How Jews Gave Real Estate a Good Name

Fights Against Anti-Semites Helped Shape Urban Landscape

Thoroughly Modern: For American Jews, the opportunity to invest in real estate and to shape the urban American landscape represented the triumph of modernity over history
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Thoroughly Modern: For American Jews, the opportunity to invest in real estate and to shape the urban American landscape represented the triumph of modernity over history

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published February 07, 2014, issue of February 14, 2014.
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In the two cities I call home, New York and D.C., real estate is the stuff of enduring conversation. Discussing who lives where and in what kind of habitat — condo, co-op, private home or rental apartment — never seems to grow stale. Nearly as compelling a topic, or so it seems to me, is the number of American Jews who are, or whose families have been, in the real estate business.

From coast to coast, the roster of extremely well-heeled American Jews is abundantly stocked with those who owe their good fortune to property ownership: There are the Smiths in D.C., the Swigs in San Francisco, and the Chanins, Levitts and Roths in New York — among many, many others.

What makes this phenomenon more interesting still is that you don’t have to be a g’vir, a big shot, to earn a decent living from the real estate business. Many American Jews at the grass roots, including a hefty quotient of Hasidic Jews, variously own, manage and develop property. The recent and untimely demise of the Brooklyn real estate developer Menachem Stark laid bare any number of things about the Hasidic world that he inhabited. But the most salient, and relevant, finding revealed the large number of Hasidim who figure in this economic arena.

Much like the diamond industry, which is fueled by interpersonal relationships, family ties and a code of behavior that places a premium on trust, Hasidim have been similarly drawn to real estate. A prime example of the ethnic economy at work, it is also a study in what my colleague, Barry Chiswick, chair of the economics department at the George Washington University, calls “complementarity between business life and personal life.”

The workaday demands of the real estate business do not conflict with or subvert the community’s internal religious rhythms; they are comfortably accommodated instead.

But then, history, too — American history, that is — has a lot to do with the configuration of this particular facet of the ethnic economy. Years ago, many immigrant Jews and their children took to real estate speculation or, as the American Hebrew more lyrically put it in 1927, the “romance of realty.” Some real estate men developed New York’s garment center. Other real estate-niks, or “masters of the metropolis,” as another article described them, put up the grand apartment house buildings that grace the Upper West Side of Manhattan while still others transformed Brooklyn and the Bronx.


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