cover image New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise

New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise

Beth S. Wenger. Yale University Press, $50 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-300-06265-6

In the 1930s, the two million Jews living in New York City represented the largest ethnic group in the city. Jewish immigrants had established themselves as successful professionals and entrepreneurs during the prosperous '20s, but with the crash of 1929 and the ensuing years of the Great Depression, they were faced with more than just economic crisis. Wenger, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Pennsylvania, offers an informative history in which the Depression became the catalyst that transformed the Jewish immigrant into the American Jew. She puts a positive, though not altogether convincing or reassuring, spin on a process of acculturation through which ""New York Jews ensured the persistence of Jewish identity and community by tailoring Jewish ethnicity to American norms."" Challenged by rising anti-Semitism, employment discrimination and college quotas, New York Jews drew upon a tradition of private philanthropy and communal responsibility to establish ""informal networks for economic assistance and personal support."" In the New Deal era, the Jews of New York found that public welfare and social legislation were at one with this tradition, and forged a lasting bond with the Democratic Party. Wenger provides valuable detail on the history of philanthropy, social services and political activism in the Jewish community, though there is less than one would like on the personal and social lives of these first- and second-generation immigrants. But readers interested in the history of Jews in New York will appreciate the author's thorough treatment of a decade of transition. Photos. (Dec.)