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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)

Ironically, it was a moment when the city in question was widely perceived to be in decline. Abe Beame’s New York became a showcase for patterns of poverty, crime, racial conflict, population loss, and fiscal crisis that plagued U.S. cities in the Northeast and Midwest in the late 1960s and ’70s. The misery spread through much of the country, but New York was its most conspicuous symbol. Television series and (especially) films presented the city as a dystopia. Many of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful American movies of the first half of the ’70s feature New York—and most portray it as a dangerous, dirty, sleazy, lawless, corrupt, or corrupting place. Midnight Cowboy (1969), The French Connection (1971), Serpico (1973), Death Wish (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Marathon Man (1976), Taxi Driver (1976), and Annie Hall (1977) all reinforced this image of urban decline for national audiences. Overwhelmingly, these films were directed by Jews (the sole exception, Taxi Driver, was directed by an Italian-American Catholic, though its producers were Jewish). Jews may have held the reins of power in New York, but at least before 1977 they were quick to acknowledge that the city was in crisis.

The conjunction in 1970s New York of Jewish ascendance and urban decline seemed to set up an irresistible joke. To Alvy Singer, Woody Allen’s protagonist in Annie Hall, the refusal of the federal government to rescue New York from municipal bankruptcy reeked of anti-Semitism. But few leveled such charges in seriousness, even in response to Gerald Ford’s apocryphal pronouncement (broadcast on the cover of the Daily News) that the city should drop dead. It is hard to recall, from the other side of the Sept. 11 attacks, when both the terrorists and the national media took it for granted that Manhattan Island and its skyline were apt symbols for U.S. power and national character, how low New York, the Jewish capital, had sunk in the American imagination by the early 1970s.

The world’s leading Jewish institutions, from the World Zionist Organization to Agudath Israel, from old-line outfits like the American Jewish Community to upstarts like Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, remained firmly entrenched in Manhattan during the decade of New York’s precipitous decline. But individual Jews voted with their feet: New York City lost more Jews during the 1970s than in any other decade in its history. For many who remained, the popular image of New York as a dysfunctional place that required vigilance and self-defense resonated powerfully.

Intriguingly, perceptions of the decline of the city dovetailed with another development in 1970s culture—America’s white ethnic revival. Expressions of Jewish pride, from the founding of the Jewish Defense League (1968) to the public wearing of kippot, partook of this larger celebration of identity among various groups of white Americans (Poles, Italians, Greeks, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Jews, and others). Centered in New York, the revival marked the comfort in America of groups who traced their ancestry to the wave of massive European immigration between 1880 and 1924 and who now sought to define themselves against both the internal migrants (southern blacks and Puerto Ricans) who had dominated the flow to northeastern cities in the period of post-1924 immigration restriction, and the newcomers from Latin America, West Indies, Asia, and Africa who entered the country in the wake of the liberalization of U.S. immigration policy in 1965. White ethnics peddled nostalgia for the Lower East Side, and Ellis Island, New York’s long-abandoned immigrant depot, became a tourist attraction in the 1970s and eventually a monument to American immigration. The Godfather movies, which participated subtly and ambivalently in the pathologizing of contemporary New York, perfectly captured the mythology of the pre-1924 immigrant experience, romanticizing the family allegiances and ethnic traditions of their white ethnic characters as noble American traits—in presumed contrast with the traits of other urban groups.

For Jewish New Yorkers and other participants in the white ethnic revival of the 1970s, Black America loomed large as both a model and as an antagonist. Rabbi Meir Kahane’s JDL appropriated the language of power, pride, and separatism of the Black Power movement. League members adopted a clenched-fist logo, organized armed community patrols, and even called themselves “Jewish Panthers.” African Americans were the local enemies that many of Kahane’s early recruits had in mind when they spoke of self-defense and vigilant confrontation. Right-wing Jewish nationalism grew in Brooklyn and spoke to poorer Jews who continued to live and work near minority neighborhoods. The precipitating events in the history of this kind of Jewish nationalism thus included local developments, such as the exodus of middle-class Jews to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, and the infamous 1968 fight over school control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, which triggered a major break in black-Jewish relations and widened a growing wedge between liberal and conservative Jews. But when Soviet Jewry took center stage in the early 1970s, the JDL shifted some of its attention to Russian diplomats and consulates. Solidarity with the refuseniks became a powerful expression of ethnic pride for the JDL, much as it served the Lubavitcher movement, also based in Brooklyn, as an occasion for affirming belief in the dormant but inextinguishable spark in the souls of nonobservant Jews.

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The status and significance of New York as the Jewish capital of the 20th century may well achieve clarity in retrospect as the 21st century continues to alter the complex equation of population, wealth, and influence that determines cultural centrality. By some counts, the Tel Aviv metropolitan area now holds the world’s largest Jewish population. Los Angeles and Washington have become increasingly plausible locations for national Jewish institutions, while many of the world’s wealthiest Jews (Larry Ellison, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg) make their homes in or around San Francisco. Most significant, the centers of religious life (seminaries of different denominations, spiritual leadership of various kinds) have shifted decisively from New York to Jerusalem over the past three decades. All this ought to make the centrality of New York in the 1970s seem like a unique moment in Jewish 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