Jews and the Urban Experience

By Weinberg, David | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Jews and the Urban Experience


Weinberg, David, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


Introduction

FOR THE PAST TWO AND A HALF CENTURIES,JEWISH LIFE has been inextricably bound up with urban society. It was in the city that Jews first faced the challenge of modem life: how to balance their religious and ethnic loyalties with their commitment to the larger society. It was also in urban society that nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jews made their livelihood, established modem communal and religious institutions, and created distinctively new cultural forms. Yet just as urban life profoundly affected the jew, so too has the Jew deeply influenced the economic, political, social, and intellectual institutions and rhythms of modem society.

The four essays included in this special section grew out of a two-day international conference on "Jews and the Urban Experience" that was sponsored by the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, in March 1999. The conference sought to examine the complex ways in which Jews have interacted with the city over the past two centuries. Special attention was paid to the experience of Detroit, whose 1 50-year-old Jewish community reflects the creative interplay between Jews and urban life in the modern era.

Nancy Green's paper represents a dynamic new approach to the study of the Jewish urban experience. Forgoing traditional philopietistic analysis, she emphasizes the role that external factors played in shaping the eastern European Jewish experience in three central cities of immigration, Paris, New York, and London. She also challenges Jewish historians to apply the techniques of comparative history and social science to their fields. Sidney Bolkosky and Kenneth Waltzer's essays attempt to apply general understandings of modem Jewish and urban historical scholarship to the study of the Detroit community. Waltzer traces the eastern European Jewish immigrant experience in a Jewish community whose social, political, and economic makeup varied considerably from the more familiar centers of settlement of Chicago and New York. In particular, he offers important insight into why some Jewish urban sites remain vibrant loci of Jewish memory while others, like those in downtown Detroit, are almost completely forgotten. In examining the response of Detroit Jewry to the Holocaust, Bolkosky emphasizes the admixture of fear and determination that generally defined American Jewish protests and relief efforts on behalf of European Jewry during World War II. He also sheds light on the difficulties that survivors faced in their efforts to come to grips with both their tragic past in Europe and their uncertain future in urban America. …

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