Putting The ‘New’ In ‘New York Jew’
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Putting The ‘New’ In ‘New York Jew’

A Jewish newspaper needs to reflect the diversity of its readers.

Zabar’s, a temple of smoked fish, condiments and gourmet cheese, has long been associated with the archetypical “New York Jew.” But like the neighborhood surrounding it, the city’s Jewish community is changing. Wikimedia Commons
Zabar’s, a temple of smoked fish, condiments and gourmet cheese, has long been associated with the archetypical “New York Jew.” But like the neighborhood surrounding it, the city’s Jewish community is changing. Wikimedia Commons

I consider myself a New York Jew, but maybe for all the wrong reasons.

First of all, I live in New Jersey. That may be disqualifying, although I feel that if my mental health depends on the situation at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, that makes me a New Yorker.

I was also born and raised on Long Island. Outside of the five boroughs, yes, but at a time when all of our news came from New York stations and my mother’s radio was set to 1010-WINS. I couldn’t vote for the mayor but had to hear how he was doing every 22 minutes.

But my claim is as much cultural as geographic. I am a New York Jew by history (Yiddish-speaking ancestors who came through Ellis Island, extended family with roots in the Jewish enclaves of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens) and legacy. My cultural touchstones — some firsthand, most secondhand, but all among my frames of reference —include deli food and sweatshops, Yiddishisms and the Brill Building, Grace Paley and Irving Howe, Ed Koch and Bella Abzug, “Seinfeld” and “Crossing Delancey.” I am the product of immigrants and children of immigrants who, according to the 2017 anthology “Jewish New York” (NYU Press), “helped constitute much of what was distinctive about New York as an American city.”

But in 2019 this may be my weakest claim to being a New York Jew. A generation ago such a distinctly Ashkenazi, secular, 20th-century definition safely spoke to and of a majority. Even a decade ago a New York Jewish personality could be confidently described in New York magazine as “a home-brewed concoction of Talmudic irony, psychoanalytic mumbo-jumbo, disenchanted Marxism, the symbolic language of modernism, the bitter ironies of Yiddish humor, sexual openness, and aggression, downed with a wry, European-style shrug.”

But that sort of New York Jew is fast becoming a museum piece — or a sideshow attraction. The definition of “New York Jew” has had to expand to include a huge influx of Russian Jews who share neither the pre-war immigrant history or, often, the politics of the Jews who welcomed them here. Mizrachi Jews — who can rightly claim that they were the original Jewish New Yorkers — are increasingly demanding their due in a community that long assumed Yiddishland as its homeland.

A community is no longer defined by the children of Ashkenazi immigrants, writes The Jewish Week’s new editor.

Israeli Jews have influenced the cultural climate of Jewish New York in the same way that they have established themselves in business. Queer Jews, Jews of color, Jews by choice and Jews from interfaith families are all fighting to be recognized in this mosaic.

The explosive growth of the Orthodox population has also upended expectations of the “New York Jew.” The last survey by UJA-Federation showed Orthodox Jews representing 40 percent of all New York City Jews, up from 33 percent just 10 years earlier. Some 74 percent of New York’s Jewish children, the survey showed, grow up in Orthodox homes. That’s a religious, economic and cultural revolution, as well as a political one, which plays out in local and national elections. Orthodox Jews are as likely to vote for Republicans as non-Orthodox Jews are to vote for Democrats.

As for the non-Orthodox Jewish majority, the assumptions and habits of preceding generations may die hard, but they die. Habits of belonging — to synagogues and other institutions — and of giving — to the federation and other charities — have declined or changed drastically. Younger Jews tell pollsters that they are proudly Jewish, but their identity makes fewer claims on where they live, how they act, with whom they fall in love. They don’t feel much nostalgia for the “world of our fathers,” except for a few who envy and emulate Yiddish-speaking immigrant radicals precisely because they want a Jewish identity that isn’t tied to support for an Israel they consider deeply problematic.

So I may indeed be a New York Jew, but I am no longer representative of “New York Jews.” And yet, as the new editor of this newspaper, my job is to maintain and expand a platform that speaks to and for them, in all their diversity. It’s a role that this newspaper has been trying to play in the community for years.

In a polarized Jewish world, it may be among the last places that even tries to keep all sides talking to one another.

Maybe that’s impossible, but the alternative — of disparate communities spinning off and away from each other — is unthinkable. I’m banking on the things we share as Jews, as opposed to the things that divide us. That includes a curiosity about how people live their Jewish lives, a hunger for Jewish ways of making meaning, a need to stand up to those who would do us harm and an obligation to demand justice and fair play from those who wield power.

It also means having a sense of humor about it all. You are reading someone who was once named the year’s third funniest New York Jew, by … The Jewish Week!

Creating a platform for the single largest Jewish community outside of Israel also demands humility. In this I’ve always been inspired by my teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. He writes that principled pluralism starts with the acknowledgement that none of us has it exactly right. We need to discover the limits of our own truths, to acknowledge that our particular truths “do not cover the situation of all people” and to open ourselves to the ways in which we might be wrong or others might be right.

A paper for all New York Jews must give voice to and celebrate this principled pluralism, at a time when it is under attack from within and without.

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