White Ethnic New York: Jews, Catholics, and the Shaping of Postwar Politics / Edition 1

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Historians of postwar American politics often identify race as a driving force in the dynamically shifting political culture. Joshua Zeitz instead places religion and ethnicity at the fore, arguing that ethnic conflict among Irish Catholics, Italian Catholics, and Jews in New York City had a decisive impact on the shape of liberal politics long before black-white racial identity politics entered the political lexicon.

Understanding ethnicity as an intersection of class, national origins, and religion, Zeitz demonstrates that the white ethnic populations of New York had significantly diverging views on authority and dissent, community and individuality, secularism and spirituality, and obligation and entitlement. New York Jews came from Eastern European traditions that valued dissent and encouraged political agitation; their Irish and Italian Catholic neighbors tended to value commitment to order, deference to authority, and allegiance to church and community. Zeitz argues that these distinctions ultimately helped fracture the liberal coalition of the Roosevelt era, as many Catholics bolted a Democratic Party increasingly focused on individual liberties, and many dissent-minded Jews moved on to the antiliberal New Left.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Valuable for students of ethnic politics.—Journal of American History

[A] fascinating book.—Catholic News Service

A richly textured analysis of ethnicity, religion, and class. . . . Essential reading for Catholic historians and for anyone interested in understanding late twentieth-century urbanization.—American Catholic Studies

An interesting and, at times, trenchant account of ethnic relations after the war.—The Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Engaging. . . . Brings to life what it meant to be either Jewish or Catholic in the 1940s and 1950s. . . . The prose is clear and the stories are interesting.—Brown Alumni Magazine—Alan Wolfe, Brown Alumni Magazine

An ambitious book. . . . This book joins the growing literature on whiteness studies, but emphasizes, unlike so many others, the primacy of religious difference in shaping ethnicity. That is a significant contribution.—The Journal of Religion

A fascinating account. . . . Supported by the rich material [Zeitz] has so ably presented. . . . The general reader will be fully rewarded for whatever effort it takes to read this book.—National Jewish Post and Opinion

From the Publisher
White Ethnic New York is a must read for all scholars of the history of post-World-War II American politics, law, and culture. - William E. Nelson, Edward Weinfeld Professor of Law, New York University."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807857984
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2007
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Joshua M. Zeitz is lecturer in history at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. He is author of Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern.

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Read an Excerpt

White Ethnic New York

Jews, Catholics, and the Shaping of Postwar Politics
By Joshua M. Zeitz

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2007 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-5798-4

Chapter One


Reflecting upon his childhood in the New York City suburb of Scarsdale in the 1950s, Joshua Koreznick recalled that "virtually everyone was Jewish." On Yom Kippur, Judaism's most sacred day, "the school was open, but it was a little ludicrous ... almost like playing a game, [pretending] that it was not a Jewish community."

Koreznick's mother, Emily, had grown up in a comparable environment -"a gilded ghetto on West End Avenue in Manhattan ... amongst so many Jews in a similar situation." Even after she left home to attend Vassar College, Emily found that "from a Jewish point of view, you were somewhat more segregated. I don't mean that we didn't make friends with non-Jews, but even living patterns tended to be that Jews bunked with roommates who were also Jews. Certainly the dating patterns were along those lines." The memories of both mother and son point to a high degree of continuity between generations.

Brian McDonald also recalled his formative years in the 1950s and 1960s in Pearl River, a bedroom community of New York, as parochial and insular. The son and grandson of New York City police officers, McDonald characterizedthe department he knew as a child as "a paramilitary organization, with overwhelming[ly] homogenous ethnicity and culture (read: Irish, Catholic).... For city cops living in Rockland County at this time, the brotherhood was intensified even further." Officers and their wives "carpooled and socialized together. They joined fraternal organizations like the Knights of Columbus ... [and] our families went on vacations together to the Police Camp in the Catskills."

McDonald's mother was a devout Catholic who remained intensely committed to her old neighborhood in the Bronx, the Grand Concourse, which was once a center of Irish American culture in New York City. She "tenaciously held on to her Bronxness" and, with her husband, worked to re-create for her son a childhood as ethnically and religiously seamless as her own. Mrs. McDonald's friendships "were with the wives of other city cops. Like their husbands, they kept to themselves. My mother belonged to the sister organization of the Knights of Columbus.... Most of these women had young, growing families, and accordingly, a great deal of time was spent in St. Margaret's School-related activities."

