There and Back Again

Tracing the Changing Contours of American Jewish Communities As They Moved From City Streets to Leafy Suburbs

By Nathan Glazer

Published June 04, 2004, issue of June 04, 2004.
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Jews have been pre-eminently an urban people, perhaps since the Diaspora created Alexandria as a major Jewish center, and this has been true of American Jews, too. We celebrate the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the American Jewish community by marking its beginning in New Amsterdam — New York City as it was to become. Despite the various experiments in settling Jews on the land, an overwhelmingly urban people American Jews became and have remained. But an important kink in the American Jewish urban experience emerged in the post-World-War II years, when Jews with remarkable speed became suburbanized and abandoned the central cities of the Northeast and the Midwest that had shaped Jewish life in America. New York became almost unique among American cities in still harboring a large Jewish population. Jews were moving to new centers in the South and West, and to other cities, such as Miami and Los Angeles. And even if they were not moving that far, they were moving to the suburbs of their central cities.

The classic urban experience of American Jews was the experience of the densely settled Jewish sections of New York and other Eastern and Northeastern cities. This was “The World of Our Fathers,” as Irving Howe called it in his classic book, of Alfred Kazin’s “A Walker in the City” and “New York Jew,” of Norman Podhoretz’s “Making It,” and of “Arguing the World,” the documentary (and book) by Joseph Dorman describing the experience of four City College students (one of them is the author of this article). These first- and second-generation Jewish neighborhoods areas often were almost entirely Jewish in composition, and this concentration made it possible for Jewish organizations of all kinds to flourish — Orthodox and Conservative and even Reform congregations, Jewish schools of all types, Jewish political groupings and sects of every variety. Call it Judaism and Jewishness without community planning (and also without any obvious leadership). Compared with the suburbs that were to come, these were amorphous communities. In these inner-city Jewish areas, one was Jewish by osmosis rather than by choice. One could choose any variety of Jewishness — and even if one chose none, as many did, one was still was Jewish.

This was not only the New York experience. When, as a student Zionist, I traveled to a number of cities to visit other members of our organization, I found the same kind of Jewish inner-city community, on a reduced scale, everywhere. But these communities did not have a long life.

When Eugene Lipman and Albert Vorspan published their book, “A Tale of Ten Cities,” in 1962, the emptying-out of the large central cities of Jews was in full swing, and in some cities almost complete: The chapter on Cleveland in the book was alarmingly titled, “City Without Jews.” There were almost no Jews left in Cleveland. Their former presence was marked by a series of grand synagogues that matched their movement West and South out of Cleveland itself to Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights and similar communities. There still was a large “Cleveland” Jewish community, but the Jews no longer lived in the city itself. The same could have been written for Detroit, St. Louis and Buffalo, N.Y., as well as many other cities. Even the second-largest Jewish community of the time, Chicago, had lost most of its Jewish population to new suburban communities.

Of course, the rest of America was also moving South and West, and to the suburbs, but the Jews were moving with greater speed. This reflected not only the fact that they were becoming more prosperous at a faster rate than other Americans and so they could move more easily, but also the fact that they were less attached to homes and land. More of them rented, more of them lived in apartments rather than owned homes, and this made movement easier.

No fewer than three books have been written on the rapid transformation of the main Jewish community of Boston into a black neighborhood, and one of these books points out another feature of American Jewish life that made Jews more mobile, and moveable, than their Irish and Italian Catholic neighbors: Their religious organization was not based on a system of geographical parishes, rooted in an area, each centered on a church and a school and creating a neighborhood that was hard to abandon. Each Jewish synagogue was a separate, freestanding institution, with no ruling hierarchy above it. It could decide to stay, or sell and move and build again to follow its congregation, and most Jewish synagogues and temples chose to move.

This mass movement to the suburbs meant a number of things for American Jewish life: It changed the synagogue, it changed the relation to American public education, it changed the nature of Jewish organizational life. The suburbs replaced dense inner-city Jewish settlements where a host of styles of Jewishness, from atheistic communism (in Yiddish or English) to various types of Orthodoxy, flourished. There were enough people for every movement, persuasion and outlook, and so a thousand variants of Jewish life flowered. One kind of Jewishness in these Jewish urban neighborhoods had no direct connection with any organized form of Jewish life at all, but simply mirrored the culture of the Jewish neighborhood.

