In celebration of Jewish American History Month, we’ll be highlighting some of our books that explore the Jewish American experience and celebrate the historical, cultural, and political achievements of Jewish Americans in American society. Below, Daniel Soyer, editor of The Jewish Metropolis: New York City from the 17th to the 21st Century, provides a short introduction the book and its importance, in addition to explaining the way it sheds unique light on the Jewish American experience.
Daniel Soyer on The Jewish Metropolis
Part of Academic Studies Press’s “Lands and Ages of the Jewish People” series, The Jewish Metropolis brings together thirteen essays by fourteen scholars on the history of Jews in New York City from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first. It’s no accident that New York is the only city to be so included in the series (at least so far). After all, since the end of the nineteenth century, New York has been the greatest Jewish metropolis of all time. At its peak in the middle of the twentieth century, the city’s Jewish community numbered some 2 million people, twice the Jewish population of Israel and about same as that of the Soviet Union. Even after half a century of decline, in the early 21st century, New York’s one million Jews outnumbered those of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem combined. Not surprisingly, Jews influenced many areas of life in New York, just as New York Jews had disproportionate weight in the American Jewish community as a whole.
Indeed, American culture makes a close association between Jews and New York City. The popular imagination associates Jews with New York foodways (deli, bagels), speech (Yiddish vocabulary), attitudes and manner (speed, brusqueness, irony, sarcasm), industries (garments, banking, entertainment), politics (liberalism, neo-conservatism), high culture (visual arts, literature, music, social criticism), and popular culture (theater, advertising, music). Some, like the comedian Lenny Bruce, have seen the Jewish and New York essences as virtually identical. “To me,” Bruce remarked, “if you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York you’re Jewish.” American Jews, conversely, have often emphasized the links between New York Jews and Jews in other parts of the country. Jews in other places sometimes defined themselves in relation to New York, their own communities having emerged as colonies of the New York metropole.
Many books have been written about the Jews of New York, but, surprisingly, only recently have there been attempts to tell the whole of their history. The Jewish Metropolis is part of that effort. Its chapters provide in-depth looks at such topics as the role of New York Jews in the colonial Atlantic world; the ways in which they have influenced American letters and visual arts; their place in American Judaism and in local politics; and their imprint on the built and social environment of the city as builders and in neighborhoods. The book strives to capture some of the historical diversity of New York’s Jewish community, with chapters on German-, Yiddish-, and Ladino-speaking immigrants, as well as on the differences between New York Jews and those of the rest of the country. The essays thus deal with the economic, social, political and cultural influences of the Jews on the city, and the city on its Jews, providing an introduction to a large, fascinating, and complex topic.
Daniel Soyer is professor of History at Fordham University. He is author, with Annie Polland, of The Emerging Metropolis: New York Jews in the Age of Migration, 1840-1920, and coeditor of the journal American Jewish History.
The Jewish Metropolis: New York City from the 17th to the 21st Century is available for purchase here or wherever you buy books.