Deborah Dash Moore presents a bold, complex, and many-layered thesis in this book. In the decades after World War II, she argues, American Jews “reinvented” themselves. They abandoned traditional Jewish constraints, reconstructed a new Judaism based on personal freedom and choice, and consequently redefined what it meant to be Jewish in America. It is Moore’s chief contention that postwar American Jews found their new collective identity through migration to the sunbelt cities of Miami and Los Angeles. The experiences of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who migrated to these two cities set into motion a pattern of cultural and religious change that ultimately transformed Judaism and Jews in America. At least, this is the argument that Deborah Dash Moore would like us to accept.
Some aspects of this thesis on cultural transformation seem more persuasive than others. For example, Moore notes the crucial importance of World War II in changing the world of American Jews. The war [End Page 184] empowered American Jews, strengthening the sense of Jewish identity for the 550,000 Jews who served in the armed forces. The Holocaust and the eventual success of postwar Zionism in establishing the state of Israel had similar consequences, discrediting anti-semitism and building Jewish pride. The war also expanded the horizons of those who served, pulling them away from their closed urban neighborhoods and opening up new possibilities in distant places—places like south Florida and southern California, where tens of thousands of Jewish servicemen were trained or stationed. In the postwar era, many of those discharged Jewish soldiers made their way back to the “two American dream cities by the ocean” (p. 20), attracted by the welcoming climate, the sense of open-ended economic opportunity, and the dream of leisure in an urban paradise in the Sunbelt. Others followed in great numbers: Miami had 8,000 Jews in 1940, but 100,000 by 1955 and 230,000 by 1970; Los Angeles grew to become the third largest Jewish city in the world (after New York and Tel Aviv), with 300,000 Jews by 1950 and 440,000 by 1970. These migrating Jews, Moore writes, “pursued a vision of the golden land as powerful as the American dream that lured their immigrant parents and grandparents to cross the Atlantic Ocean” (51).
The great strength of Moore’s book lies in the wide-ranging archival research and oral history that stands behind it. These materials enable Moore to differentiate the L.A. and Miami migration streams. The post-war L.A. movers were mostly young Jews pursuing individual motives and opportunities. By contrast, Miami movers were more often communal or family-based, perhaps intergenerational, and often Jews who had been tourists in Miami before they migrated; by the 1960s, elderly Jewish retirees predominated. L.A. Jews came mostly from Chicago and the midwest, while Miami Jews came mostly from New York City and the northeast. In Miami the Jewish newcomers were concentrated heavily in high-density apartments and hotels in Miami Beach, but in L.A. they mostly lived in low-density single-family homes geographically dispersed throughout the metropolitan area.
In both places, Moore contends, the new Jewish migrants experienced a sense of dislocation and rootlessness. Unlike the concentrated urban neighborhoods of New York or Chicago, which tended to be institutionally complete, L.A. and Miami initially had little in the way of established Jewish institutions and centers. Even in Miami, where the Jewish population was concentrated, a “permanent tourist mentality” contributed to the sense of fragmentation and isolation. However, this sense of being disconnected from the past, common to Jews in both cities, served as the catalyst for Jewish cultural change and transformation, permitting Miami and L.A. to become harbingers of the Jewish future. [End Page 185]
Several chapters in the book document in persuasive detail the process by which a new sense of Jewish identity and community emerged in the two cities. The migrants had abandoned...