American Jews–Double Depression
A Review of Beth S. Wenger’s New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise
Beth S. Wenger is the Associate Professor of History and Director of the Jewish studies program at the University of Penn. She has won the Salo Baron Prize for New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise. She received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 1992. She currently teaches Jewish History and other social studies classes at Yale.
BY ZACH LEE
Marked by stereotypes and burdened by anti-Semitism, Jewish immigrants and their children suffered tremendously during America’s Great Depression. American Jews were met with an unprecedented economic calamity and an even greater threat from Nazism. Motivated by the stirring accounts of Jews living in New York City, a city populated by more than half of the country’s Jews, Beth S. Wenger writes New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise to explain the unique sufferings and luxuries of this ethnic minority during this time. Many questioned their financial and future security in the land of opportunities. Jews, a long-time ethnic minority, experienced a golden age prior to the Great Depression, having spread their influence throughout banking. The Great Depression was the antithesis to this golden age, turning once wealthy Jews into penniless mendicants. Colleges and higher-level educational institutions raised their requirements and often discriminated against immigrants and ethnic minorities. Numerous professions naturally accepted less workers, but also incorporated anti-Semitism into their choice of employees. From their unique struggles and societal transformation, “the apprehensiveness of American Jews has become one of the most important influences in the social life of our time.”1
December, 1930—the Bank of the United States, a commercial New York bank prominent to the dominant Jewish community, failed. Jewish Banks held one-fifth of the savings of the Jewish population in New York. Along with the 1929 Wall Street stock market crash, the world of security Jewish children were raised in suddenly fell to pieces. In this first chapter, Wenger introduces the Jewish community, especially that of New York City--home to more than half of America’s Jews at the time--in the perception of the masses. Many labeled Jews as “a shrewd people particularly given to commerce and banking” and regarded them as a clannish people.2 Marked by communal practices and specializing in the banking industry, these stereotypes may not have been totally baseless. Wenger argues that Jewish society in the decades before the Depression possessed an “internal occupational scale” signified by various white-collar laborers and clerical workers.3 However, despite the devastating effects of the Depression, Jews did not experience utter destitution. Very rarely did Jewish families starve or lose their homes. In the next chapter, Wenger provides statistics and evidence from the level of the common family during the Depression. Wenger asserts that most Jewish families “consisted of immigrant parents and American-born children.”4 The most desperate families had their children work in small part-time jobs after school. American Jews placed particularly high value in education. However, many families survived this time with relative ease, despite poverty and lower standards of living. The tightly bound Jewish community along with its anchoring families provided the greatest support for growing children in desperate times.
Jewish children were faced with a “crossroads between the vibrant immigrant world of their parents” and the new, unstable world of the Great Depression.5 In this next chapter, Wenger discusses the second generation of American-born Jewish children and their reactions to the economic crisis. Many from the new generation grew up in a secure world with a planned future, however, the Great Depression starkly contrasted from the predictability of their previous lives. The new challenges the Great Depression brought impacted the children even harder than other ethnicities or minorities. Employment discrimination, higher university entrance requirements, anti-Semitism in America and fears of fascism in Germany were only some of their problems. Children mainly attended school and worked for their families’ sakes, as their combined income usually provided enough food, clothing, shelter, and other basic needs. Marriages became less commonplace and second-generation families were not created until much later in their lives. As a result, the national birthrate declined dramatically. Ultimately, as the children of immigrant families matured, they began to readjust their goals and pursue more realistic and adapted ones. In the next chapter, Wenger introduces the environment of American Jews during the Depression. Situated in New York City, Jews usually saw the bleak gray of concrete—ethnic communities divided the New York area into neighborhoods, which “provided the fabric of community for Jews in the Great Depression.”6 Neighborhoods defined the social interactions of Jews and other immigrants, along with their primary experiences during the Great Depression. Neighborhoods were often associated with one’s name and status. More affluent families would live in apartments in better-off neighborhoods, and the less fortunate in less so ones. Location of a family often changed in accordance to income and its fluctuations. Clustering groups of immigrants in these neighborhoods promoted important social interactions that nurtured the Jewish mentality of helping neighbors out in times of need and desperation. Through this, there seemed to be hope in the most hopeless times. Jewish life, through newfound bonds and aspirations, became restructured from an immigrant group to a prominent community through the Depression.
