East European Jewish Detroit in the Early Twentieth Century

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

East European Jewish Detroit in the Early Twentieth Century


Waltzer, Kenneth, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


EAST EUROPEAN JEWISH DETROIT IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH century appears to us at the end of the century, at best, obliquely. Three valuable works of history written during the past generation by Olivier Zunz, Robert Rockaway, and Sidney Bolkosky provide only a general sense of the contours of work, life, and community in Detroit,s Jewish ghetto. [1] Unlike the literature on immigrant Jewish settlements in other major cities, there are few important memoirs or specialized studies of Jewish life, mobility, and cultural change in the Motor City. Few photographs of the Jewish area survive. Apparently, no Jacob Riis or Lewis Hine shot city scenes in Little Jerusalem. Neither did a Hutchins Hapgood or Jane Addams do field work here. Unlike New York's Lower East Side, which many writers remembered and "invented" during the 1920s and 1930s as "teeming with life and feverish activity, rich in movement and isms," then reinvented again during the 1960s and 1970s as an "immigrant portal to America," Detroit's Hastings Street seems little remembered. The Lower East Side became a nostalgic center for New York Jews as early as the interwar years, a place of cultural meaning, and an American Jewish landmark. [2] However, Detroit Jewry either did not nourish writers or remember Jewish urban space in similar fashion, and Detroit's Jewish community appears today to think about its east side roots only a bisl, if at all.

In this essay, I seek to survey what we know and might like to know about East European Jewish Detroit in the early twentieth century, drawing a preliminary portrait based on secondary sources and some census and archival research. [3] I seek also to explore what was distinctive in East European Jewish Detroit, which grew from the mass exodus of Eastern European Jews from the lands of their captivity in Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Rumania and from the explosion of industrial production, population, and commercial opportunity in the expanding Motor City. [4] East European Jewish Detroit was distinctive among newcomer "colonies," as observers called them, in the auto capital, for it was mostly a commercial settlement with few members who worked in the auto companies or were subjected to their direct Americanizing influences. East European Jews focused heavily in commerce and trade and their key neighborhood settlement was both an enclave economy and staging area for commercial pursuits extending throughout th e city. Immigrant Jews worked out their adjustments to Detroit in a largely Jewish milieu and in independent interaction with other newcomers. East European Jewish Detroit was also distinctive among East European Jewish communities in the major cities, for it was small in size, primarily a bourgeois community, and lacked a substantial working class and powerful currents of organized labor and Socialism. Initially a fragmented community, comprised of many elements from several lands organized according to an Old World cultural geography, by the 1920s Detroit Jewry was becoming more Americanized, oriented to success, mobility, respectability, and, at the same time, increasingly committed to ethnic group defense.

Hastings Street District: A Ghetto of "Natural Born Traders"

A regional trading city with a population of 116,340 people in 1880, Detroit grew in size and population to 285,704 in 1900, and then mushroomed into the fourth largest city in the United States in 1920, with 993,678 inhabitants. An industrial city focused on transportation and metal, pharmaceutical, chemical, and industrial goods manufactures in 1900, Detroit exploded into the auto capital of the country during the first two decades of the century. Some 29 different automobile companies operated in the city or nearby by 1920, spreading outward along the railway system with main plants locating along a semicircular ring several miles out from downtown. These companies dominated the urban economy, offering the greatest share of employment to immigrant newcomers and drawing on 135,000 workers.

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