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Book Review: Jewish New York

Jonathan Margolis enjoys two books about US Jews

    A group of Chasidim and a solitary policemen watch the New York marathon
    A group of Chasidim and a solitary policemen watch the New York marathon (Photo: TOM MIHALEK/AFP/Getty Images)

    After years of visiting, and briefly living, in New York, last month I finally found a deli that isn’t just a restaurant but somewhere, as in the UK, you can buy Jewish nosh to take away. But when, in Shelsky’s of Brooklyn, I saw spicy shrimp roll and lobster salad alongside the chopped liver, I realised Jewish New York is a different kettle of gefilte fish from London.

    Jewish New York ( Deborah Dash Moore, NYUP, £24.99) is a substantial and enlightening social history, taking us from the first Jews arriving from the Dutch colonies in 1654 to the city that became home to 1.1 million Jews by the First World War, to the return of suburbanised Jews in recent years — as financiers and creatives — to the very Lower East Side their grandparents struggled to leave.

    It tells how Jews released from the constraints of shtetls and ghettoes were keen to secularise (hence Shelsky’s treif options) and how, with the arrival of a new wave of religious Jews from the former Soviet Union, the overall balance swung back a little towards the frum.

    The 17th-century New York — well, New Amsterdam — Jews, such as Jacob Barsimon, Solomon Pietersen and Asser and Miriam Levy, should by rights be a kind of alternative Pilgrim Fathers, but they are largely forgotten. And they faced a hostile reception from the head of the Dutch West India Company, Peter Stuyvesant, effectively the growing city’s mayor, whose views on diversity extended to describing the Jews as “a deceitful race… obstinate and immovable, and lacking business integrity.”

    The book is a galaxy of things I didn’t know. Such as that soda water, marketed as “the workers’ Champagne”, was a 90-per-cent Jewish business, with over 100 Jewish soda — or seltzer — companies by a century ago. Or that a radio show, The Rise of the Goldbergs, started in 1929 and was one of the longest running radio series of all time. It became a TV show after the Second World War.

    By the mid-19th-century — with the vile Stuyvesant dead 200 years — the Jews were doing very nicely, thank you, in New York, with finance companies and banks proliferating.

    In Cotton Capitalists, (NYUP £31)  by a professor of Jewish Studies in New Orleans (who knew?), we learn that those Jewish finance businesses played a key role in rebuilding the economy of the southern states after the Civil War.

    Cotton was the oil of its day, but the antebellum south was still primitive, unaccustomed to business that did not involve owning the employees as chattels and unable to get access to credit. Enter a small number of Jewish immigrants who saw an opportunity in the Southlands few Yankee entrepreneurs spotted.

    Michael R Cohen’s scholarly, well-written book, reveals how the incomers’ familial and, so to speak, tribal links with northern financiers and others across the world, modernised business in the South — indeed, that these few hundred Jews played a key role in building the cotton economy of the South towards its crescendo in the 19th and 20th centuries.

    It is a story of capitalism at its best, in the very states, Louisiana and Mississippi, which, decades before, had seen it at its worst.

    Furthermore, while there was grumbling and occasional violent incidents against Jewish merchants in the South, by and large, opposition to them was not exceptional by the standards of the day.


    Jonathan Margolis writes for the Financial Times


Sue Margolis

Jonathan Margolis

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Sue Margolis