Jewish Life in the City: An Interview with Deborah Dash Moore

By Rachel Gordan | February 10, 2015

(Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

(Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

Deborah Dash Moore has played a pioneering role in the study of Jews and in establishing the field of American Jewish history. Only with difficulty could one find a scholar of American Jewish history who has not been touched, often personally, by Moore in her roles as writer, teacher, conference organizer, mentor, and editor. She is recognized as an architect of the field, particularly at its intersections with urban history and gender history. Last fall, her Urban Origins of American Judaism was published, and I corresponded with her over email about her work and this latest book.

Moore is the Director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and the Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Previously, she taught at Vassar College where she helped to found their program in Jewish Studies and served as head of Religious Studies. She is the authored or edited ten books, including At Home In America: Second Generation New York Jews, To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Dream in Miami and Los Angeles, and, with Paula Hyman, Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, for which they received a National Jewish Book Award. Moore’s 2004 book, GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation, was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year. This interview had been edited slightly for length and clarity. 

R&P: “Jews and cities” has been a longstanding and rich scholarly preoccupation for you. How did your upbringing in New York shape this interest?

DDM: New York was the quintessential city for me and I learned its rhythms from a relatively early age. In 2013 I published an essay, “Sidewalk Histories,” that spoke to some of the specific things I gained from growing up in the city, from walking its sidewalks to riding its public transit to viewing its streets from eye level. I largely took for granted the city’s socioeconomic, religious, ethnic, and racial diversity, just as I accepted as normal living to be on the 11th floor of a 20-story apartment building and needing to walk blocks to find a park with trees. The city intrigued me. I loved to explore it. I was fortunate that as I was choosing a dissertation topic, urban history was a burgeoning field and that allowed me to bring my local, insider’s knowledge into dialogue with what I uncovered as a historian.

R&P: Photography has been another important aspect of your scholarship and this book. As you point out in Urban Origins of American Judaism, it’s hard to think about the history of the Jews of New York without thinking of all of the historic photographic images associated with that topic, thanks to Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Arnold Eagle, Cornell Capa, and others. How has photography influenced your teaching and thinking about American Jewish history?

DDM: In 2001 Howard Rock and I published Cityscapes: A History of New York in Images. We had started the project in the 1990s as an effort to recast a classic visual account of New York City by John Kouwenhoven, The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York, that we thought needed to be updated. We divided the book and I took the years from 1870 to 2000. Initially I looked at various visual representations of the city, but increasingly the photographic record attracted my attention and I decided just to use photographs. I began with what was familiar (the Byron Brothers, Riis, Hine) and then moved on to less familiar photographers whose work I discovered at the Museum of the City of New York and the New York Public Library. When I started to request permission to publish the photographs (I ended up looking at around 10,000 images in order to narrow it down to 4,000, and then finally to 1,000), many of the photographers asked me where I had seen their work. Then they invited me to come to their studios to see a much larger collection. So I met these amazing photographers and immersed myself in their vision of New York.

Around that time David Lobenstine, a Vassar student who was working as my research assistant, drafted a paper on the photographic legacy of the Lower East Side, which we ended up publishing as “Photographing the Lower East Side.” This served as my introduction to thinking visually about urban history. Having met so many photographers who also turned out to be Jewish then prompted me to consider why so many Jews picked up cameras to record images of the city. I was not alone in these observations. Max Kozloff curated an exhibit at The Jewish Museum on “New York: Capitol of Photography.” In the catalog he raised the question of a Jewish sensibility in New York photography.

After these initial forays into thinking about Jewish photographers and their pictures, I began to integrate photobooks (such as Richard Nagler’s My Love Affair with Miami Beach) into my American Jewish history courses. These books usually wed text and image to reflect upon urban culture. Photographs bring an immediacy to history; they also can be read in many different ways. The more I have taught history with photographs, the more attention I have paid to how people, in different time periods, have interpreted a photograph. The photographs in Urban Origins of American Judaism include classic images but also less well-known pictures. And they invite readers to imagine a dialogue, to initiate a conversation. They are far more mutable than other historical documents. And, I should note, students are very comfortable offering their own interpretations. They are visually literate and good at looking at photographs and drawing insights from them.

