Learning About Jewish Community From Manhattan's Upper West Side

Neighborhood Shows an Abiding Commitment to Jewish Life

Once Upon a Time on the Upper West: In 1930, when this photo was taken, the view of the Grant Memorial and Riverside Drive was not as cluttered as it is today.
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Once Upon a Time on the Upper West: In 1930, when this photo was taken, the view of the Grant Memorial and Riverside Drive was not as cluttered as it is today.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published November 08, 2013, issue of November 15, 2013.
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The recent findings of the Pew Research Center study (yes, that again) have left many of us scratching our heads, biting our nails and searching every which way for answers. Some have sought explanation, let alone consolation, in the broad strokes of macro-analysis, others in anecdote and still others in history.

The past, as you know, is my default position: I’m often the only one in the room who looks backward rather than forward. But in October, at a gathering convened by Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of the storied congregation Ansche Chesed, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the past was within everyone’s sights.

This event, which zeroed in on the vibrant history of the Upper West Side and on the ways in which it continues to loom large as the model of an engaged, and varied, Jewish citizenry, featured yours truly as well as John Podhoretz, editor of the magazine Commentary, and John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of New York’s UJA-Federation.

Each of us was called on to hold forth from our respective perches about the neighborhood’s significance. That all three of us also happened to be longtime residents of the West Side burnished our laurels and, one hopes, deepened our credibility.

The gathering, Kalmanofsky told me, had been prompted by the recent death of several elderly congregants who had arrived on the Upper West Side more than 60 years earlier as refugees and displaced persons. It was also prompted by his own musings on the relationship between the individual and the collective. Taking stock, the rabbi encouraged the members of Ansche Chesed to share their photographic memories of the neighborhood and to attend — and participate — in a discussion about change and stasis, ebb and flow, the site specific and the reproducible.

Despite the early hour — a Sunday morning — and the weather, a picture-perfect fall day, Ansche Chesed’s ballroom was chock-a-block with Upper West Siders eager to tell their stories, share their reminiscences and make a political point or two. But first they had to listen to what the panelists had to say. I set things in motion with a swiftly paced account of the neighborhood’s emergence during the interwar years into what one former resident, writing in 1947, described as “a way of life, with its own modes and rituals and codes.”

Podhoretz, picking up where I left off, chronicled the neighborhood’s decline during the postwar era, while Ruskay focused on the efflorescence of Jewish cultural creativity that began in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and whose effects are still being felt generations later.


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