Jewish City Values – by Rachel Gordan

“Wait, is he talking about us?”

Lila Corwin Berman, Metropolitan Jews, University of Chicago Press, 2015, 320pp., $35
Lila Corwin Berman, Metropolitan Jews, University of Chicago Press, 2015, 320pp., $35
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In one of the many highlights/lowlights of this presidential election season, presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz accused Donald Trump of having “New York values” during a January 2016 GOP debate. In the ensuing media storm, it almost seemed as though a few Jewish pundits and commentators looked around the room and asked, “Wait, is he talking about us?”

It would not have been an unreasonable question. For some, “New York” has been code for “Jewish.” And while Cruz’s invocation of “New York values” was meant to tarnish Donald Trump’s style as un-American (or at least inimical to the values of the heartland), it was evident from the public’s response that whatever “New York values” means, a diverse group of Americans was now proud to claim such values as their mantle.

During that early 2016 defense of New York values, one might have wondered if Jews everywhere felt the relief of a heavy burden lifting. All of those negatively perceived traits — such as being brash, assertive, materialistic, and well, ethnic — that had been pinned on Jews for so long, now belonged to a much wider swath of the population. Yet even if there were a time when Jews were teased and cursed for representing such characteristics, it is a mixed blessing to lose what had been a distinguishing mark. Ambivalence about being branded as quintessential city folk, and then losing that association, forms one thick strand in the more recent history of American Jews and cities.

“No group other than the Jews became so fully a metonym — a part standing in for the whole — for urban,” writes historian Lila Corwin Berman. We are not necessarily accustomed to thinking of Jews as attached to place: they are a wandering people. But the Jewish-urban equation has had a long history that Berman duly notes: “Just as the predominantly Christian characterization of Jews as a ‘wandering’ people had communicated a pre-Enlightenment anti-Semitic belief that Jews were naturally — organically — rootless and, thus, unable to contribute to a land-based economy or nation, the Jewish-urban equation provoked and confirmed anti-Semitic renderings that correlated urban excesses with Jewishness.”

That Jews have long had a stake in the urban experiment may come as a surprise: Jews are known as a “wandering” people, for whom the text is far more important than the neighborhood. But it may be that especially for a people described as “wandering” or in exile, place can take on heightened value. During the twentieth century, American Jews hit their stride within urban spaces, finding success and security in cities.

Detroit’s Jews provide a useful example of this urban-Jewish dynamic, and Berman’s Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit makes excellent use of the Detroit Jewish experience to “bring new perspectives to the renderings of several important twentieth century histories, including white flight, suburbanization, and the development of American-Jewish political and cultural identity.” Detroit’s Jewish history also makes for an unexpectedly compelling story. Murder, real estate coups and losses, racial tension, and city politics all make their appearances in these pages. Berman’s findings extend beyond Detroit. The shift in Jewish concern from their local, ethnically-based neighborhood, to a concern for “metropolitan areas” during the second half of the twentieth century maps onto shifts in postwar Jewish power and influence. The combination of greater Jewish wealth and a stronger Jewish presence in city politics gave Jews confidence “to assert that their own agenda should be central to the city’s future.” Even as they flocked to the suburbs, then, Jews continued to feel tied “politically, economically, spiritually, and culturally” to cities.

Detroit has long been interesting to scholars of urban tensions and politics; Berman shows that Jewish historians should also be paying more attention. “For a medium-sized Jewish community, Detroit Jews played outsized roles on the national Jewish stage, serving as leaders of national Jewish organizations and emerging as trendsetting philanthropists,” Berman writes. And since they were not warmly welcomed into the automobile industry, Jews were more likely to start their own businesses, which provided additional ties to the community. That suburbanization unfolded in an especially stark way in Detroit is another reason to focus on this city. By the 1970s, when a Jew said she was from Detroit, it was understood that she meant the surrounding suburbs.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Detroit became an industrial, modern city and climbed from the thirteenth to the fourth most-populated city in the country (behind New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia). While newcomers settled in the downtown center, close to jobs and near familiar ethnic or religious communities, longtime urban residents moved away from downtown. Detroit quintupled its geographic size from 1900 to 1926, when, through the rapid annexation of land adjacent to the city, it reached its 139-square-mile size. During World War I, the number of immigrants from foreign countries slowed as the number of blacks from the South increased. Despite the nativism of interwar Detroit, Jews solidified their socioeconomic success and took advantage of opportunities for advancement among the working and middle-class.