R&P: As you’ve moved from New York to Ann Arbor, how has your interest in cities evolved? 

DDM: This semester I have just finished co-teaching with Marian Krzyzowski a course on “Detroit: Race, Religion and Ethnicity in the 20th Century.” I find Detroit so very different from New York in its industry, politics, ethnic groups, religious organizations, and economy. Even its racism seems different, despite common elements. So I’m constantly making comparisons in my head and discussing them with Marian. I’ve also become far more interested in suburbs since so many of my students come from suburbs.

I should add that I have wonderful colleagues in the History department who run a Metropolitan History seminar and several of my graduate students participate in this. So moving to the Midwest has broadened my interests in cities.

R&P: I thought of your book recently when I heard an interview with the late director Mike Nichols in which he described his first memory of 1930’s New York. Seeing the Yiddish signs on city streets, he asked his father, “Is that allowed?” “It is here,” his father told him. In Urban Origins of American Judaism, you discuss that public face of Judaism in American cities. Did experiences like Nichols’s shape your interest in urban Judaism?

DDM: Most definitely, yes. I recall discussing with Paula Hyman, z”l [of blessed memory], when we were both graduate students about how liberating it was for her to be living in New York City in comparison with Boston, especially around Christmas time. I had just assumed a Jewish presence visible on the city streets, in stores especially, and her comments to me made me realize how distinctive it was and also how empowering it was. All of the department stores regularly featured specials for Jewish holidays like Passover and, of course, Hanukkah appeared alongside Christmas. This commercial visibility, combined with attention to lived religion, contributed significantly to my interest in studying the dimensions of urban Judaism.

R&P: Religious leaders have sometimes feared and denounced New York’s influence on religion (I’m thinking of Billy Graham’s 1957 Gotham crusade), but American Jewish leaders, as your book portrays them, have historically taken a liberal attitude to the positive effects that bustling, urban life could have on Judaism. How do you explain this?

DDM: Jon Butler has been working on a book on religion in Gotham, arguing that cities—commonly thought of as sites of sin and moral decay—actually are places that nourish religious invention. I think that American Jewish leaders appreciated the opportunities cities presented and were willing to take the risks that accompanied those opportunities. Even some insular Hasidic groups have held on to a stake in the city. Urban spaces offer niches in neighborhoods and even on blocks that allow religious groups like Jews to fashion their own distinctive milieus. Multiplicity outweighs uniformity. Jews recognize this.

R&P: In your book GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation, you described how Jews like your father, who had grown up in pre-WWII New York, experienced Jewishness as “a way of being and thinking.” (Jewishness was the food you ate, your politics, the company you chose, etc.) But then World War II transformed this urban paradigm of Jewishness.

DDM: Yes, I think that there was something of a paradigm shift in urban Jewish identity. As Jews became identified with a Judaism that was considered one of the three fighting faiths of democracy, they began to adumbrate religious forms of Jewish life that followed the other two American faiths: Protestantism and Catholicism. Rather than understanding Jewishness as a way of being and perceiving the world, they came to think of it as set aside for specific occasions, such as life cycle events or days on the calendar. Jews who moved to the suburbs especially privatized many aspects of Jewishness. Lila Corwin Berman argues in a forthcoming book on Detroit Jews that they transformed their urban perspectives into a political ideology of “remote urbanism” that allowed them to remain connected to the city even while living in the suburbs. Still, this was a far cry from a sensibility that many urban Jews held that imagined many of their neighbors as “Jew-ish,” even though they knew weren’t Jews. (One thinks of Colin Powell, for example, who spoke a decent Yiddish, part of his experience growing up in the Bronx when it was a very Jewish borough.)