This next chapter transitions from Wenger’s assertions on Jewish social life and relations to politics and their effects on Jewish society. Despite the “resurgence of radical movements, the progress of labor unions,” and the new Jewish loyalty to the Democratic Party, neighborhood politics retained the most immediate effects and benefits to the Jewish community.7 Jewish neighbors rallied together and protested high living costs and evictions. Jewish communities were tied socially and politically, seeking common interests together. Although protest was not uncommon before, the Great Depression brought forth catastrophic fiscal insecurity and problems which led to the increase of rallies, boycotts, activism, and protest. The New Deal contributed to the restructuring of Jewish society; neighborhood protests escalated from local to state levels. Furthermore, Jews also attained, indirectly, influence over the welfare state and New Deal policies. As a result, anti-Semitism fed off this notion, intensifying stereotypes and racist aggravations against Jews. Wenger goes on to cover philanthropy during the Depression, in correlation to Jewish reactions to the New Deal and neighborhood politics. Jewish institutions and social security services confronted the formidable task of handling masses of immigrants during the economic crisis. The emergence of the New Deal spurred the Jewish philanthropy state to “redefine its purpose” in order to continue tending to the people.8 Jewish sentiments of “Jews taking care of each other” erupted at this time, sparking conflict between federal relief and private relief. Jewish society slowly transformed from a strictly ethnic community into an integrated, American community. Government relief acted as the stimuli in challenging long-standing Jewish ideals and conforming Jewish society into American society.
American Jews were not alone in their financial insecurity; however, Jews also faced a spiritual depression during this period. Wenger describes the Great Depression as not only a time of instability and change but also one as a “period of stagnation and religious malaise.”9 Synagogues were met with exceeding mortgage debts and a lack of participants. Because of the harsh financial times everyone was going through, many did not care for membership rates and fees for attending the synagogue. In hopes of reviving Judaism, leaders of the faith began reforming the congregation. After a massive synagogue expansion during the 1920’s, the Great Depression, like the financial crisis, posed the polar opposite result of what was expected. An immense spread of Judaism and congregations contrasted the outcome of lower membership and staggering debts. Many attempted reform in fees, lessening the cost of membership and other forms of participation. Although many continued celebrating prominent events like Bar Mitzvah and marriages, they ceased to regularly attend the synagogue. Despite their efforts towards raising funds and membership, the Great Depression and its deep financial woes certainly toppled the once synagogue-based communal Jewish society. In more ways than one, American Jews were anxious of their future. Their prior success in earlier decades placed large hopes in the hearts of Jewish children. The Great Depression represented not only fiscal destabilization but also spiritual decline. Wenger affirms that although the “American Dream” seemed to fade away during the Depression, the “creative ferment of Depression-era Jewry provided an enduring structure” for future generations and future Jewish society.10 She argues that the Great Depression did not regress the society of American Jews, but transmuted it to a modern and accustomed American ethnic community. The Great Depression stimulated change in Jewish society. Wenger asserts that the “Great Depression punctuated the maturation” of the first mass Jewish generation in America and helped conform their ethnically exclusive community into an integrated American society.11 Wenger assumes that the Jews of New York City underwent a time of social reform and societal renewal which overshadows their loss of financial security and spiritual depression. American Jews eventually regained their financial status and secularization of Jewish society contributed in acculturation of their communal society to American capitalistic society. As a teacher in Jewish studies, Wenger establishes a large array of information focusing on Jewish prevail over hardships during the Depression, like anti-Semitism which appears repeatedly throughout her work.
Shelly Tenenbaum, a critic of Wenger’s work, argues that Wenger “highlights socio-economic class as a primary factor” that defined their experience through the Depression.12 Tenenbaum notes that Wenger correlates Jews and their occupations with various neighborhoods in New York City. She continues to Wenger’s argument that the Depression affects families as the basic unit, not individuals. Despite family cooperation, domestic violence, family conflicts, and unemployment often scarred Jewish households. Jewish children remained in school while jobs were scarce, which contributed to their eventual success; white-collar labor contributed to their financial restoration during World War II. During times of hardship, most Jews eventually relied on the government for relief and settling disputes over prices and evictions. Jewish philanthropic organizations became overshadowed by the New Deal and many occupations and companies were at stake. Tenenbaum concludes her review, stating that Jews incorporated elements of their society along with the New Deal, forming a synthesized American society. Another critic, Daniel Soyer, highlights Wenger’s coverage of the topic of immigration and its effects on Jewish philanthropic organizations. The Depression played a central role in transforming Jewish society from the 1920’s into a post-WWII Americanized society. Economic setbacks caused Jewish children to reevaluate their goals in higher-level education and choice of profession. However, compared to other ethnicities and minorities, Jews fared better during the Depression because of their adapting society and calls for reform during times of dissatisfaction. Contrasting Tenenbaum, Soyer asserts that Wenger “explores… resposes to hard times as individuals,” rather than families or larger units of population.13 The Great Depression pressed economic hardships upon the Jewish society, which fueled their societal change. Wenger’s work proves to be extremely informative; statistics, pictures, and confessions are present in order to engage the reader and supply him or her with factual knowledge. The book is coherent and flows chronologically; it seems to follow a cause and effect style of presenting data. However, Wenger’s work deals with, exclusively, Jewry and has little to no correlation to other ethnic groups or minorities.