By 1937, seventy-one thousand Jews lived in Detroit, making it the sixth most popular Jewish city in the United States. It was during World War II, as the city suspended most nonmilitary related industrial activities and very few Jews relocated to new neighborhoods, that Detroit Jewry experienced a sense of stability. Adding to that calm was the fact that by the end of the war, anti-Semitism had become less acceptable, and the city’s homegrown bigot, Father Coughlin, had been marginalized. This was a period of feeling at home in urban neighborhoods: Jews had a place where they could live safely as Jews, and which nurtured them with confidence to venture out in the world.

By the late 1950s, Berman shows, three key transformations were underway that characterized the development of what she calls Jewish metropolitan urbanism. First, Jews increasingly linked their neighborhood struggles with larger city, state, and national issues. Second, Jews began to harness the power of legislation and the courts. National Jewish organizations supported the new belief that Jews had to think and work beyond their neighborhoods and they helped to foster conversations among Jews living in different cities who faced similar struggles. Third, Jews began to rely on the language and organization of faith and spirituality, invoking Jewish values to draw a connection between being Jewish and working toward ideals of urban justice. As Berman notes, a level of complacency was thereby fostered as “the fact of one’s Jewishness could stand in, at times, for concrete action.”

By 1965, half of all Detroit Jews lived in suburbs. Why did this urban exodus not simply spell the end of the romance between Jews and the city? Because Jews “believed that their decisions to move to the outer limits of a city or its suburbs did not preclude the centrality of the city to who they were and how their lives operated.” It turned out that you could take the Jew out of the city, but you could not completely take the city out of the Jew. What resulted was a process that Berman describes as “urban reinvention,” in which Jews oriented their lives “toward ideas, political movements, aesthetic trends, and spiritual modes” set in the parts of the city they or their ancestors had left. Even as Jewish families and institutions relocated to the suburbs and a new optimism about American Jewish life in less concentrated areas took shape, Jews did not end their affair with the city, for they “believed in cities and persisted in reinventing their relationship to cities because they thought there was no better place to be a Jew than in a city or in a region defined by its proximity to a city.”

Why did cities have such a hold on the Jewish imagination? Unlike the wide-open spaces being developed into suburbs, cities carried a history of Jewish life — and the old synagogue buildings, neighborhoods, bakeries, and butcheries to prove it — that gave Jews confidence and security about the survival of their way of life. It was comforting to send a Jewish child away to a university if the school were near a known city; schools “in the middle of nowhere” seemed more risky, when considering a child’s Jewish future. During the culture wars of the latter half of the twentieth century, urban areas became more clearly aligned with the liberal, progressive values with which many Jews identified. Popular culture affirmed this sense that urban was Jewish. By the late twentieth century, as jobs and opportunities took Jews to small towns and once-unknown regions of the country, Jews often carried with them signs of the cities they had left behind, as though a Zabar’s bag, or a New Yorker that arrived weekly could serve as a talisman in their new milieu.

When Jews did leave the city of Detroit, Berman poignantly captures the sense that something in the Jewish experience was askew, or even broken. For instance, when a troubled twenty-three year-old congregant shot the rabbi in a synagogue outside Detroit, in 1966, the New York Times coverage took note of the modern, new suburban surroundings of the synagogue in which the tragedy occurred. The newspaper portrayed the “dramatic tension between the yearnings of those who had worked so hard to design, fund, and erect the building and the act of madness that occurred in it.” Dreams of a better life in the suburb were occasionally shattered, as Jews found that the improved economic conditions did not solve all problems. From Berman’s perspective, in the fields surrounding Detroit, “on [a] plot of land with rolling hills and an ample parking lot, abutted by a solidly middle-class new housing development, Jews who had thought they had made it were unmade, at least temporarily.” In fact, the suburbs and late 1960s political and social climate became fertile ground for new problems. With growing nostalgia for Jewish life in the old urban neighborhoods, it was hard not to wonder if things had been better in the city. But when riots erupted in Detroit the next year — as they did in cities across the country — it was clear that even the city could no longer provide Jews with the same comfort.

Berman’s contemporary epilogue reveals the Jewish return to Detroit in the new millennium. These city-bound Jews use the language of “return,” despite never having lived in Detroit to begin with. These contemporary “Metropolitan Jews” often have suburban roots. With their start-up, urban businesses, the mission of the most ideologically-driven of them is to “reinvent Jewishness through the lens of urbanism, and urbanism through the lens of Jewishness.” Cities have become the location for their meaning-making, while the suburbs of their youth lie fallow of dreams — for now, anyway. A “return” to the suburbs may have to wait another generation.