City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York

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City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York, 3 vols., ed. Deborah Dash Moore, Written by Howard B. Rock, Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer, Jeffrey S. Gurock. With a Visual Essay by Diana L. Linden. New York: New York University Press, 2013.

In recent years, scholars of the American Jewish experience have rightly insisted upon the necessity of adopting a broad lens to best understand it. Despite the fact that New York has long been the largest and most influential home for American Jews, historians have cautioned us not to neglect the experiences of Jews outside this urban center and have emphasized the distinctive contributions of Southern Jews, Western Jews, Jews in small towns and others, reminding us that no study of American Jewry is complete without them. Moreover, scholars emphasize that the history of Jews in the United States cannot fully be appreciated without contextualizing it within the transatlantic stories of Jewish migration and the experiences of Jews of the Americas. And yet, even as recent scholarship has emphasized breadth, there is much to be gained from concentrating our gaze on the Jews of New York and seeking to understand them within the context of the history of New York City. After all, as we are reminded in Volume One, from the 1830s on, more Jews have lived in New York than in any other American city. As home to the largest population of Jews in the largest city of the United States, New York City has served as center, hothouse, and incubator for so much of modern Jewish life--in America and throughout the world. And even when organizations, events and issues arose outside of New York, the echoes inevitably reverberated in New York City.

Thanks to the three-volume City of Promises, the unique experience of New York Jews has found its worthy chroniclers. The authors masterfully tell the story of Jews in New York City in rich specificity while also illuminating the national narrative. They expertly synthesize voluminous primary sources and current scholarly findings, while still managing to surprise the reader with new anecdotes, perspectives and sources. Without losing sight of the broader narrative, the authors bring flavor and particularity to each era by zeroing in on topics that energize them and demonstrating both the many ways in which historical research can be conducted and the wide variety of sources that can illuminate it.

In Haven of Liberty, Howard Rock trains his scholarly eye on the earliest Jews of the city. An American historian who has devoted his career to an exploration of New York City during the early national period, Rock demonstrates that the emerging concept of republicanism served as the guiding force in the evolution of American Jewish identity. He also makes the case that these early Jews laid the foundations--economically, politically, religiously, philanthropically and socially--for the robust Jewish life that characterizes New York Jewry to this day. Mining sources that have long been available, thanks to pioneering work by Jacob Rader Marcus, Max J. Kohler, Malcolm Stern and others--combing the Asmonean and other sources for fresh insights into this era, and uncovering new material about individual Jewish women and specific institutions--Rock places them all in the context of the emergence of New York as a major city in the new republic. In so doing, Rock offers new insights into figures and events about which we thought we had learned all that we would ever be able to know. For example, Rock demonstrates how Gershom Seixas, spiritual leader of Shearith Israel from the late colonial period until his death in 1816, grappled with and reflected Jeffersonian republican ideology in his sermons. Rock also illustrates the ways in which Jews struggled with internal fissures such as those between Sephardim and Ashkenazic immigrants, and those between competing American and Jewish values. For example, in recounting the founding of Jews' Hospital, Rock discusses the dispute over whether or not to permit autopsies. …