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When Jews Got Green Thumbs

Suburban living planted the seeds of gardening as a communal pastime

by
Jenna Weissman Joselit
April 28, 2023
Lambert/Getty Images
Lambert/Getty Images

On or about Oct. 1, 1947, American Jewry went green, taking to suburbia like plants to water. Three hundred families moved into their new Levittown homes on that day, marking the official opening of that suburban development. By the end of the following decade, demographers estimated that a whopping two-thirds of American Jews now called the suburbs their home.

“‘Going to temple’ is losing the alien ring it once had in areas more accustomed to hearing ‘Going to church,’ or ‘Going to Mass,’” The New York Times reported in 1959, marshalling an impressive array of anecdotes from synagogue presidents, rabbis, second graders, and their parents about what life was like for them in neighborhoods that had either once been off-limits and out of bounds or nonexistent.

Some of their observations made much of postwar American Jewry’s newfound affinity for things that grew, even though this predilection happened to be nothing new. For nearly half a century, if not longer, those Jews who worked the dunams in what became the State of Israel or took up farming in the promised land of America had set their sights on and valorized the land. Two ideological responses to the challenges of modernity, Zionism and Americanization, both celebrated the regenerative promise of agriculture.

Suburbanization was something else again. Not without its ideological underpinnings, among them, the pursuit of what was known at the time as “cultural one-ness,” its promise resided elsewhere. Affording American Jewry a new address, this latter-day “exodus,” as some contemporaries called it, also affected the community’s spatial expectations, giving rise to the embrace of spaciousness as the sine qua non of a modern and decidedly American Jewish existence.

If you’ve ever wondered why postwar synagogues were typically low-lying, spread-out, and even “sprawling” horizontal affairs, whose sanctuaries fell just a wee bit short of cavernous, or why their ambitious building plans invariably called for some kind of garden complex—Baltimore’s Chizuk Amuno, for instance, envisioned itself “surrounded by beautiful gardens in keeping with the suburban landscape of woodland and meadow”—here’s your answer.

An end in itself, spaciousness became one of the yardsticks by which postwar suburban Jewry measured itself and its institutions. At once a physical property and a cultural value, it took the form of oversize sanctuaries, single-family homes with multiple rooms, each one differentiated by function, and synagogues that proudly likened themselves more to a “campus” than a tabernacle. Roominess, both indoors and out—having lots of space in which to spread one’s legs and wings—became the norm, along with a green lawn and an ample backyard.

But was it good for the Jews? It’s not for nothing that among the spate of popular magazine and newspaper articles on the suburban experience released throughout the 1950s and early ’60s—a testament to both its efflorescence and its bewildering novelty—many postwar cultural critics wondered about its impact on modern Jewish life. Did suburbia engender conformity—what Rabbi Morris Adler of Detroit called a “new type of acquiescence”—or did it promote an equally new form of “self-segregating?” Did a life lived amid trees and non-Jewish neighbors strengthen, attenuate, or redefine Jewish identity?

Opinions grew like topsy. Some American Jews, characterizing the suburbs as a “new adventure in Jewishness,” held out much hope for the future. Others, especially those of an older generation, were baffled as to why their children would move to yenemsvelt, so very far, far away, and felt abandoned, even forsaken. And still others just held their breath and waited to see what might develop in the former potato fields of eastern Long Island, newly scrubbed and dubbed East Meadow.

Amid the welter of competing perspectives, one consensus clearly emerged: Suburbia called on its Jewish residents to attend to their lawns with as much, or perhaps even more purpose, than tending to their souls. Writing in Commentary in 1954 on the “new suburbanites of the ’50s,” Harry Gersh placed himself among them as the “possessor of a home in the suburbs complete with lawn, garage and trees—in short, a rather solid citizen.” He also gave voice to some of his and his Jewish neighbors’ newly acquired horticultural concerns. Or apprehensions.

Would Gersh, like those who came before him, be stumped by the “mysteries of seed and soil?” Would seeds “wither in his hands” and the soil turn “sour under his ministrations?” Even Gersh’s wife, who in high school and college had taken courses in botany, “looked at the fertile earth and wondered would these growing things flourish under a new name on the deed of ownership?”

Happily, relievedly, Gersh told his readers there was nothing to fear. Despite his lack of prior experience, even he could now boast of having 14 trees, three varieties of lilacs, and prize roses in his own backyard. A green thumb, he came to see, was “not a goyishe monopoly.”

Thanks to the wide array of goods and services advertised in American Jewish newspapers of the time, freshly minted suburbanites such as Gersh were able to avoid any and all instances of what he memorably called “horticultural nudnikery.” Tree pruning, landscaping, and monthly gardeners-for-hire, along with the latest sprinklers, were featured almost weekly in the Jewish press of the 1950s and ’60s, from the B’nai B’rith Messenger on the West Coast to the Jewish Advocate on the East.

And if that weren’t enough to ensure that plenty of weedkiller and fertilizer were always on hand, local Jewish Community Centers offered classes in gardening—in “handling lawn problems, growing flowers from seed [and] propagating”—and hosted community garden clubs, once the preserve of the elite now gone mainstream.

Even the kids got an early start. In one Boston suburb, for example the members of the Cub Scout troop sponsored by the Brotherhood of Temple Mishkan Tefila had several opportunities to “display their talents in planting” and to win a prize, too, for the best in show. Elsewhere, both Jewish day campers and their sleepaway counterparts at Camp Judea in New Hampshire and Brandeis in California had the chance to awaken their green thumbs by learning how to plant vegetables and flowers as part of their summertime exploits.

Somewhere along the highway from urban to surburban, cultivating one’s garden became a Jewish pursuit, or, to put it more precisely, something postwar American Jews did. A sustained encounter with nature, an exercise in beautification, it also normalized their sense of themselves as Americans.

Suburban Jewish men may never have felt entirely comfortable sporting a tool belt, while suburban Jewish women, in turn, might not have fully cottoned to the latest recipe for tuna casserole laced with Campbell’s mushroom soup.

But then, supplied with handfuls of Burpee seeds—Americana in a packet—and with hefty packages of Miracle-Gro, a brand-new invention of the 1950s, there was no reason American Jews couldn’t feel at home.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.

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