As the stories of Joshua Koreznick and Brian McDonald suggest, the erosion of tight-knit ethnic communities was not an overnight phenomenon but instead occurred gradually after World War II. By several key standards-residential concentration, schooling, economic and social relationships, and organizational affiliation-ethnicity had considerable staying power in New York well into the late 1960s. Even as they participated in the postwar housing and suburbanization booms, Italian, Irish, and Jewish New Yorkers continued to occupy separate spheres.

The story of this continuity is not uniform, however. Between the close of World War II and the early 1960s, Irish and Italian New Yorkers gradually constructed a more united cultural and social front, as historic divisions between these two predominantly Catholic groups lost their saliency. Despite the dual influences of suburbanization and economic prosperity, Catholic New York-often a world in which parish and neighborhood, church and society, were synonymous-continued to thrive.

New York Jews never constructed parallel institutions on the same order as their Catholic neighbors. But they continued to segregate themselves residentially and socially, and they erected an enormous philanthropic network that set much of the tenor of Jewish identity in the postwar period.

The story of white ethnic New York in the 1940s and 1950s is thus one of gradual change and relative continuity, not sudden disruption. Even as commentators marveled at the swift erosion of white ethnicity, the powerful combination of religion, national origins, and class continued to provide New Yorkers with a way of ordering and understanding their world.

Calculating the number of white ethnics (Jews, Italians, and Irish) living in New York at any given time is an extraordinarily complicated task. Because the U.S. Census Bureau has traditionally excluded questions regarding religion from its decennial surveys, no government statistics exist detailing the number of Jews living in the city or the proportion of Catholics among those counted as Irish or Italian. Moreover, until 1980 the census kept records only on the foreign born and "persons of foreign stock," whom it defined as children with one or two immigrant parents. This policy effectively excluded the third generation, and all successive generations, from having its ethnicity recorded in census tabulations. Since 1980 the census has reported the number of persons claiming foreign ancestry, which generally yields a higher number of "ethnic" respondents but also introduces a high degree of subjectivity into the process.

Nevertheless, using what numbers are available, it is possible to piece together enough data to arrive at a broad demographic picture. Table 1 reveals the steady erosion of New York's white ethnic population over a period of 40 years, but it also reflects the sustained vitality of those same communities. In 1940 census reports identified some 3.3 million of these white ethnics in New York City proper; thirty years later, that number had dipped to about 2.7 million. This represents a sizeable drop, but in 1970 white ethnics still accounted for over one-third of the city's population and 45 percent of its white population. In reality, they probably accounted for far more, since the census numbers include only first- and second-generation Italian and Irish Americans and ignore hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers from the third and successive generations.

Polling data from around 1960 provide a better measure of New York's population makeup. Roughly 10 percent of city residents identified themselves as Irish and 17 percent as Italian. This translates to 780,000 Irish and 1.3 million Italian New Yorkers and boosts the aggregate number of white ethnics (Jews, Italians, and Irish) living in New York to almost 4.2 million -54 percent of the total population and 63 percent of the white population. Other white New Yorkers included German Catholics, who comprised roughly 10 percent of the city's population, but who forged less cohesive ethnic and religious bonds than the city's Irish and Italian Catholics, and white Protestants, who accounted for no more than 5 percent of New Yorkers.

On the whole, then, it seems that the city's Irish and Italian populations probably diminished at a far slower rate than Table 1 suggests. By 1970 white ethnics may still have numbered as many as 3.1 million. These higher totals square with returns from the 1980 census (Table 1), which asked respondents to identify their ethnic origins and, as a result, found considerably more "Irish" and "Italian" New Yorkers than in 1970.