The move to the suburbs meant that this multiplicity of Jewish organizational life could not survive: There were not enough people to maintain each variant. One could have three kinds of Yiddish schools in the dense Jewish central city; none could survive in the suburbs. Soon, one style of Jewish organizational life became dominant: the large synagogue, with its attached facilities for schooling and communal expression.

One particularly striking change was in the relationship of Jews to public education. In the inner city, there was such a concentration of Jews that individual public schools became predominantly Jewish: Jewish in student composition without becoming Jewish in leadership or in teaching staff or curriculum. For Jews, public schools were, in many respects, the dominant institution of the old neighborhood, taking the place of the synagogue, which had more limited functions. It was in the school that one learned English and found or formed a community of aspiring young people and prepared for that remarkable social ascent that was such a striking characteristic of American Jews.

Urban schools were considered the best in the nation until the 1950s or 1960s. And Jewish students in those days went on to the local college or university, and whether it was the City Colleges in New York, Harvard University in Boston, the University of Chicago, or the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, there was a surprising similarity in the Jewish students who attended such institutions in the 1930s and 1940s. Back then, the fees in elite universities were proportionately much lower than today, and one could live at home and bring one’s own lunch.

All this changed in the suburbs, where a new competitiveness to gain entry into good colleges led to a questioning of public school education, while at the same time new alternatives — in particular day-school Jewish education — became available.

In the decades after the suburban migration, public schooling generally began to lose its reputation for high quality, and the increasing affluence of the Jewish community also made private schools more accessible. In the center-city Jewish communities, parents did not question the quality of public education — and, indeed, if one judges by reputation, it was better. Of course, the public schools continued to play a central role in American Jewish life. But these schools in the suburbs were not, and could not be, as dominantly Jewish in composition as inner-city public schools. They also had competition now from the rising number of Jewish day schools of various persuasions.

One deals with elusive elements here. We have a stronger impression of what urban Jewish life in the central city was like than we do about what suburban Jewish life is like: It is easier to characterize the former in sharp colors than it is the latter. My dominant impression is that Jewish organizational life became more uniform as it became centered on the large Jewish institutional synagogue. In the early postwar years, there emerged a sort of conflict between the two major central-city Jewish institutions. One was the Jewish community center, which gave a home to numerous kinds of Jewish activities, many with no connection to the religion and some, indeed, that had no claim to the adjective “Jewish” at all, except for the ethnicity of those involved. The second was the institutional synagogue. There is no question as to which won out in this conflict; it was the synagogue. The Jewish center, with its accommodation of Jewish diversity, could not survive the trip to the suburbs easily. The pattern of American suburban organizational life generally was largely determined by religious affiliation, and Jewish organizational life was no exception. This was a major change from the central city.

In much the same way, Jewish political activity and orientation changed in the move from central city to suburb. The diversity of Jewish politics in the central city, with its socialists, communists, anarchists, and its Yiddishist, Hebraist and Zionist variants, was replaced by a more uniform political liberalism. Of course, more than the simple geographical change from central city to suburb affected this change — like all the changes I have described.

But I have described an age of suburban uniformity that has itself been undergoing major changes over the last 20 years or so. Suburbs now diverge greatly in social character. Inner-ring suburbs have large minority populations, and the tensions that developed in the central cities as minority populations expanded are now equally evident in suburbs. The movement outward has continued into “exurbs.” Gated communities, some for the aged, are common. New apartment-house developments, for various income groups, spring up in suburbs. There is no longer a singular suburban experience.

Most interesting has been the move back into the city. Where there are abandoned warehouses and industrial facilities of some architectural interest and distinction, and where some degree of inner-city attractiveness persists in the way of cultural facilities, older residential buildings with style and the like, we see a movement back into the city — in New York, certainly, but even in places like Detroit and Cleveland. Some fragmentary Jewish communities are being established in places where no Jews remained, and new synagogues — on a small scale, with a distinctive orientation attractive to the kind of people who move back into central cities — spring up here and there.

As in so many urban developments, Jews are in the forefront of this return to center city, as developers and redevelopers, and as new residents. The age of Jewish urbanization gave way to Jewish suburbanization, but the story does not end there. There are new developments emerging now that will shape the character of American Jewish life.

Nathan Glazer, professor of sociology emeritus at Harvard University, is the author of, among other books, “American Judaism,” “Beyond the Melting Pot” and “We Are All Multiculturalists Now.”

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