neighborhoods of Jewish New York and Jewish involvement in the city’s politics. But there is only perfunctory discussion of New York City as the center of Jewish intellectual and religious life since 1920. And the reader will find scant engagement with the historical origins of the challenges that now threaten the cohesion, political influence and cultural health of New York Jewry: for Jerry Seinfeld and his friends, lower birthrates and rising rates of prolonged singlehood, intermarriage, disaffiliation, and divorce; and for 21st-century Tevyes, the exponential growth of an Orthodox community largely immune from these forces but in great part also cut off from interaction with other Jews and the broader currents of life in Gotham.
Promises, as Macbeth discovered, aren’t always what they seem.
Lawrence Grossman, director of publications at the American Jewish Committee, edited the American Jewish Year Book from 2000 to 2008.
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