According to Wenger, America in the 1930’s was a time of great economic stress; however, American Jews, especially the ones in New York City, fared better than other ethnicities or minorities. Most children stayed in school and college, promoting quick recovery from their economic downfall. Various white-collar occupations held by many Jews also contributed to their economic recovery during WWII. Though they were poor, the combined income in a Jewish family was enough for food, shelter, and various basic needs. In the early years of the Depression, Jews did not need relief and many did not sign up for it. When income declined, they simply moved to a smaller apartment in a different neighborhood and vice versa. Neighborhood politics proved to reign over their tightly bound ethnic community; they had the most direct effect on New York Jews. Neighbors rallied together and protested inflated prices and rent costs; indirectly, Jews achieved great influence in the New Deal. As a result, anti-Semitism and racism increased as well, feeding Jewish fears of fascism and discrimination, shared with other ethnic minorities as well. Eventually, as Jewish philanthropic institutions became overshadowed by federal relief agencies, Jewish society adapted into an Americanized society, relying on the government for relief and reform. Apart from rallying together and a sense of unity within their communal society, spirituality through Judaism witnessed a drastic decline. Economic hardships discouraged many Jews to stop attending the synagogue regularly, although they still partook in major Jewish events. The Jews of New York wanted to “synthesize Jewish and American values” and succeeded in creating a new hybrid society retaining valued Jewish traditions.14
To the New York Jews, the Great Depression proved to be a watershed for financial aspirations and rising spirituality. However, for the culture of Jewish society, the “Great Depression was not a watershed,” but a period of societal evolution, assimilating American values with Jewish values.15 Living in a world of relative security, Jewish immigrants predicted a safe future in both finances and education. The Great Depression had the opposite effect; fiscal insecurity caused young Jews to reassess their goals and put off marriage for later. Times of religious success were also met with a decline of membership because of unwanted fees during times of economic depression. The notion of Jews “helping other Jews” quickly became negated in the face of federal relief. Previously, Jewish society was seen as an exclusive and shrewd crowd. Their communal interactions while being secluded from outside society stirred up the numerous stereotypes of a “clannish” people. The prominent Judaic religion also met a decline during the Depression, and hints of secularization contributed to the assimilation of Jewish culture and American culture. The Depression forever changed Jewish society. The children of Jewish immigrants were brought up in a better world than most; most had access to education and were never truly penniless. Food and shelter remained a daily luxury. Luckily, young Jews found refuge in colleges and schools in a world lacking jobs. The New Deal brought forth new advantages for Jews, even their vast influence over it, causing anti-Semitic sentiments. The stereotypes, institutions, and societal behavior evoked by the Great Depression remain impressed upon Jewish society in America today.
All in all, the adaptations Jewish society underwent during the Great Depression was associated with American society. From their hardships, Jewry was redefined into modern Jewish communities. Unlike other minorities or ethnicities, Jews suffered unique toils during the Great Depression. Rising fears of fascism, increasing amounts of anti-Semitism, stereotypes, fear of losing gained wealth all represent the horrors of the Great Depression to Jews. However, economically, Jews fared much better than others. They never starved nor did they have to migrate across the land to find new jobs. Furthermore, increased communal interactions between families and neighborhoods “eased both the generational transition and the economic hardships of the Great Depression.”16 Ultimately, Jews during the Great Depression confronted sharply different fears and hardships; in contrast, they had a closer community than others, and often rallied together to reform. Adaptations in their communal society, everything from protests to continuing education, contributed in allowing Jews to survive the harsh Depression and recover both economically and spiritually.
1: Wenger, Beth S. New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1999. 1.
Zach Lee is currently a junior at Irvine High School. He runs on the Varsity Cross Country team and the Varsity Track (long distance) team. He loves watching anime, playing video games, sleeping, listening to heavy metal, thrash metal, and death metal, running, and reading light novels.
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