Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Inventing Great Neck

Inventing Great Neck: Jewish Identity and the American Dream

Judith S. Goldstein
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 224
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Inventing Great Neck
    Book Description:

    Great Neck, New York, is one of America's most fascinating suburbs. Settled by the Dutch in the 1600s, generations have been attracted to this once quiet enclave for its easy access to New York City and its tranquil setting by the Long Island Sound. This illustrious suburb has also been home to a number of film and theatrical luminaries from Groucho Marx and Oscar Hammerstein to comedian Alan King and composer Morton Gould. Famous writers who have lived there include Ring Lardner and of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who used Great Neck as the inspiration for his classic novel The Great Gatsby. Although frequently recognized as the home to well-known personalities, Great Neck is also notable for the conspicuous way it transformed itself from a Gentile community, to a mixed one, and, finally, in the 1960s, to one in which Jews were the majority. In Inventing Great Neck, Judith Goldstein tells this lesser known story. The book spans four decades of rapid change, beginning with the 1920s. Throughout the early half of the century, Great Neck was a leader in the reconfiguration of the American suburb, serving as a playground of rich estates for New York's aristocracy. Throughout the forties, it boasted one of the country's most outstanding school systems, served as the temporary home to the United Nations, and gave significant support to the civil rights movement. During the 1950s, however, the suburb diverged from the national norm when the Gentile population began to lose its dominant position. Inventing Great Neck is about the allure of suburbia, including the institutions that bind it together, and the social, economic, cultural, and religious tensions that may threaten its vibrancy. Anyone who has lived in a suburban town, particularly one in the greater metropolitan area, will be intrigued by this rich narrative, which illustrates not only Jewish identity in America but the struggle of the American dream itself through the heart of the twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4123-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Great Neck, New York, is one of America’s most fascinating suburbs. The community, located at the eastern edge of New York City, developed an intriguing and distinct identity—in large part from its special Jewish history—from the 1920s through the 1960s. As a community, Great Neck has made aggressive claims to national recognition. In the 1920s it was a home for a new celebrity culture of writers, journalists, and Broadway and Hollywood stars, including many Jews who were not welcomed in other communities on Long Island’s North Shore. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Great Neck witnessed the creation...

  5. 1 On the Map
    (pp. 11-42)

    Eddie Cantor, the Jewish comedian, singer, and star of vaudeville, Broadway, and Hollywood, built his dream-home in Great Neck, New York. In 1928, on the verge of moving into his pseudo-English mansion on Long Island’s North Shore, Cantor was in a state of reflective happiness. He tucked his memories—the painful ones of the poverty and torments of his Lower East Side childhood and the anti-Semitic persecutions of Eastern Europe—safely into the past. In the residential company of other celebrities the thirty-six-year-old star and his family were ready to move away from the city into permanent domesticity in Great...

  6. 2 Preparing the Ground
    (pp. 43-76)

    Before Black Friday, the stock market crash, and the Depression in 1929, Great Neck regarded itself as a suburban success par excellence. In a country giddy with prosperity where white Americans sought residential havens between urban and small-town life, Great Neck’s population and property values soared. By the late 1920s, Great Neck qualified as a significant part of the suburban transformation. The presence of famous people gave the community the vital edge of a marketable image and identity. Great Neck was like a never-ending cocktail party—a subversive invention of the 1920s—in which unexpected guests, including Jews, appeared to...

  7. 3 War and Renewal
    (pp. 77-110)

    On Rosh Hashanah evening, October 2, 1940, Rabbi Jacob Rudin cast out words of fury and faith to his Temple Beth-El congregation. “No generation of rabbis ever faced a more difficult task than does the one of which I am a part. We see about us a world in disintegration. Jewish life is tortured and hard pressed. Melancholy and despair ride the heavens, glowering birds of prey feeding on the broken hearts of a people well-nigh bereft of hope and faith.”¹ He was speaking of Europe, Hitler’s power, the unrelenting persecution of European Jewry, and the failure to comprehend what...

  8. 4 The Quintessential Jewish Suburb
    (pp. 111-156)

    Great Neck of the 1940s and 1950s belonged to multiple realms: a prosperous and powerful postwar American nation; a vibrant, aggressive New York City; and the new, enlarged and enriched suburbs linked by road and rail to the city. First and foremost, Great Neck was the creation and wealthy stepchild of New York’s immense expansion and achievements. “A new kind of city,” Peter Hall, the British author and professor of planning, called New York: “the quintessence of the early twentieth-century metropolis, based on massive economies of central agglomeration and equally massive potential for suburban deconcentration.”¹

    Hall’s tomeCities in Civilization,...

  9. 5 The Price of Achievement
    (pp. 157-174)

    In 2003, Great Neck’s image and reputation changed dramatically. On top of the general impressions of being a wealthy, materialistic, ostentatious, and Jewish community—layers of impressions cultivated over many decades—a new one emerged. Great Neck was unsafe for its children. The former clichés, those cultivated from the 1920s through the 1960s, in retrospect convey a quality of innocence. They mattered, certainly, in terms of who moved into or out of the community and why people found it either attractive or undesirable. But 2003 produced something altogether new: Great Neck was the scandalous setting for a powerful documentary about...

  10. Epilogue
    (pp. 175-180)

    In the summer of 2005, much of Great Neck looks as it did forty years ago. It remains lushly residential despite an obvious increase in the number of houses, apartment complexes, condominiums, stores, and corporate buildings. Educational excellence remains a priority as Great Neck’s two high schools continue to rank high in the United States. Civic interest and participation is strong, especially in regard to the individual villages, public parks, and library. North Shore Hospital and Long Island Jewish, now joined, constitute an outstanding medical center. Real estate prices have never been higher. With 43,000 residents, the peninsula is thriving....

  11. Notes
    (pp. 181-192)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 193-196)
  13. Index
    (pp. 197-206)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 207-207)