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The Art of Being Jewish in the City

March 8, 2012 By:
Lila Corwin Berman
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Wait for a sunny day in Philadelphia and take a walk up North Broad Street. Start at City Hall and point yourself north, toward Temple University. If you have not strolled these parts recently, you may be surprised by the growth and development, as well as by the painful scenes. Stop on the front steps of Rodeph Shalom, roughly the midpoint between City Hall and Temple. It's an appropriate place to think about Jews and cities.

After World War II, Jews left the cities with alacrity. Their move to the suburbs, similar to that of other white Americans, was motivated by the enticements of suburban living, the frustrations of urban life and federal- and state-level policies that subsidized white suburbanization.

Despite this exodus, Jews and other white liberals remained attached to cities. Look at major urban cultural institutions, activist and political organizations, planners and developers, and you will find Jews, from the decades of "white flight" through today, investing in cities.

Don't let the magnitude lull you into simple triumphalism. Instead, as you sit on those Rodeph Shalom steps, ascending to three massive wooden doors, contemplate the nature of Jewish urbanism.

Jews in the United States, at least since the beginning of the 20th century, have believed that it's good to be a Jew in the city. Many immigrants coming to this country were urban dwellers already and understood the challenges and rewards of city life. Furthermore, Jewish newcomers valued public spaces, having only recently -- or never at all -- tasted the possibility of participating in civil society.

Cities tend to play host to institutions that enshrine the public sphere: public universities, parks and museums. At the same time, cities guard privacy, both individually and collectively. Individuals move through city streets unrecognized, feeling the benefits of that anonymity and, often, the anxiety of it, too. Groups, however defined, carve out their spaces in the forms of neighborhoods, cafes, bars, street corners and more.

When Jews left cities in droves after World War II, their commitment to urbanism changed, but it did not disappear. Many Jews continued to make money through their urban holdings and, it must be recognized, some profited on the backs of other urban dwellers by engaging in exploitative practices. Many Jews also joined coalitions to lobby for new Great Society legislation.

Today, Jews are among the most prominent and productive people working to envision and shape the future of American cities. Why? First, many Jews are in the right places. As much as they moved to the suburbs, they tended to stay close to cities and they stayed involved with them. Second, some Jews are connected to ethnic economic networks, particularly through real estate development, that give them access to urban capital and space.

Finally, for many Jews, the city is the setting of their utopia. If planned and built and lived in correctly, the city can embrace diversity without demanding uniformity. Indeed, the city can sustain itself on the colors and foods and sounds of that diversity. And Jews can be part of it.

Rodeph Shalom is the lone congregation that remains on North Broad. Still, for many years, it relied upon a satellite branch in Elkins Park to serve as the daily site for congregational life. The building represents some of the complications of Jewish urbanism, an urbanism that was sustained by white flight -- nourished from the places of security, affluence and power in the suburbs. Yet, the urbanism remained, symbolically and materially, anchored to real city space.

And today more and more Jews, particularly empty nesters and young people, are settling in the city.

How will a more embedded urbanism, where people live and pray and eat in the city and don't just care about it from afar, change Jewish life and American cities? How will it affect people in the North Broad neighborhood for whom the promise of a new city built upon their city streets holds the possibility of better times and the threat of neglect or displacement? As visionaries in urban life, Jews are positioned to ask these questions and answer them together with the broad array of people and forces that constitute our city.

Lila Corwin Berman is the Murray Friedman Professor of American Jewish History at Temple University and director of its Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, which is hosting a daylong symposium, "The Art of Being Jewish in the City," on March 15. To register, visit: www. temple.edu/feinsteinctr, email feinsteincenter@temple.edu, or call 215-204-9553.

 

Wait for a sunny day in Philadelphia and take a walk up North Broad Street. Start at City Hall and point yourself north, toward Temple University. If you have not strolled these parts recently, you may be surprised by the growth and development, as well as by the painful scenes. Stop on the front steps of Rodeph Shalom, roughly the midpoint between City Hall and Temple. It's an appropriate place to think about Jews and cities.

After World War II, Jews left the cities with alacrity. Their move to the suburbs, similar to that of other white Americans, was motivated by the enticements of suburban living, the frustrations of urban life and federal- and state-level policies that subsidized white suburbanization.

Despite this exodus, Jews and other white liberals remained attached to cities. Look at major urban cultural institutions, activist and political organizations, planners and developers, and you will find Jews, from the decades of "white flight" through today, investing in cities.

Don't let the magnitude lull you into simple triumphalism. Instead, as you sit on those Rodeph Shalom steps, ascending to three massive wooden doors, contemplate the nature of Jewish urbanism.

Jews in the United States, at least since the beginning of the 20th century, have believed that it's good to be a Jew in the city. Many immigrants coming to this country were urban dwellers already and understood the challenges and rewards of city life. Furthermore, Jewish newcomers valued public spaces, having only recently -- or never at all -- tasted the possibility of participating in civil society.

Cities tend to play host to institutions that enshrine the public sphere: public universities, parks and museums. At the same time, cities guard privacy, both individually and collectively. Individuals move through city streets unrecognized, feeling the benefits of that anonymity and, often, the anxiety of it, too. Groups, however defined, carve out their spaces in the forms of neighborhoods, cafes, bars, street corners and more.

When Jews left cities in droves after World War II, their commitment to urbanism changed, but it did not disappear. Many Jews continued to make money through their urban holdings and, it must be recognized, some profited on the backs of other urban dwellers by engaging in exploitative practices. Many Jews also joined coalitions to lobby for new Great Society legislation.

Today, Jews are among the most prominent and productive people working to envision and shape the future of American cities. Why? First, many Jews are in the right places. As much as they moved to the suburbs, they tended to stay close to cities and they stayed involved with them. Second, some Jews are connected to ethnic economic networks, particularly through real estate development, that give them access to urban capital and space.

Finally, for many Jews, the city is the setting of their utopia. If planned and built and lived in correctly, the city can embrace diversity without demanding uniformity. Indeed, the city can sustain itself on the colors and foods and sounds of that diversity. And Jews can be part of it.

Rodeph Shalom is the lone congregation that remains on North Broad. Still, for many years, it relied upon a satellite branch in Elkins Park to serve as the daily site for congregational life. The building represents some of the complications of Jewish urbanism, an urbanism that was sustained by white flight -- nourished from the places of security, affluence and power in the suburbs. Yet, the urbanism remained, symbolically and materially, anchored to real city space.

And today more and more Jews, particularly empty nesters and young people, are settling in the city.

How will a more embedded urbanism, where people live and pray and eat in the city and don't just care about it from afar, change Jewish life and American cities? How will it affect people in the North Broad neighborhood for whom the promise of a new city built upon their city streets holds the possibility of better times and the threat of neglect or displacement? As visionaries in urban life, Jews are positioned to ask these questions and answer them together with the broad array of people and forces that constitute our city.

Lila Corwin Berman is the Murray Friedman Professor of American Jewish History at Temple University and director of its Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, which is hosting a daylong symposium, "The Art of Being Jewish in the City," on March 15. To register, visit: www. temple.edu/feinsteinctr, email feinsteincenter@temple.edu, or call 215-204-9553.

 

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