Gentile New York: Images of Non-Jews among Jewish Immigrants

Article excerpt

Gentile New York: Images of Non-Jews Among Jewish Immigrants. By Gil Ribak. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2012. xi + 293 pp.

In Gentile New York, Gil Ribak takes on an uncomfortable subject --uncomfortable because it turns out that Jews for the most part did not think highly of the gentiles around them. And when they did have a high opinion of certain groups of non-Jews, it was often for reasons that would strike many of us as ignoble. In examining the gentile image in the Jewish mind, Ribak seeks to debunk the myth that he sees as pervasive among American Jews that Judaism is somehow inevitably liberal. He further argues that the ways in which American Jews viewed local gentiles was informed by their experiences with different groups of non-Jews in Europe. In addition, images of specific groups changed over time. The way in which Jewish perceptions of Yankees, in particular, changed for the worse in the first decades of the twentieth century shows that there was no linear and easy path to integration into American society. Ribak thus sees his book as a brief against the American exceptionalism prevalent in American Jewish historiography and which he views as a form of presentism. Gentile New York is well-written, strongly argued, and based on extremely thorough research in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Although it will not convince everyone, it makes an important contribution by complicating the story of American Jewish ethnic and racial liberalism, demonstrating the importance of the European background to American Jewish culture, and foregrounding Jews' relations with the others they lived with.

Ribak uses a transnational lens. He begins his analysis in Eastern Europe, where Jews (influenced by negative portrayals of non-Jews in the Talmud and other sacred texts) saw the peasants around them as brutal, dimwitted, and drunken embodiments of violence and physicality. But there were other non-Jews, particularly Russian and German elites, whom Jews admired for their culture and refinement. These attitudes carried over to America, where Jews looked favorably upon upper-class "Yankees" seen as modern, progressive, well-mannered, and devoid of anti-Semitism. …