Chewing On Jewish Decline

Orthodox, Israeli and Russian are up, but delis and bagels are down — and then there’s the Asian boom.

07/05/11
Managing Editor
Photo Galleria: 

The signs, at first, were subtle, almost imperceptible. Makor, the Jewish cultural center on the Upper West Side — designed to spawn countless in-marriages and, of course, countless Jewish babies — closed its doors. Then, the once-popular West Side Judaica nearly shuttered, which would have left nary a Judaica shop on the Upper West Side, traditionally the heart of Jewish New York. And then, the mom-and-pop department store Morris Bros., one of the last Jewish family-owned retail shops on Upper Broadway — gone.

The writing on the wall became clearer; now it was quantifiable, incontrovertible. A handful of years ago, for the first time in a century, the Jewish population of the five boroughs dropped below 1 million, slipping to 975,000, according to UJA-Federation of New York research.

And last week, the signs of Jewish decline in New York blared like the neon marquees on Broadway with the news of the closing of the iconic H&H bagels and the census data showing that, for the first time, the Asian population of the city has soared past a million.

Couple that with the crashing and burning of lewd Twitterer Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Queens and Brooklyn) and the possibility that New York Jewry will not only lose a strong and vocal advocate but that his congressional district might be redrawn to dilute its Jewish strength — and it all might spell trouble, right here in River City, for the Jews.

Sure, the New York congressional delegation still reads like a Jewish law firm: Nadler, Lowey, Engel, Ackerman and Israel. And there’s Madison High’s own Sen. Chuck Schumer. And the mayor is a Bloomberg. And the Times’ new executive editor is an Abramson. And there’s a Kagan from the Upper West Side on the High Court of the land.

But there’s a nagging feeling that the Jewish texture of New York, the Jewish ta’am, or flavor, if you will, is weakening.

Less Jewish or differently Jewish?

Jewish New York is definitely changing, observers say, as emerging ethnic groups grab their piece of the Big Apple’s cultural and political dominance, but the city’s Jewish influence remains, they contend.

Gone, to a growing degree, is the secular, lox-and-bagels type of predominant New York Jewry. In its place is an ascendant Orthodox community. If you go to a Jewish restaurant these days, the odds are good that it’s kosher, under rabbinic supervision and closed on Shabbat.

“Actually, New York isn’t less Jewish,” said author and Fordham Law School professor Thane Rosenbaum. “It’s the Jews that have become less definably Jewish. They are now largely indistinguishable from white, mainstream Americans. Only the chasidim and Modern Orthodoxy constitute a distinct Jewish identity.”

Two exceptions are the city’s Russians and Israelis, both fiercely secular and yet unassimilated for the most part.

While the American Jewish deli is a vanishing breed, Israeli-owned restaurants, cafes and falafel joints are proliferating throughout the city. Hummus Place has four Manhattan outlets, Maoz Vegetarian (a falafel chain) is fast expanding nationally and, despite being the target of occasional anti-Israel boycott efforts, Aroma Espresso Bar’s three Manhattan locations (which feature Israeli faves like shakshuka, burekas and sachlav) appear to be thriving.

Israelis are disproportionately represented in the local arts and music scenes, and Hebrew is so frequently heard in Brownstone Brooklyn that Park Slope’s Congregation Beth Elohim recently launched a program “to help create and retain a sense of connection and cultural identity for families and individuals in Brooklyn’s large, widespread Israeli community.”

Gone largely is the generation of European-born émigrés who shucked the trappings of religion when they reached these shores but continued to talk among themselves in Yiddish, their childhood mamaloshen. If you hear Yiddish today, outside of a few hipster outposts, it’s probably from the American-born Orthodox and their children — or from people like non-Jewish newscasters who instinctively describe a long “shlep” in rush-hour traffic.

“Jewishness … has been on loan for several years, practiced by other people,” Rosenbaum said. “H&H may have closed down, but the bagel isn’t going anywhere; it’s just being baked by non-Jews, just like Madonna has become the world’s best-known kabbalist.”

Gone, as headlines reveal annually, is Jewish dominance in areas like national science or geography competitions, or spelling bees. The driven high school scholars of today have mostly Chinese and Indian names.

