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New York, Capital of the Jews

A film and several books spotlight the 1970s—when the city embraced Soviet Jews, and a new world was born

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Coney Island, 1976. (Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos)

Exactly three weeks after the Yankees won the 1977 World Series, New Yorkers went to the polls to elect a new mayor. The incumbent Beame was summarily turned out of office, having finished third in the Democratic primary earlier that year. In his place arose a new Jewish mayor, who ran on the rightmost lane of a crowded field, talking tough on crime and evoking the specter of a disorderly summer, when the city had been wracked by blackout, riots, and an infamous serial killer. In retrospect, the election of Ed Koch marks the beginning of a new era of urban rebranding, municipal retrenchment, and selective gentrification—the story of the 1980s. In obvious ways, Koch’s rise (the subject of a new documentary, Koch) was a reaction to the upheaval of the first part of the decade.

Koch was also a product of the ferment within the New York Jewish community that coalesced around Soviet Jewry, a movement he had loudly championed early in his political career. Though Koch represented Manhattan’s East Side in Congress, he became over the course of his 12-year reign the hero of the Jews of ungentrified Brooklyn, speaking the language of ethnic pride, distancing himself from cultural liberalism, and defiantly confronting African Americans. In his twilight years, his legendary schtick (like that of Woody Allen, his rival Jewish storyteller) casts a shadow of continuity over four messy decades in the history of American Jews and their chosen city.

New York was, for good and ill, the symbolic capital of the American 1970s, a decade that is now getting its due as a subject of serious and wide-ranging inquiry. New scholarly books point to the centrality of the ’70s in the history of economic globalization, international relations, human rights, deindustrialization, and political realignment. And then of course there’s the music. In Hot Stuff, feminist historian Alice Echols celebrates disco, the period’s disgraced cultural form, as an integrating force in urban nightlife and a coming-out party for gay America. Labor historian Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive also revisits the decade’s soundtrack (country, punk, new wave, and rock, as well as the genre invoked in the title) in narrating the ’70s as a crucial turning point in the role of class in American political culture. New York City figures prominently in the aforementioned accounts, while other recent works about the ’70s focus entirely on America’s largest metropolis, whose remarkable self-reinvention at the end of the decade (a story told well in Miriam Greenberg’s Branding New York) obscures a larger history of violence, frustration, decay, and anti-urbanism that continues to haunt us.

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New York in the ’70s was not only the central stage of the decade’s historic conflicts and developments, it was also the capital of world Jewry, a successor to the many historical cities—Shushan, Alexandria, Baghdad, Salonika, Cairo, Vienna, Vilna, and dozens of others—where hubs of trade, publication, and communication organized far-flung Jewish communities and helped to frame what it meant to be Jewish. New York’s place as a Jewish population center is a relatively recent development. Jews have lived on the island of Manhattan since the Dutch colonial era, but for much of that time they comprised a small community. Only 950 Jews lived in New York in 1825, some 170 years after Jewish communal life began in New Amsterdam. A century later, however, New York was the world’s most Jewish city, holding five times as many Jews as Warsaw, its nearest rival.  Beyond those demographic measures, New York became, by the first quarter of the 20th century, the headquarters of large Jewish organizations that claimed and wielded international influence through the distribution of charity, the coordination of political action, the ordination of rabbinic leadership, and the publication of Jewish books, periodicals, and newspapers. After the Shoah, the United States emerged as a successor homeland for world Jewry, with New York as its unquestioned metropolitan center, even as Jews declared an independent state in the Middle East—a state that won recognition from an international body housed in Manhattan.

By the 1970s, when Abe Beame became the city’s first Jewish mayor, the claim of New York Jews to speak to and for world Jewry had never been stronger. New York Jews disseminated stories and images of Jewish life in movies, novels, Broadway musicals, and television sit-coms, but also in legal responsa, political appeals, public rallies, and popular religious outreach programs in a cacophonous chorus that included Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Menachem Schneersohn, Meir Kahane, Bella Abzug, and Norman Lear. These were not simply famous and influential Jewish New Yorkers from the 1970s (a broader category that would include a staggering array of public figures from Felix Rohatyn and Laurence Tisch, to Neil Simon and Carly Simon, to Gloria Steinem and Ralph Lauren, to Susan Sontag and Joey Ramone). They were, more specifically, the Jewish storytellers of their decade, operating conspicuously as New Yorkers out of a New York base. Some of their stories, especially those told in film (Funny Girl, Annie Hall, Hester Street), featured the Jews of New York, past and present. But New Yorkers also told powerful stories about Jewish life elsewhere. They chronicled the communities that had perished in Europe and provided influential accounts of the Holocaust. They crafted authoritative stories about the Jews in Israel who created kibbutzim or rescued hostages. And in what was by some measures the most powerful narrative of Jewish life produced by New York Jews in the 1970s, they described the fate of their brethren behind the Iron Curtain.

