Jews in Coney Island: A History

From the fashionable to the freak-show.

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Sodom by the sea, the Electric City, the Nickel Empire, the poor people's paradise…

Coney Island is a peninsula, formerly an island, in southernmost Brooklyn, New York City with a beach on the Atlantic Ocean. For hundreds of years, Coney Island has been a place of tremendous popular pleasure as well the site of inglorious land disputes. As early as 1800, a newspaper account shows the area being used for recreational bathing. Its first hotel opened in 1829. Centuries before, Canarsie Indian villagers used the island for catching its plentiful fish and collecting shells for wampum--traditional, sacred shell beads, later used as forms of currency. Wampum of a different kind motivated real estate developments and land grabs for the past 150 years, as member of other "tribes" enjoyed the beauty--both natural and manufactured--of Coney Island.  

famous cyclone coney island

The famous Cyclone Rollercoaster

 
 

Jews have played a notable part in the history of Coney Island's development since the late 19th century and up to the present.

Summer in the City

In the 1870s, Coney Island's newly-developing Manhattan Beach was a destination for wealthy, fashionable vacationers, among them affluent Jews. However, August Corbin, developer of the opulent Manhattan Beach Hotel, publicly declared in 1879 that he did not wish to welcome Jews ["Israelites"], claiming that their "uncouth manners" were distasteful to gentile patrons.

Even though laws did not exist to prohibit segregation such as this, a public brouhaha erupted. The exclusion of Jews was short-lived, but many Jews, like other ethnic groups, tended to congregate informally in certain sections of Coney Island.

Inspired by the national expositions of the late 1800s and their displayed wonders of technology, Coney Island by 1900 featured, alongside sea-bathing and raucous midway areas, three amusement parks: Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland. Their lavish rides, fantasy landscapes, and honky-tonk carnival atmosphere transformed the American amusement industry.

Life of Leisure

Samuel W. Gumpertz, Jewish entrepreneur and once performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, became the general manager of Dreamland in 1904. Gumpertz searched tirelessly for novelty entertainments during his 28 years as a Coney Island showman.

Lilliputia, or "Midget City" was one of his most popular projects. A year-round "city" of 300 midgets, it was a permanent experiment in daily life performed for an audience, with its own mock parliament, a Midget City Fire Department that responded hourly with roaring fire engines to a false alarm, and its own beach--complete with midget lifeguards. The era's fascination with "primitive tribes and savage peoples" embodied a popular yet condescending zeal for exotic peoples and human oddities in sensational circus "freak shows."

Many of Coney Island's artisans and businessmen who created the entertainment and rides were Jewish, including eastern European Jewish immigrant woodcarvers--some of whom acquired their skills through carving Torah arks in the old country. In the early 20th century, men like Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein became known as master craftsmen of Coney Island carousel horses.

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Ilana Abramovitch

Dr. Ilana Abramovitch was formerly the manager of curriculum at the Museum of Jewish Heritage--A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. She is a writer, ethnographer, educator and co-editor of Jews of Brooklyn (Brandeis University Press, 2002).