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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.

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.

***

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.

New York’s Soviet Jewry movement warrants close study as a local crucible from which emerged several strikingly different views of the place of Jews in the world. On one level, the cause produced remarkable consensus, not just in Jewish New York but in American politics more generally. The 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which withheld trading privileges from nations that denied their citizens the right of emigration, passed unanimously in both houses of Congress, uniting conservative critics of détente who felt that Henry Kissinger was accommodating the spread of communism with liberals who felt that Kissinger was turning a blind eye to abuses of individual rights.

But the broad popularity of the Soviet Jewry movement also masked less-obvious ideological divisions within Jewish New York. Mainstream Jewish organizations (along with Chabad) were eager not to antagonize the Soviet Union or to burn the diplomatic bridges they relied upon for the transport of Jews to Israel. They were consequently (and perhaps for other reasons as well) loath to be identified with Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet dissident circles, and the discourse of universal human rights.

The young activists behind Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, by contrast, worried neither about burning diplomatic bridges nor about identifying with political dissidents. Many SSSJ members had participated in campus activism around civil rights and the Vietnam War, and even those who approached Soviet Jewry from less liberal and more nationalistic stances were politically and aesthetically attracted to protest politics. For right-wing elements in the movement, picketing consulates was an opportunity to mount a populist challenge to the Manhattan-based Jewish establishment.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the roads out of this motley Soviet Jewry movement led in strikingly divergent directions. One path led to the Mideast, and specifically to the West Bank, where movement veterans built new settlements and pioneered forms of right-wing protest. The late Meir Kahane famously personified this path, but other prominent figures in the Soviet Jewry movement, including Rabbi Avi Weiss and Avital Sharansky, had linked the cause to Gush Emunim and to larger themes of defiant Jewish self-determination. A second path led to the international human rights organizations headquartered in New York (most notably Human Rights Watch), which grew out of attempts to monitor Soviet compliance with Helsinki Accords and extended the core arguments for Soviet Jewish emigration into a new global movement to hold national governments accountable to universal standards of human rights.

Finally, a third path led to a new political strategy for American Jewry. Those members of the establishment who were able to accommodate or absorb the populist impulses that animated the Soviet Jewry movement, while still retaining access to the channels of influence and diplomacy that the movement threatened, emerged from the decade with far greater power and authority in New York Jewish life. Many figures belong in this story (including Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who vied with Avi Weiss to become the rabbinic face of the Soviet Jewry movement), but the main protagonist would certainly be Malcolm Hoenlein, who came from Philadelphia to New York in 1971 to head the new National Conference on Soviet Jewry and ever since has served as the unofficial leader of the Jewish political establishment in America.

These three paths account for many of the careers of leading New York Jews in the decades since Soviet Jewry appeared as a political cause. They also represent three distinct approaches to the role of world opinion in Jewish affairs. The JDL approach is to defy or ignore world opinion, on the grounds that Jews must rely entirely on their own direct action. Meanwhile, the human rights approach has been to mobilize world opinion on behalf of universal norms and standards and then to empower world opinion as a force to which sovereign states (including the Jewish state) must submit. The approach of the Jewish establishment is somewhere in between, caring enough about world opinion to expend enormous resources trying to manage it, but not enough to adopt its standards. Internal debates within Diaspora Jewry over Israel routinely play out these three positions, which came together in a unique movement born at a strange moment in the life of one of the most influential cities in Jewish history.

Today, the legacy of the moment when the campaign for Soviet Jewry unified the warring camps of New York Jews remains legible in places as disparate as Washington’s K Street, The Hague, and Efrat. But it shaped the subsequent history of New York as well.

For New Yorkers, the crisis year of Ed Koch’s election was the decade’s breaking point, or turning point. As Spike Lee reminded viewers in Summer of Sam (1999), the summer of 1977 featured sensational signals of the city’s unraveling. But 1977 also inaugurated a period of self-celebration, epitomized by Scorsese’s New York, New York and its eponymous theme song and especially by the “I Love New York” PR campaign. The Yankees won the World Series that October (ending their longest gap between championships to that date). Playing in a rebuilt stadium under new ownership, the 1977 Yankees would become an apt symbol for a new, post-industrial New York, a global entertainment icon and international tourist destination identified with highly paid superstars.

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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

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