These numbers are not inconsiderable. They tell a complicated story of diffusion, but also one of continuity. Another way to consider the persistence of ethnicity is to chart regional population shifts over the fifty years between 1930 and 1980. In 1930 over 1.8 million Jews (26 percent of the city's total population) lived in the five boroughs or counties comprising New York City. Each borough reflected its own unique ethnic composition, with Jews accounting for 46.2 percent of the population in the Bronx, 33.3 percent in Brooklyn, and 16 percent in Manhattan, but only 8.1 percent in Queens and 2.4 percent in Staten Island. No suburban population figures exist for 1930 because Jewish agencies did not consider it necessary to count the handful of Jews then living in neighboring Westchester County or on Long Island (Nassau and Suffolk Counties).

By 1957 New York City's Jewish population had climbed to over 2.1 million and constituted a slightly higher proportion of the city's total (27.1 percent) than it had on the eve of World War II. But that year suburban Jews in Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties accounted for 18 percent of metropolitan New York's Jewish population. Their proportion climbed to 30 percent in 1970 and 33 percent in 1980. Since New York City's Jewish population kept pace in the 1950s and declined by only 13 percent in the 1960s, most of this regional population shift owed to higher rates of growth in the suburbs rather than flight from the city. If New York Jews were not moving en masse to Long Island, neither were they racing across the George Washington Bridge to begin new lives in New Jersey. The proportion of Jews within the greater metropolitan area living in New Jersey held steady, inching up from 11 percent in 1937 to 13 percent in 1968.

Altogether, between 1957 and 1980, the city lost an aggregate of over 980,000 Jews, but only 28 percent of this loss occurred between 1957 and 1970. The most dramatic phase of New York Jewry's flight from the city occurred during the 1970s, when residents left for the suburbs, moved to Sunbelt states such as Florida and California, or, in the case of many older persons, passed away. These figures correspond to a larger study showing that celebrated, historic shifts in American Jewish demography-from city to suburb, from Snowbelt to Sunbelt-occurred more gradually than is sometimes assumed. They also challenge the idea that suburbanization was solely the product of "white flight," inspired by a fear of crime and neighborhood integration. Urban Jews maintained substantial numbers and viable communities even as suburban Jewish communities grew at a quicker rate.

Corresponding data for the Italian community tell much the same story. In 1930 only 10 percent of metropolitan New York's first- and second-generation Italian Americans lived in the suburbs. By 1960 that figure jumped to almost 24 percent. It is more difficult to make a similar assessment of Irish population distribution, since a far greater share of Irish Americans qualified as neither first nor second generation (their grandparents and great-grandparents had been arriving in New York since the 1840s) and therefore eluded the census. But, on balance, Jewish and Italian population patterns demonstrate as much continuity as change.

For the considerable number of Italian, Irish, and Jewish New Yorkers who remained in the city-and, to a somewhat lesser degree, for their suburban counterparts-postwar mobility did not necessarily initiate the immediate erosion of their ethnic communities.

In 1930 roughly three-quarters of all Jews in New York City lived in neighborhoods with populations that were at least 40 percent Jewish. Availing themselves of a massive boom in the construction of apartment buildings and two-family houses, particularly in the outer boroughs (Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens), Jews followed the new subway lines to neighborhoods that were actually more ethnically segregated than the places of first settlement commonly portrayed in immigrant literature and film.

This trend toward residential segregation along ethnic lines yielded a sharp rise in the general Jewish index of dissimilarity-measuring Jews against the residual population-from 0.38 in 1920 to 0.58 in 1930. Residential patterns held relatively steady in the Depression years, with the Jewish dissimilarity index dropping to 0.56 in 1940, a relative decline of only 3 percent. Twenty years later, in 1960, the index stood at 0.48, representing a larger (14 percent) though not drastic decrease in Jewish residential concentration. In other words, Jewish residential concentration showed remarkable staying power, even as popular and scholarly writers were announcing the end of ethnicity.

More surprising, in 1960 the Jewish index of dissimilarity for the greater New York metropolitan area was actually 8 percent higher than the corresponding figure for New York City alone. In effect, Jews in the suburbs seem to have clustered together even more than the millions of Jews who still lived in the city proper.

