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New York Jews and the Great Depression

New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise

Beth S. Wenger
Copyright Date: 1996
Published by: Yale University Press
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    New York Jews and the Great Depression
    Book Description:

    This remarkable chronicle of New York City's Jewish families during the years of the Great Depression describes a defining moment in American Jewish history. Beth S. Wenger tells the story of a generation of immigrants and their children as they faced an uncertain future in America. Challenging the standard narrative of American Jewish upward mobility, Wenger shows that Jews of the era not only worried about financial stability and their security as a minority group, but also questioned the usefulness of their educational endeavors and the ability of their communal institutions to survive. Wenger uncovers the widespread changes throughout the Jewish community that enabled it to emerge from the turmoil of this period and become a thriving middle-class ethnic group in the post-World War II era. Responses to the Great Depression set in motion new forms of Jewish adaptation and acculturation in the United States. Jewish families pooled their resources, says Wenger. Children remained in their parents' homes to pursue education when jobs were scarce and postponed marriage and childbearing. Jewish neighborhoods nurtured a sense of Jewish community and provided support networks for working-class families. Although the New Deal and the welfare state transformed ethnic politics, Jewish political culture remained intact and actually facilitated Jewish entry into the new Democratic coalition. Jewish leaders preserved private Jewish philanthropy in New Deal America by redesigning it as a vehicle to strengthen ethnic culture and commitment. In struggling Depression-era synagogues, Jewish leaders consciously addressed social, economic, and political needs and expanded secular and cultural activities. The changes inaugurated during the Great Depression decisively shaped the character of American Jewish life in the twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14599-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures and Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    “The apprehensiveness of American Jews,” Fortune magazine told its readers in 1936, “has become one of the important influences in the social life of our time.” In a detailed article, Fortune’s editors outlined Jewish fears about rising anti-Semitism and analyzed the factors that had led Jews to question their security in America. With the best of intentions, the magazine set out to correct any Gentile misconceptions that Jews dominated the American economy, to explain why Jews appeared “clannish” to their neighbors, and to convince American Jews that the fascism and intolerance spreading through Europe would not overtake the United States....

  6. 1 An Ethnic Economy
    (pp. 10-32)

    When the Bank of the United States failed in December of 1930, the family drama that Irving Howe recounted occurred in Jewish homes throughout New York City. The Jewish-owned bank held the savings of approximately one-fifth of New York Jews, and its closure left thousands of Jewish families and businesses devastated. The 1929 Wall Street Crash, a prelude to the Great Depression, created a degree of panic within the more established German-Jewish community and among those East European Jews who had speculated in the stock market. But most New York Jews, particularly the masses of new immigrants, had no strong...

  7. 2 A Family Affair
    (pp. 33-53)

    Stanley Katz was only five years old on Black Thursday, the fateful October day when the stock market crashed. The Katz family spent the Depression years in Brooklyn, in a working- and middle-class neighborhood in East New York. Stanley’s father, a cloakmaker in the garment industry, found only occasional piecework during the Depression and managed to secure part-time employment as a night watchman. In the mid-thirties, his parents opened a dry-cleaning store where his mother worked as a seamstress, usually doing the sewing from home. Both Stanley and his older brother held jobs intermittently throughout their adolescence. Stanley found a...

  8. 3 Starting Out in the Thirties
    (pp. 54-79)

    The Great Depression was a formative experience for Jews growing up in the 1930s. When the Depression arrived, young Jewish men and women stood at a crossroads between the vibrant immigrant world of their parents and the search for a new American way of life forged against the backdrop of New York’s urban landscape. Raised to believe in America as a land of opportunity and security, young Jews of the 1930s encountered instead a society of limited possibilities, growing anti-Semitism, and social and political turmoil. “This was a time profoundly disorganizing in its effects upon the young,” remembered Irving Howe....

  9. 4 The Landscape of Jewish Life
    (pp. 80-102)

    For most of the Great Depression, Louis Kfare lived in the South Bronx and in nearby Hunts Point. As a young man in his early twenties, Kfare journeyed daily across the borough to the West Bronx where he delivered groceries for a local store. The distance between his home and work amounted to only a few miles, but the differences in class and culture were vast. The modern elevator apartments of the West Bronx contrasted sharply with the modest brick buildings inhabited by Kfare and his South Bronx neighbors. Kfare cherished his job in the “fancy neighborhood” where he could...

  10. 5 From Neighborhood to New Deal
    (pp. 103-135)

    The Jewish political landscape of the 1930s defies neat categorization. Jews, like other Americans, were caught up in the explosion of political ideas and movements that swept the United States during the Depression. With the country on the verge of economic and social collapse and people struggling to keep their households afloat, many Americans began searching for a new political order or at least looking for ways to repair the old one. Political campaigns emerged from various corners of the Jewish world in the 1930s. While Jewish college students engaged in political debates and campus demonstrations, Jewish neighborhoods erupted with...

  11. 6 Private Jewish Philanthropy in the Welfare State
    (pp. 136-165)

    By the time the Great Depression struck, philanthropy had become a mainstay of Jewish communal life in America. Required to care for their own poor as a condition of admission to Colonial America, Jews had transformed their charitable obligation into a source of communal pride. The long tradition of Jewish mutual responsibility, combined with the desire to deflect possible anti-Semitism by projecting only the most positive image of the Jews, reinforced the Jewish commitment to philanthropy and spurred the development of a far-reaching system of Jewish benevolence. The sophisticated charitable endeavors of the Jewish community consistently earned the praise of...

  12. 7 The Spiritual Depression
    (pp. 166-196)

    In the history of the American synagogue, the 1930s stand between two periods of enormous synagogue expansion. The 1920s synagogue building boom ended with the onset of the Great Depression, and synagogue growth resumed only after World War II, when a new generation of Jews revived synagogue life on the suburban frontier. The Depression decade has generally been characterized as a period of stagnation and religious malaise in American synagogues. During the 1930s, synagogues struggled under heavy financial burdens and mortgage debts, watched their memberships shrink, and were often forced to curtail programs and dismiss personnel. And the fiscal crisis...

  13. 8 American Jews and the American Dream
    (pp. 197-206)

    Mired in the turmoil of the Great Depression, New York Jews had good cause to experience the futility and frustration of pursuing the American Dream. Only fifteen years later, this mood of uncertainty and despair had been replaced by hope and confidence in the future. Prosperity returned in the postwar era, accompanied by a decrease in anti-Semitism and a renewal of Jewish mobility. Yet, to view the 1930s from the perspective of hindsight distorts the reality of the Depression experience. For Jews who had endured the trials of immigration, seen their fortunes improve in the twenties, and believed that their...

  14. Appendix Report of the Survey of 7,775 Applications to the Federation Employment Service from September 1934 to May 1935
    (pp. 207-210)
  15. Abbreviations
    (pp. 211-212)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 213-260)
  17. Index
    (pp. 261-269)