R&P: In addition to the misery of crowded urban life, The Urban Origins of American Judaism discusses the fun that could be had through urban living. I wonder if you think there’s a connection between some 20th century rabbis’ desire to create an American Judaism in which Jews could live in two civilizations (American and Jewish) and the allure of their city’s cultural offerings. Your book points out Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s appreciation of art and aesthetics, and it shows that Rabbi Louis Finkelstein was shaped by his awareness that other Jews cared about the leisure-time pursuits the city had to offer.

DDM: Like baseball. There’s a great account of Kaplan and Finkelstein walking around the reservoir in Central Park and talking about a sabbath sermon—and the importance of baseball as part of it. (The World Series occasionally coincided with the High Holidays and kids regularly snuck out of services to follow the score on the radio.) But you’re referencing not just sports but elite forms of culture such as opera and ballet and symphony concerts and musical theater. When Rubin Tucker, the cantor at the Brooklyn Jewish Center, decided to leave the cantorate for a career in opera under the name Richard Tucker, his congregants cheered (and bought tickets to hear him sing at the Metropolitan Opera House). The city enticed Jews with its many forms of culture, and rabbis especially recognized how Judaism needed to compete creatively with the latest cultural turns. They saw it as a stimulus because they, too, enjoyed the city’s leisure pleasures.

R&P: Food is naturally a part of this story of urban Judaism. Your book discusses “appetizing stores.” It’s such a curious name! In America, food can seem like a party that all of America is having, all of the time (hot dogs sold at baseball games, cheeseburgers advertised on television). But it’s a party to which Jews don’t always feel invited. One way to respond was by overcompensating. Jewish food wouldn’t just be labeled kosher or Jewish food; it was oh-so-appetizing. What is the cultural work of Jewish food in cities?

DDM: “Appetizing store” is an odd name for dairy stores, but I don’t think it reflected any overcompensation. Mostly it developed as a result of the requisites of kashrut to keep meat and dairy products separate combined with a capitalist fueled diversity of retail stores. One needs to remember that by 1930 there were more Jews living in New York City than in most Western European nations and this concentration in a relatively small space spurred all kinds of commercial establishments that specialized in their products. Cities also were sites of a lot of food production: bread baking, meatpacking, fish canning, even wine and beer distilling. The demands of kashrut spurred Jews to enter many parts of food production as well as marketing.

R&P: Since the immediate post-WWII era, there’s been a flip in how suburban and urban Judaism are perceived. Urban Judaism has become synonymous with young, innovative Jewish life, and—no disrespect to the suburban Judaism of my youth—but the bloom is somewhat off the rose of suburban Judaism, compared with its postwar days. And yet, it is often the children of suburbia who are now leaders in innovative urban Jewish life. How do we understand this dynamic?

DDM: Really good question and one that I suspect you will be answering in the future through your scholarship. I think you’re right that there’s a pendulum and that the excitement of the suburbs, the lure of a new private home and yard, and the appeal of the nuclear family apart from nosy relatives, is dimming in favor of recycled old apartments, the fast pace of city streets, and, of course, an enduring desire to get away from parents. There’s definitely a suburban-urban counterpoint here. Perhaps there is also inspiration.

R&P: You’ve played a leading role in the establishment of American Jewish history as a recognized field in American religious history, Jewish Studies, and in American history. What have you observed about how the field of American Jewish history has changed over the past three decades?

DDM: American Jewish history has really blossomed since the mid-1980s into a recognized field in dialogue with American religious history, Jewish Studies and American history. Gone are the days when a budding scholar would be told that American Jewish history was mere journalism and not fit for serious scholarship. The field has burgeoned and is now often on the cutting edge of scholarship, serving to stimulate research questions that advance other fields as well. Having run a workshop two years ago with Beth Wenger for graduate students writing dissertations that dealt with politics and American Jewish history, I was impressed with the exciting new work being done. However, there are still occasional barriers to be overcome, both internal and external. The former refers to a kind of parochialism that measures the Jewishness of American Jewish history by its content rather than looking at how thinking with Jews about particular issues can illuminate large questions that involve others as well. The latter references other scholars who can’t see historical figures as Jews in their scholarship because they really don’t quite know what to do with them.

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