More than 40 years ago the prolific Ukrainian-born, American-bred author Harry Golden penned a prideful ode to New York called The Greatest Jewish City in the World.
In his book, which was published less than three decades after the end of World War II and a half-century after the last wave of Jewish immigration to America, the National Book Award nominee made an impassioned case for his title thesis.
An astute social commentator, Golden endeavored to show that by the dawn of the 1970s, New York City, where most of the immigrants had settled, was the apotheosis of a great Jewish metropolis. This was clearly manifest, he asserted, in the city’s overall Jewish-friendly history: it had graciously welcomed hordes of Jewish immigrants; the immigrants were easily able to assimilate; they formed insular and colorful Jewish neighborhoods; they were able to obtain civil service jobs or other employment or start businesses; they were able to enter professions closed to them in their forebears’ homelands; they lived and practiced their religion unhampered by anti-Semitism; Jewish culture could be celebrated openly and freely; Jewish achievement in the arts was staggering; Jews could express themselves as they wished; the Jewish population boomed; and Jews prospered.
Indeed, Jewish life seems to have flourished like never before in this vibrant mosaic of cultures. But even if Golden’s spirited assertion was correct, the time frame in which New York had evolved into the archetype of a great Jewish city spanned from the 1880s to the early 1970s, eons ago in our fast-paced, dynamic, ever-changing contemporary world.
Which brings to mind a simple but provocative question: Is New York still the world’s reigning Jewish city?
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Golden presents a compelling saga of poor but determined immigrants who fled pogroms and harsh conditions in their homelands for a better life in a land of opportunity.
The Jewish immigrants came to America in waves: a migration of Sephardic Jews to New Amsterdam commencing in 1654, the arrival of Jews from Germany beginning in the 1840s, and the massive influx of Jews primarily from Eastern Europe beginning in 1880 and lasting until the early 1920s. In the latter wave, Jews poured in from such countries as Russia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Austria, and Hungary, most coming to America’s shores through New York’s Ellis Island.
Many in this last wave of immigrants – some 2 million Jews over the course of four decades – flocked to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, settling in tenement buildings and making this squalid urban area their own Jewish enclave, much like the old shtetls. There was widespread poverty, to be sure, but the area was synonymous with Yiddishkeit, and the Jews there were like family.
The Lower East Side bustled with activity. Horse-drawn carriages rolled through the streets. Men in suits and hats and women in long dresses strolled the avenues. Yiddish signs were mounted on store windows. Pushcarts lined the streets – Orchard, Hester, Mulberry – drawing throngs of eager shoppers.
Indeed, the street mercantile trade was highlighted by the peddler, whom Golden refers to as “our forgotten pioneer.” Renting pushcarts for a dime a day, the peddlers – often youths in their first job – exuberantly hawked their wares: ladies’ shoes, men’s pants, goods for the home, umbrellas, potatoes, nuts, candy, fruit. Newspapers in Yiddish and the mother tongues of many of the immigrants were sold.
Friday morning was a particularly boisterous time with bargains proffered before the Sabbath, and the din would abruptly subside on Friday afternoon when the men quietly rushed off to synagogue. Life wasn’t terribly easy in the New World, but there was hope for a better future, and Jewish philanthropies and charities were formed to help the poor and needy immigrants. They would say, as Golden notes, “For the first time in my life somebody helped me because I am a Jew.”