The plight of Soviet Jews, and especially those who were denied exit visas to emigrate to Israel, would become the rallying cry of a wide-ranging and transformative political movement in American Jewish life during the decade. Soviet Jewry, as it was called, nurtured ideas and launched careers within Jewish New York and shaped causes as divergent as the Jewish settlement of the West Bank and the international human rights movement. At its core, though, Soviet Jewry was a story told in New York about another massive and influential Jewish culture—a branch of the family tree not accounted for in any of the other dominant plot-lines of European Jewish history.

Soviet Jews were the descendants of shtetl-dwelling Yiddish speakers in Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine who had not emigrated to Ellis Island or Palestine at the end of the 19th century and had not died in Auschwitz or in the Nazi killing fields. Instead, they had moved to Soviet cities after the Russian Revolution, many with considerable optimism and ideological purpose. From a longer and broader perspective, Soviet Jewry was the product of the same epic migration during the five decades after 1880 of Yiddish-speaking Jews from the western part of the Russian Empire and the eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian that had turned New York into the capital of world Jewry.  These were the New Yorkers’ lost cousins, who had taken a different path out of the shtetl, a path whose tracks had been covered by complex layers of ideology and acculturation on both sides of the Cold War divide. In the new 1970s narrative produced by New York Jews, the descendants of these shtetl-dwellers were doubly imprisoned: trapped in a land they wished to leave and prevented from exercising their religious conscience or performing their Jewish identity. Soviet Jews were thus latter-day Hebrew slaves, forcibly alienated from their own national consciousness while awaiting redemption.

Exactly what role the Soviet Jewry movement played in facilitating the historic exodus of approximately 1.2 million Jews between 1968 and 1994 from the Soviet Union/the former Soviet Union remains open to serious debate. But the impact of Soviet Jewry politics on New York’s Jewish community was unmistakably large. Because it reverberated in the varied languages of Zionism, anticommunism, civil rights, human rights, Jewish particularism, American patriotism, Holocaust remembrance, civil disobedience, political dissent, religious liberty, and religious revivalism, Soviet Jewry turned out to be the perfect cause for mobilizing a broad coalition of Jewish New Yorkers. And though significant fault lines ran through this coalition, it nonetheless produced a remarkable collective portrait of Soviet Jews as American Jewry’s spectral counterpart, left behind in Eastern Europe, unable to engage in activities that American Jews recognized as central to the formation of their own Jewish identities. From the corporate boardrooms of Jewish federations and committees in Midtown Manhattan, to youth groups and synagogues in the outer boroughs, New York Jews could glimpse, in the distorted mirror of the Soviet Jewry campaign, their own status and centrality as the world’s leading Jewish community.

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It is commonplace to observe the influence of Jews on the character and history of New York. We speak less often of the reverse. But the history of the largest metropolitan Jewish community in the world is also part of the history of a particular city. And the new assertions of Jewish pride, power, and social comfort that appeared in the 1970s belong to a moment in that history.

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glennrik@aol.com says:

Fascinating article, especially to those of us highly involved in the Soviet Jewry movement. As time moves on, we see the history of the movement weighed, analyzed and judged as other major historical events. One factual correction, though: Malcolm Hoenlein was brought to NYC to direct the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry. The National Conference on Soviet Jewry was directed by JerryGoodman. Bottom line, though: we’re proud of our role in changing Jewish and indeed world history — not just being spectators.

Prof. Henkin fails to mention how the influx of Soviet Jews helped save some inner city Jewish neighborhoods from going the way of Brownsville and South Bronx. Brighton Beach, Far Rockaway, Pelham Parkway, Rego Park, Flushing, Washington Heights, all in decline, received a Jewish demographic boost thanks to the “Russians.”

In my borough of Queens, the Lefrak City development lost its synagogue due to white flight. Russian-speaking Bukharian Jews revived it. The same goes for numerous shuls in Brighton Beach, most prominently Brighton Beach Jewish Center, home to the RAJE outreach program.

Russian Jews boosted political conservatism in the New York Jewish scene. Many Russian Jews demonstrated a unique type of ethnic pride that avoided religion but also condemned intermarriage and fiercely stood by Israel.

I have so much more to say. I’ll stop for now.

Bottom line: the majority of Jewish children now live in Israel.

Marina Sapir says:

The article talks about influence of the movement to free Soviet Jews, and does not say anything about influence of Jewish immigrants from Soviet Union in New York in the late 20th century. And this is correct. As New York Jews were united in supporting immigration from Soviet Union, to the same degree they were united in rejection of the Soviet Jews themselves, as a “lower kind”, “under-civilized” Jews. Being a Jew from Soviet Union myself, I learned it from my own experience. I tried many conservative synagogues in Westchester county and New Jersey, and I encountered almost instant rejection, absolute intolerance in every place. And,I do not think, the people had something against me personally (I am better educated than many of the regulars there). Somehow, this intolerance toward my particular kind of Jews is typical for the Jews of the New York region: there were no such problems in Midwest and North East in my experience.

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New York, Capital of the Jews

A film and several books spotlight the 1970s—when the city embraced Soviet Jews, and a new world was born