These broader statistical trends were consistent with Jewish neighborhood patterns between 1940 and 1957. At the start of the Second World War, 55.6 percent of all Jews in New York City were still concentrated in fifteen neighborhoods that were at least 40 percent Jewish in population. Almost two decades later, the total number of such neighborhoods held steady but comprised 57.6 percent of the city's Jews-a slight increase. Furthermore, in the ten years following World War II, the proportion of New York Jews residing in neighborhoods with populations that were at least 55 percent Jewish increased by one-third. Altogether, this meant that more than one of every four New York Jews lived in a neighborhood that was over half Jewish in composition. These figures may even underestimate the level of segregation, as residents of larger neighborhoods tended to cluster in smaller areas by ethnicity.

This pattern of ethnic segregation can be seen in the lives of New Yorkers such as Anita and Ruth Rogers. Born in 1942, Anita spent the first decade of her life in Brooklyn, where she lived with her parents and grandparents in a two-family house-a typical arrangement in New York's many prewar, ethnic neighborhoods. Her friends, she recalled, "were mostly Jewish, but mixed.... On the block there were some other minorities. There was one Italian family." In 1953 the Rogers clan relocated to the suburban-like community of Far Rockaway in Queens, which Anita described as "all Jewish ... [or] nearly all Jewish."

Born in 1955, Ruth Rogers was a full thirteen years younger than her sister Anita. Her entire childhood was spent in Far Rockaway, a neighborhood she supposed was "about 90 percent Jewish ... a little ghetto." Though an overestimation-she was o by about half-Ruth's guess is nevertheless an indication of how she perceived her suburban childhood. Her upbringing was not entirely insular. "We were not separated from other people," she explained. "The neighborhoods abutted each other, so I was not only amongst Jews all the time." But, like Anita, she acknowledged that her visible world bore a distinctly Jewish imprint.

The story of the Rogers family in many ways typifies the postwar demography of metropolitan New York's Jewish and Catholic communities. In New York City proper, as well as in the surrounding suburbs, Italian, Irish, and Jewish families availed themselves of new housing opportunities without fundamentally compromising the residential and social self-segregation that had sustained ethnic neighborhoods in the first half of the century.

"I spoke not a word of English when I started school," remembered Jerry Della Femina, an advertising executive in Manhattan. "But then why should I have? Italian was spoken at home. I lived in a claustrophobically Italian neighborhood, everyone I knew spoke only Italian, so it was natural that I didn't know English." Della Femina grew up in Brooklyn-not in the 1920s, but in the 1940s and 1950s.

Like their Jewish neighbors, New York's Italians and Irish continued to segregate themselves residentially throughout the first decades of the postwar period. Data from the 1960 census indicate that the general citywide dissimilarity index for the Irish was 0.37, and for Italians it was 0.39.

Table 2 demonstrates the degree of segregation between Italian, Irish, Jewish, black, and Puerto Rican New Yorkers throughout the entire consolidated census area comprising northeast New Jersey and metropolitan New York City, and in metropolitan New York City alone. Clearly, race and ethnicity were not equally instrumental in determining the character of New York's postwar neighborhoods: African Americans and Puerto Ricans experienced more profound segregation from the city's white residents than the Irish, Italians, and Jews experienced from one another.

Still, certain trends among the city's white ethnic population stand out. The Irish and Italians were more estranged from their Jewish neighbors than from each other (0.480). Furthermore, the data in Table 2 is consistent with a separate sociological study estimating that as late as 1980, 45 percent of Italian New Yorkers lived in identifiably "ethnic neighborhoods," while 18 percent of Italian suburbanites lived in such neighborhoods. These statistical analyses attest to the persistence of residential separation, but they cannot account for the tendency of New York's white ethnics to separate themselves further within mixed neighborhoods.

The Catholic Church played a key role in helping Irish and Italian New Yorkers envision their surroundings in parochial terms. Canon law held that a parish was defined by geographical boundaries. Its parameters were immutable. The strong bond many Irish and Italian New Yorkers felt with their local parishes encouraged them to think of their neighborhoods as distinctly, even exclusively, Catholic.


Excerpted from White Ethnic New York by Joshua M. Zeitz Copyright © 2007 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1 Communities......................11
2 Dissent..........................39
3 Authority........................61
4 Fascism..........................89
5 Communism........................114
6 Race.............................141
7 Reaction.........................171
8 Upheaval.........................196
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