New York Jews and the Great Depression

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Uncertain Promise

Beth S. Wenger

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This remarkable chronicle of New York City's Jewish families during the years of the Great Depression describes a defining moment in American Jewish history. Beth S. Wenger tells the story of a generation of immigrants and their children as they faced an uncertain future in America. Challenging the standard narrative of American Jewish upward mobility, Wenger shows that Jews of the era not only worried about financial stability and their security as a minority group, but also questioned the usefulness of their educational endeavors and the ability of their communal institutions to survive. Wenger uncovers the widespread changes throughout the Jewish community that enabled it to emerge from the turmoil of this period and become a thriving middle-class ethnic group in the post-World War II era.

Responses to the Great Depression set in motion new forms of Jewish adaptation and acculturation in the United States. Jewish families pooled their resources, says Wenger. Children remained in their parents' homes to pursue education when jobs were scarce and postponed marriage and childbearing. Jewish neighborhoods nurtured a sense of Jewish community and provided support networks for working-class families. Although the New Deal and the welfare state transformed ethnic politics, Jewish political culture remained intact and actually facilitated Jewish entry into the new Democratic coalition. Jewish leaders preserved private Jewish philanthropy in New Deal America by redesigning it as a vehicle to strengthen ethnic culture and commitment. In struggling Depression-era synagogues, Jewish leaders consciously addressed social, economic, and political needs and expanded secular and cultural activities. The changes inaugurated during the Great Depression decisively shaped the character of American Jewish life in the twentieth century.

Beth S. Wenger teaches Jewish history at the University of Pennsylvania.

"This is a splendid account of an unexplored era in American Jewish history. Mining extensive sources, including oral histories, Beth Wenger brings to life the experience of New York Jews during the Great Depression and offers an incisive analysis of the period's consequences. A fascinating story told with panache."—Paula E. Hyman

"New York Jews and the Great Depression assesses the effect of the Great Depression on the inner lives of American Jews, showing that in order to reconstruct the 1930s we need to look at a wide array of ethnic and religious communities. Beth Wenger has deeply enriched our understanding of both the cultural impact of the Great Depression and the nature of Jewish life in America."—Hasia R. Diner

"This is an original and significant work that will change the way the Depression era in American Jewish history is understood."—Jonathan D. Sarna

"[An] instructive narrative of American Jewry at a critical turning point. . . . The author is particularly perceptive in showing us the dynamics of class conflict within the Jewish community. . . . The book provides a valuable service in calling attention to the sea of change in Jewish life that derived from the Great Depression."—Jack Schwartz, Forward

"Tightly written and intensively researched."—Geoffrey Paul, Jewish Chronicle

"[Wenger's] book is an important study and a model for urban and ethnic social and economic history."—Oliver B. Pollak, University of Nebraska at Omaha

"Soundly conceived and clearly written. . . . An important addition to both American ethnic and interwar scholarship."—Choice

"Wenger's detailed, carefully researched, and nicely illustrated work examines the Great Depression as a brief but revealing historical moment, not a period that completely overturned the process of Jewish acculturation, but an era that forever reshaped the basic institutions of American Jewish life."—Allen J. Sharpe, The Louisville Courier-Journal

"Challenging the standard narrative of American Jewish upward mobility, Beth Wenger shows that Jews of the era not only worried about financial stability and their security as a minority group, but also questioned the usefulness of their educational endeavors and the ability of their communal institutions to survive. She shows the widespread changes throughout the Jewish community that enabled it to emerge from the turmoil of this period and thrive in the post-World-War-II era."—Shofar

"Wenger skillfully focuses on the crisis of faith which gripped and shaped a community."—Sheldon Krishner, The Canadian Jewish News

"Weaving together oral histories, communal records, memoirs, novels, and newspaper reports into a rich narrative, Wenger provides a model for how to write social history that highlights the intersection of ethnicity, class, and gender. The analysis is smart, the prose lively, and the physical product strikingly elegant. Each chapter is a gem. . . . Wenger's wonderful book has set the stage for all future research on American Jews and the Great Depression."—Shelly Tenenbaum, American Jewish History

"The strength of Wenger's thoroughly researched and gracefully written study lies in its concentration on the interior life of New York Jews. . . . Wenger has given us a model study of the impact of the depression on an ethnic community and of creative change under duress."—Arthur A. Goren, Journal of American History

"Well written and thoroughly researched, Wenger's book is a major contribution to the study of Jewish history in the 1930s."—Douglas Stark, Bronx County Historical Society Journal

"Beth S. Wenger has written a first-rate history of the Jews of New York during the era of the Great Depression. This is a welcome addition to the historical literature. . . .Wenger's book deeply enriches our understanding of how 'the creative ferment of Depression era Jewry' sometimes intensified and sometimes reformulated on-going trends in the development of Jewish-American identity."—Gerald Sorin, American Historical Review

"New York Jews and the Great Depression is an important contribution to the study of twentieth century American life because it deals with a period that has been documented largely in terms of political organization and crisis, rather than in terms of the everyday life and culture of Jews. More than elucidating a decade, however, its synthesis of private and public life, and Jews' growing integration in the nation is an exemplary model of ethnic history in general, and Jewish American history in particular."—Riv-Ellen Prell, Journal of Jewish Studies

"A fascinating social history of Jewish life during a period of economic crisis and the rise of anti-Semitism. . . . An excellent study of modern Jewish life in America, this monograph belongs in all college libraries."—Colleen McDannell, Religious Studies Review

"Beth Wenger's study of the effects of the 1930s Depression on New York Jews provides a thorough and readable account of the adaptations that this largest of American Jewish groups had to make in order to survive with its identity intact. . . . Wenger's study will serve as a basic text for those interested in understanding some of the major forces that shaped American Jewish life in the twentieth century."—Edward A. Abramson, American Studies

"Wenger brings a richness to her text, whether she is discussing the more exciting neighborhood political activities of the early 1930s or the equally important documentation of institutional struggles."—Julia Niebuhr Eulenberg, New York History

Winner of the 1998 Salo Baron Award given by the American Academy for Jewish Research
ISBN: 9780300062656
Publication Date: December 25, 1996
288 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
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