This blog post was written by Museum intern Dalia Rubinstein.
It’s no secret that New York is one of the Jewish capitals of the world. The city alone is home to 1.1 million Jews, making it the largest Jewish community outside of Israel. It boasts the largest Jewish population of any world city, larger even than Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – combined! Jewish communities in New York are multiple and diverse – they are Ashkenazic and Sephardic, Hasidic and secular. The city owes this diversity to various waves of Jewish immigration over time, but did you know that Jewish geography today still in many ways reflects these immigration eras? Indeed, when and from where your Jewish ancestors immigrated may actually inform where you live in NYC today!
Though today the majority of New York’s population is Ashkenazi (from Central and Eastern Europe), the first significant wave of Jewish immigration to New York was actually Sephardi. In 1654, a group of 23 Jews from Brazil arrived in New Amsterdam, fleeing Spanish and Portugese Inquisitions. Jews had lived safely in Brazil since their expulsion from Spain in 1492, but persecution eventually caught up with them. Their arrival to New York (then called New Amsterdam) was met by objections on behalf of anti-Semitic Governor Peter Stuyvesant. They were ultimately allowed to settle, though numerous restrictions and taxes were imposed upon them.
Sephardic presence in New York City can be traced through Congregation Shearith Israel – the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States. Founded in 1654 with the arrival of those first Jewish immigrants, it remained the only Jewish congregation in New York until 1825. In 1730, the community moved into its first building on Mill Street (now South William Street in the Financial District). Beginning in 1834, it began a series of moves uptown: first to 60 Crosby Street in today’s Soho, then in 1860 to West 19th Street in Chelsea, before settling on the Upper West Side in 1897 at West 70th Street. Amongst the prominent members of Shearith Israel was Emma Lazarus, whose poem “The New Colossus” is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Remarkably, the congregation remains active on the Upper West Side today. Sephardic Jews still make up a notable part of New York’s Jewish population today; in addition to the Upper West Side, there is also a significant Sephardic enclave surrounding Brooklyn’s Kings Highway and on Staten Island.
The first prominent wave of Ashkenazi immigration to New York began with German Jewish immigration in 1815. Several factors propelled German Jews to leave: ruination left by the Napoleonic Wars, economic chaos caused by the Industrial Revolution, as well as discriminatory laws and religious persecution. By 1875, 3 million German Jews had immigrated to the United States, with the largest cluster gravitating towards New York. German Jews found a new home in Kleindeutschland (or “Little Germany”, today Alphabet City and the Lower East Side). German Jews, as a group, heavily strived to assimilate and “Americanize”. This meant giving up religious customs that were incompatible with American society, such as keeping Shabbat and kashrut or donning visibly distinguishable forms of dress. As primarily Reform and Conservative Jews, integrating into American society was less of a challenge than it would be for their Orthodox successors. As soon as they had the means to do so, German Jews left their immigrant neighborhood and moved uptown, notably to the Upper East Side.
Two major institutions sealed the German Jews’ new place on the Upper East Side. The first was Temple Emanu-El, the first Reform congregation of the United States, which still operates today at 1 East 65th Street. There, they merged American customs and religious tradition by departing from an all-Hebrew service, integrating first German, then English, into their services. Though a common practice today, this actually represented a major departure at its time, and would influence how congregations and communities practiced nationwide. The second major Jewish institution on the Upper East Side was Mount Sinai Hospital. Founded in 1852, the then-named “Jews’ Hospital” was founded to accommodate the increasing Jewish population in the area. The medical staff was also primarily Jewish to compensate for limited employment opportunities at other hospitals. Today, though the hospital no longer seeks to employ or serve primarily Jewish doctors and patients, Mount Sinai played an instrumental role in securing a German Jewish place on the Upper East Side. Today, the Upper East Side boasts a Jewish population of approximately 70,000, with firm roots in that German-American Jewish history.
The third wave of Jewish immigration was Eastern European – the focus of the Museum at Eldridge Street! In Eastern Europe, Jews bore the brunt of the blame for the 1881 assasination of Tsar Nicholas II, causing mass violence against them called pogroms. At the turn of the 20th century, Eastern European Jews immigrated to New York City en masse, with the Jewish population spiking from roughly 80,000 in 1880 to 1.5 million in 1920. The immigrants settled just south of their German predecessors had in previous decades, in the neighborhood that would become known as the Jewish Lower East Side. The neighborhood became the heart of immigrant Jewish life: Yiddish signs lined the streets, neighborhood garment factories employed mostly Jews, and synagogues such as Eldridge cemented religious communities.
Many Eastern European Jews sought to follow the model of their successful, well-assimilated German predecessors. Though both communities were Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, stark differences between the two were undeniable: German Jews were of a significantly higher social standing, and often even owned the factories in which Eastern European Jews worked. As soon as the Lower East Side community had the means to do so, they constructed the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the first grand synagogue built by Eastern European Jews. They emulated the German Jewish way: the architecture closely resembled that of the uptown Central Synagogue, and its establishment announced to the world both their social ascendency and an unmistakable, proud Jewish-American presence. Nevertheless, the synagogue retained many of the “Old World” customs that German Jews were quicker to give up: the Eldridge community kept gender-separated seating and placed the bimah in the center of the synagogue rather than in the front of the room, an emerging trend influenced by the placement of church pulpits.
This balance of tradition and assimilation is in many ways a microcosm of the destiny of Eastern European Jewry. Many Eastern European Jews followed the model set by German Jews and moved uptown, this time to the Upper West Side. By this time, the garment industry had begun to move from the Lower East Side to Midtown West, where it still exists (although fading) today. Jews were able to enjoy both a higher quality of life uptown, as well as an easy commute to work thanks to the newly inaugurated Broadway-Seventh Avenue subway line (1/2/3).
Not all Jews followed this assimilatory path, however. A large portion of these immigrants chose not to follow the Germans’ path to assimilation and retained the traditions and customs that were important to them, difficult though it may have been at times. Many of these Orthodox Jews eventually moved out of the Lower East Side and to the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Borough Park, Flatbush, Brownsville, Crown Heights, and Williamsburg. Despite heavy gentrification, many of these communities still remain today, with approximately a quarter of Brooklyn residents identifying as Jewish.
The final major wave of Jewish immigration in New York history was also Eastern European – this time, Jews fleeing the newly dissolved Soviet Union. Just like the generations that preceded them, they fled political unrest, economic chaos, and religious persecution. Russian Jews in particular found home in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Brighton Beach and Coney Island. Georgian Jewish refugees also established themselves in Flushing, Queens where they founded the Congregation of Georgian Jews, the only of its kind in the country to date.
Though many descendents of Jewish immigrants have moved out of the city to neighboring suburbs and across the country, New York City remains an undeniable capital of Jewish life and culture. From the Sephardi to the German, the early Eastern Europeans to the recent, each generation came to New York fleeing untenable situations and found new opportunities – though not without significant difficulty. Though today’s generations may not live in the neighborhoods their families originally lived in, we know that Jews remain firmly attached to their roots. So, does your family’s neighborhood in NYC match up with your Jewish heritage? Be sure to let us know!
Dalia Rubinstein is a Museum at Eldridge Street summer intern. She is a rising junior in Wesleyan University’s College of Social Studies.