It was on the Broadway stage that that most celebrated Jewish musical of all, “Fiddler on the Roof,” leapt to worldwide fame. And while New York City may not have been a bastion of Jewish athletes – although some made their mark in boxing and basketball – Brooklyn-born Sandy Koufax was not just a baseball hero of Jewish descent but a proud Jew who became a hero to Jews for that very reason. Writing, politics, the media – there were always Jews who stood out prominently in their chosen fields for their exemplary work and contributions.

Another concern historically taken up by Jewish New Yorkers was that of human rights. From the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which early in the 20th century fought for better wages and working conditions in the city’s sweatshops, to the American Jewish Committee, which championed civil rights for African-Americans in the 1950s, to the Anti-Defamation League’s never-ending campaigns against anti-Semitism and discrimination, New York City’s Jews have been stalwart champions in the fight for fairness and against bigotry.


* * * * *

There are many factors one might consider in determining what makes a great Jewish city: its Jewish population, number of synagogues, the activeness of its Jewish community, the vibrancy of its Jewish life, its acceptance and attitude toward its Jews, Jewish contributions to the city from arts to charities, the Jewish voice in its politics, the presence of Jewish museums and organizations, Jewish culture in the city, the availability of kosher food and restaurants, its Jewish heritage.

Negative factors can be considered too in determining what makes a great Jewish city: Are there ugly stereotypes that many residents harbor about Jews? Is there outright anti-Semitism in the city? What restraints are there against Jews in areas such as business, education, and government? Are Jews specifically targeted for crimes? How divided is the Jewish community in that city? How many Jews are leaving it? How hard is it to be Jewish there?

Since 1972, when Golden bestowed the title of “Greatest Jewish City in the World” on New York, the city has lamentably lost some of its Jewish luster. The Lower East Side as a haven for Jewish refugees from the Old World is now just a nostalgic chapter in the city’s long history. The city no longer turns out the abundant crops of creative Jewish talent that become household names it once did. Its Jewish population declined, from a population of 2.5 million in the 1950s to just over 1.5 million in 2011, as Jews abandoned the city for the surrounding suburbs and other locales such as Florida.

With anti-Jewish vitriol intensifying in various parts of the world, it is indeed difficult for any city in the diaspora to be viewed today as a paragon of a Jewish metropolis. Many European cities that once were outstanding centers of Jewish life never recovered that status after their Jewish populations were decimated and their Jewish religious life and culture all but eradicated during World War II.

On a far more positive note, since the establishment of Israel in 1948, many of that country’s cities have grown and thrived, and today they are like a constellation of diamonds in a resplendent tiara.

And one of them stands out as a crown jewel.

That city is Jerusalem. The capital of the Jewish homeland, Yerushalayim is at once a congruous blend of both the ancient and the modern, a city with hallowed specters of its antediluvian past that glimmers with the sheen of modern technology.

It is a city that is animated by a glorious eternal soul and permeated with a character, marrow, and pulse that represent the quintessence of both bygone and contemporary Jewishness. For millennia the center of Jewish existence and spirituality, today it is home to Yad Vashem, Hebrew University, the Knesset, the Israeli Supreme Court, the Bank of Israel, the Israel Museum, the Biblical Zoo, and so much more. It is a rich tapestry of ancient and urban civilizations embroidered on a Judaic canvas that stretches back thousands of years.


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Harvey Rachlin, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is an award-winning author of thirteen books including “Lucy’s Bones, Sacred Stones, and Einstein’s Brain,” which was adapted for the long-running History Channel series “History’s Lost and Found.” He is also a lecturer at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York.