I'll Take Manhattan: Reflections on Jewish Studies

Article excerpt

AN INVITATION FROM MOSES RISCHIN TO REFLECT UPON the renaissance of Jewish studies from my "own personal, academic, intellectual, and cultural history" took me by surprise. That there has been a renaissance of Jewish studies in the past decade cannot be doubted; neither can its impact upon the lives of those of us working in the field be questioned. Yet at a conference on "Regional History as National History" organized by Rischin for the annual meeting of die American Jewish Historical Society and sponsored by the Western Jewish History Center of the Judah L. Magnes Museum -- who would be interested in my idiosyncratic perspective? Was there room in such a context to explore the issue of the renaissance of Jewish studies from a point of view consciously derived from my personal, academic, intellectual, and cultural history? When I realized that I would not be alone, and therefore my own slanted view would be complemented by other interpretations, I recognized that these reflections might in their sum prove to be more than their individual parts. In addition, as Rischin undoubtedly surmised, enough time has passed so that my own personal history is now part of a larger academic, intellectual, and cultural historical moment that may illuminate a transition from one era to another. Indeed, my own history is certainly regional history.

I was born and bred in New York City. In those years, the 1950s and 1960s, we called it "the City"; no other modifier than the definite article was needed. There was only one City, and I grew up as close to the center of Jewish life outside of Israel as you could get. Living in such a Jewish place clearly colored my perceptions of the possibilities and potentials of Jewish studies. There were still over two million Jews in New York City (a population then roughly equal to that of the State of Israel) and they were approximately 25 percent of the city's residents. "As no other city is, New York is their home: here a Jew can be what he wants to be," a Fortune magazine article put it in 1960.(1) However, it is not enough to know that I grew up in the City, because the City is a big, diverse place made up of distinctive neighborhoods, each with its own personality. I lived on the edge of Greenwich Village, or, what we called "the Village." Like "the City," there was only one Village. When I was growing up and people asked me where I lived, I usually answered: "In the City, in the Village." (I used to stretch the boundaries. Nowadays the neighborhood is called Chelsea, which was its real name back then, but back then Chelsea had no panache, despite the Chelsea Hotel.)

What did it mean to grow up in the City, in the Village? It meant growing up on sidewalks, which was where we played ball and hopscotch, skated, biked, jumped rope, and generally hung out. It meant learning to use public transportation, buses and subways -- certainly before one's teenage years. It meant living across the street from industrial buildings -- in my case a bindery factory and a printing plant -- and having one's father walk to work. It meant living on one floor (something my students today have difficulty imagining) in an apartment building. And that meant when it was raining out, you could go visiting friends without getting wet. (This is beginning to sound like the modern marvels of Kansas City in the musical "Oklahoma.")

There were disadvantages to city living, I'm sure. There were also bars and flophouses and cheap hotels across the street. The pleasures of the corner drugstore, with its soda fountain that could be entered directly through its back door from the lobby of my apartment building, had to be weighed against the fact that if I wanted to see a tree and some grass, I had to walk a quarter of a mile to the nearest park (if Union Square may be so called). The city was also a dangerous place. My mother regularly used to call our attention to a terrible mugging, or a horrible rape, or a deadly assault. …

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