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With one eye on the sources, which ranged from the demographic surveys of the Bureau of Jewish Social Research and articles in Commentary to personal experience, and another eye on the larger context, which encompassed such broad phenomena as upward mobility, urban renewal, suburbanization and the counterculture, the three of us sought to account for the vitality of the Upper West Side and its ongoing hold on the American Jewish imagination. Was it a matter of density? Visibility? Housing stock? A serendipitous coming together of people and ideas?
No sooner did we conclude our part of the program, which was probably more effective in raising questions than in furnishing answers, when a flurry of hands shot up. I don’t think I’m guilty of exaggerating (well, maybe, but only slightly) when I say that virtually every member of the audience had something to say. Contributing both “an observation and a question” (though usually more of the former than the latter), they fondly invoked the names of some of the area’s former leaders, among them rabbis Gunter Hirschberg, Marshall Meyer and Shlomo Riskin, while also recalling dueling kosher butchers (the “good one” and the “not so good one”), and the women who, with their German and Hungarian accents, worked behind the counter at Barton’s candy store or staffed the local bakeries that adorned the neighborhood like sprinkles on a cupcake.
The memories of a once glorious synagogue ballroom left to languish in the wake of a flood because of limited resources came to mind, as did recollections of the diverse crowds of people who, during Rosh Hashanah, now gather together on the banks of the Hudson to recite tashlikh, putting at least one member of the audience in mind of the biblical gathering at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Others, less biblically inclined, perhaps, spoke of the increasingly high cost of living on the West Side and wondered whether the area’s characteristic heterogeneity was about to go the way of the mom and pop stores and dairy restaurants that once lined Broadway.
No single narrative emerged from among the welter of eager voices and perspectives; the Upper West Side was, and is, far too diverse for that. What did come through loud and clear was a fierce sense of community and an abiding commitment to Jewish life at the neighborhood level.
As American Jewry’s leaders regroup in the wake of the Pew study’s conclusions, perhaps they would do well to heed the example of the Upper West Side and to look no further than their own backyards.