- The Jews of Harlem: The Rise, Decline, and Revival of a Jewish Community by Jeffrey Gurock
At the end of the penultimate chapter of The Jews of Harlem, Jeffrey Gurock ventures, “Harlem is now, as it was a century ago, very good for Jews.” Whether or not this is the case, Harlem has certainly been good for the field of American Jewish history and Gurock, who started his illustrious career with the publication of When Harlem Was Jewish, 1870–1930 (1978), a book based upon his dissertation. In that book, he traced the movement of New York City’s Jews into Harlem and their subsequent outmigration, arguing that regnant Chicago School theories of urban migration were not adequate to explain the diverse factors that led thousands of New York Jews to the northern reaches of Manhattan. The book was important for several reasons, including its successful integration of urban history with American Jewish history and its effort to draw attention to Jewish life in New York City beyond the Lower East Side.
Gurock’s new book does not offer substantively new interpretations of the history of Jewish migration to and away from Harlem. The most profound insights from the first book remain largely intact. Gurock closely analyzes the varieties of radicalism that thrived in Harlem and does an excellent job noting the non-ideological dimensions of radicalism (especially socialism) that ultimately stymied truly radical political and economic modes for most of Harlem’s Jews. Similarly, Gurock’s careful attention to transportation once again allows the reader to appreciate the difference that environmental and topographical factors make, even in urban settings. And, finally, he writes deftly about synagogues’ efforts to remake themselves to attract the next generation. [End Page 575]
The new book, however, must account for a different endpoint than Gurock’s original work. In the 1970s, as Gurock wrote his dissertation and published his first book, Harlem was hardly a place that one would have imagined experiencing a white or Jewish renaissance. So the narrative he told was, in some fashion, an effort to make sense of what happened to Harlem that made it so decidedly not good for Jews and multiple other city dwellers. By the early decades of the 2000s, Gurock’s tale of Harlem took its orientation from a sharply different endpoint, as Bill Clinton’s foundation, big chain stores, and young families all moved into the neighborhood. The burden of his new book, then, is to connect largely the same historical sources and research body from his dissertation and first book to a strikingly different outcome.
The book’s introduction promises the reader “Harlem’s story told anew,” but, more accurately, it is Harlem’s story told with a different ending (13). The book delivers on providing some new intellectual and cultural voices to draw a more robust portrait of the early twentieth-century heyday of the neighborhood, but these additions only minimally alter Gurock’s interpretation of the neighborhood and Jews’ place in it. For example, in comparison to his earlier book, Gurock offers a more thorough treatment of the tension between Jews and African Americans in Harlem and is less intent upon arguing that black migration into the neighborhood had very little to do with Jews’ migration away from it. He carefully traces patterns of economic and cultural exploitation, although, as in his discussion of blackface, he pulls back from offering explanations in favor of showcasing a variety of interpretations or simply describing patterns. Gurock appears reluctant to interpret Harlem through an analysis of political and economic structures that reinforced racial inequalities, though he describes the manifestations of these structural forces.
Thus Gurock offers the reader a thick description of festering tensions within the neighborhood without providing a broad framework for the reader to understand the patterns of poverty, crime, and neglect that riddled Harlem by the 1960s. Recent scholarship, from Samuel Zipp’s Manhattan Projects (2010) to Suleiman Osman’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn (2011), provides models for how...