From the beginning of our history, we Jews have felt a tension between the city and the wilderness.
We started as a desert people, and it is the romance of that image — the blowing sand, the lone man tying up his sandals and taking up his rod to make a new life for himself elsewhere, following God and his heart, camel baring its teeth discreetly in the background — that fuels much of our dreaming. But we have been urban as well: references to the city sparkle in our liturgy as we pray for Jerusalem, Your holy city, God. Even as early as the biblical period the dueling romances — the desert wanderer, the city that has God’s earthly home at its core — are established.
That was way before suburbs.
“Jews have been linked to cities at least as far back as the medieval period,” says David Fixler of the Boston architectural firm Einhorn Yaffee Prescott. “They always have offered anonymity and freedom for people who have been seen as the other.” The pull of the small community in the middle of nowhere — the shtetl, the place where everyone knows who you are and whenever you do something wrong your parents will know about it too — tugs hard in the opposite direction.
In the modern period, the “idea of the city is tied up with Jewish intellectuals who both lived in it and talked about it,” Fixler says. “At its root, the move to the suburbs is the Jeffersonian idea that cities are to be escaped from. It’s a pastoralist vision.”
From soon after the First World War until the Depression, Åmerican Jews moved out of the inner cities to what was called “medurbia,” according to Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University. Radiating from the Lower East Side, that New World Ur, New York Jews moved up and out, to Washington Heights and such outer-borough neighborhoods as the Grand Concourse, Long Island City and Boro Park. Then, after the Second World War, helped by the GI Bill and FHA loans, they spread further, leaving the city for the suburbs. In other cities, Jews made similar moves.
Many Americans moved to the suburbs, but Jews moved perhaps a little earlier and in larger numbers. Our history records a great deal of moving, some of it last-minute, so Jews “often are faster to move than other people, because in a way they are prepared for it,” says Lila Corwin Berman, assistant professor of religious studies at Penn State University. They moved for a range of understandable reasons. Still, “the prospect of leaving the city is something that made Jews ambivalent. They felt that the city was no longer a place where you could continue to move toward Americanization — that to resist a move toward suburbanization was to resist Americanization.” On the other hand, they were concerned about how Jewish life would continue in the suburbs. “The city seemed integral to Jewish life.” They also worried about how Jewish politics, traditionally liberal, would be affected by transplantation.
Beneath the fairy-tale simplicity of the move to the suburbs are many more complicated stories. Berman studies Detroit, where, she finds, “many community leaders did an elaborate dance to explain their support for residential integration and fair housing and other civil rights issues, and on the other hand, moving their synagogues, their institutions and their homes to the suburbs. There was an inevitable cognitive dissonance that came out of this experience.”
One symbol of that dissonance was a reluctance to admit to the move. “Ask a Jew who lives in the suburbs where they’re from, and they’ll say Detroit,” Berman says, although there are virtually no Jews who remain within the city limits. Many go on bus tours of their old neighborhoods, but unlike such tours in New York, which go through ethnically changed but still-thriving neighborhoods, tours through Jewish Detroit often end in “empty fields, with buildings still charred” from the 1967 riots. Nostalgia is a complicated emotion.
Once they moved, newly suburban Jews confronted a truth unlike what they found either in the city or the village. Anonymity was possible, as it was in the city; community was possible, as it was in the village, and choices had to be made. It is possible to glide invisibly by in your car with the windows up. Many synagogues, nuclei of Jewish communities, were formed and others moved out from the cities, following their members.
“When you live in a Jewish neighborhood, your identity as a Jew was rooted in fact that you lived among Jews” Gurock says. “If you lived on the Grand Concourse, you might never go into a synagogue until the day you married another Jew.” But in the suburbs, “Jews moved to places where the ethos is ‘one neighborhood under God.’ It’s at that point that the synagogue becomes important not only as a ritual center but as a place where Jews can meet other Jews.”
Of course, not everyone wanted a synagogue, not even a shul with a pool, so many remained unaffiliated. And then there was another solution — let a thousand JCCs bloom!
Now, many of the Jewish suburbs are graying. Fewer young Jews are staying, and in many parts of the metropolitan area synagogues are merging or shutting down. “We see two patterns at work within the last decade,” says Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “Jews are moving ever farther distances from the cities, into the exurbs, and so in many communities around the country we hear Jewish leaders struggling with how to provide services to them.” On the other hand, a process he called “re-urbanification” is going on, particularly in New York.
On the third hand, some suburbs have become overwhelmingly Jewish. For some Jews — and this is particularly but not exclusively true for Orthodox communities — the desire to assimilate has become less strong as we have become more secure in our identities as Americans and Jews. To walk around Teaneck, N.J., say, or the Five Towns on Long Island, is to be confronted with that truth.
I offer my life as a small-scale example of the history of American Jews in the suburbs. I moved to Englewood, N.J., in the early ‘80s as a married mother of two young children; it is perhaps more accurate to say I was dragged there, the heels of my shoes leaving resistance marks. New Jersey, which is shaped not unlike Egypt, long and narrow with water as its eastern border, became my own Mitzraim, the narrow place of my exile.
We moved to a pretty little house that would have rewarded even a so-so housekeeper and deserved far better than me. I furnished it in heaps of newsprint and piles of paperbacks. I did not buy my daughters Barbie dolls but was not ideological enough to confiscate them when they turned up as presents, and our Labrador retriever routinely would munch them, detaching their hands and feet and leaving the macabre remains scattered around the house. I spent as much time as possible in the city; my daughters went to school in med-urban Riverdale.
Resisting them as I did, the charms of the suburbs were lost on me. Bergen County has some beautiful old houses as well as newer ones, some breathtaking although some stunningly vulgar. But I should have realized then as I do now that the changes of the seasons show up more in the suburbs, and the light comes through huge skylight windows unblocked by anything except passing clouds. More prosaically, parking is never a problem and you can control the temperature of your own car as you can’t a subway car.
The desire to live in the city or suburbs, like so many other human desires, is cyclical. Jews originally flocked to the Lower East Side because it was an affordable and recognizable refuge. They are going back now, as Fixler put it, “not to reconnect with the past but to connect instead to the high edge of urban culture.” It is the difference between the old narrow stores there, lined with Rubbermaid bins of wispy fine silken Italian underthings that look so incongruous dangling from the fingers of the old black-hatted men who work there, who have the grace not to be embarrassed by the incongruity, and the new narrow stores, with one industrial rack holding three hangers draped with objects that perhaps could be described as clothing were there no other nouns available.
I made my exodus from the narrow place, and I now live in what I cannot help but think of as the center of the world. Still, I am grateful for the suburbs. Some people love to walk outside at 5 in the morning and have the world to themselves; others go outside then and are relieved to see bustle and life. It’s entirely a matter of temperament. Jewish life can be just as authentic in either place — if you wish it to be.
Joanne Palmer is a writer and director of communications at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, where she edits CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism.
Once they moved, newly suburban Jews confronted a truth unlike what they found either in the city or the village. Anonymity was possible, as it was in the city; community was possible, as it was in the village, and choices had to be made.
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Many Americans moved to the suburbs, but Jews moved perhaps a little earlier and in larger numbers.
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