Hunter and Stuyvesant high schools, for decades the training grounds of the city’s best and brightest young students, “are now filled with Asian children,” Rosenbaum said. “The city is still plenty Jewish, but only because the culture has been grandfathered in, and Asians, in particular, have taken their cue from Jews.”

Other observers agree.

“There simply is no city in the world where Jews are more integrated, feel more comfortable, have more influence, and are more creative Jewishly and otherwise than New York City, and that includes Jerusalem and Tel Aviv,” said Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “Jews remain very well organized to protect and ensure their interests, and are key cultural influentials at every level of society.”

“There is an incredible range of Jewish organizations and institutions [here] and a Jewish sensibility that pervades” the city, Rabbi Kula said. Even if Jewish clout is decreasing here, politically and demographically, the rabbi said, that should not be equated with a lessening of influence of “Judaism as a wisdom and practice influencing the daily behavior of Jews, or a Jewish ethnic sensibility.”

As the tapestry of New York society weaves in threads of other cultures, as other newcomers make their mark here — as Jews started to do when they arrived en masse in the 19th- and early-20th century — today’s Jewish community adapts, shares the power and creates inter-group coalitions. The leading example is the Jewish Community Relations Council, which expands its coalitions with such communities as African-Americans, Latinos, Haitians and Asians.

Census figures tell the story. In the last decade, New York’s Asian population has soared 32 percent; the Hispanic population has jumped 8 percent. During the same time period, the population of non-Hispanic whites has fallen 3 percent, and the African-American population has dipped 5 percent.

The Asian ascendancy has led to at least one bruising cultural battle that played out recently in the pages of elite newspapers and magazines: the furious reaction of Jewish mothers (including Ayelet Waldman in the Wall Street Journal and Wendy Sachs in The Huffington Post) to Amy Chua’s “Tiger Mom.” It was as if collective New York Jewish mother-dom had risen as one to defend its turf and to assert its parenting style over the hyper-competitive, piano-and-violin-lesson-obsessed, no play dates ever style practiced by Asian Tiger Moms.

OK, the stereotypical Jewish mother style of parenting, which held sway among an earlier immigrant class of strivers for decades, can be pretty hovering and even smothering. But, these Jewish Lionesses asserted, their parenting instills a wider range of values and produces more well-rounded, more soulful kids.

But perhaps the Asian-Jewish relationship need not only be fraught with competitiveness. The JCRC for 15 years has established coalitions with and community-building fellowships for ethnic groups like Asians.

Rabbi Robert Kaplan, JCRC’s point man in inter-ethnic dialogue, calls these relationships “extremely important.”

“It makes sure we know what some of the issues are [faced by other New Yorkers] and who the real leaders with real constituencies are,” Rabbi Kaplan said. “It helps us to really find solutions to some of these issues,” and to head off possible conflicts. “We don’t do things in a vacuum — we’re parts of [many] communities. They see the Jewish community as a helpmate, willing to share our expertise, rather than as a competitor.”

By virtue of its coalition-building impetus, whose roots arguably stem from Jewish support for the Civil Rights movement a half-century ago, by sharing its collective wisdom, the Jewish community continues to quietly wield influence — as mentor, not as power broker.

This is evident on the Lower East Side, legendary home to immigrants — the neighborhood experienced a Jewish decline in the 1960s and 1970s, as the area took on a decidedly Chinese character; today, there’s a decades-long revitalization of the Jewish community.

Who’s moving in? “A mix of yuppies, Jewish religious and non-religious,” says Joel Kaplan, executive director of the United Jewish Council of the East Side.

The area’s disparate Jewish and Chinese cultures work together, he says. One sign: the annual Egg Rolls and Egg Cream Festival, a street fair based at the Museum on Eldridge Street. The two groups, Kaplan says, have “excellent relations. We founded the Lower Manhattan Health Care Coalition, with every conceivable ethnic group.”

Egg rolls and egg creams are one thing. But just don’t invite Jewish mothers and Tiger Moms to the festival.

Staff writer Steve Lipman contributed to this report.

Last Update:

07/09/2011 - 21:40

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

In this article, Thane Rosenbaum said:

“It’s the Jews that have become less definably Jewish.
They are now largely indistinguishable from white, mainstream Americans.
Only the Chasidim and Modern Orthodoxy constitute a distinct Jewish identity.”

From this statement, we may logically deduce that Reform and Conservative Jews are becoming less Jewish.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.