American Jewry, 1945-1980

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Reprinted from A History of the Jews in America (Knopf).

The Jews were a shrinking community. Statistics at first obscured the fact. By 1976, after all, their numbers in the United States were calculated at 5,870,000, an increase of 40 percent over the 4,240,000 listed in the American Jewish Yearbook in 1925. Yet, in those same years, the American population at large increased by almost two-­thirds. The ratio of Jews had declined, as a result, from 3.7 to 2.9 percent of the American people. 

Their socioeconomic profile was a factor in this diminution. It had improved. By the late twentieth cen­tury, Jewish median income exceeded that of non‑Jews of almost every ethnic and religious background. Advances crossed gender lines. More Jewish women were employed in remunerative positions than were non‑Jewish women. They were better educated. Indeed, alone among the nation's religio‑ethnic communities, Jewish women were attend­ing college in the same numbers as Jewish men.

It was a demographic rule of thumb, then: educated, middle‑class people traditionally pro­duced smaller numbers of children, and Jewish families tended to be distinctly smaller than those of non‑Jews. In the Depression and war years, second‑generation Jewish couples had rarely produced more than two offspring. Now, from the 1950s through the 1970s, the average rate among third‑generation Jews dropped to 1.7, again less than that of any other religious or ethnic group.

jews of los angelesAmerican Jews continued also to be relentlessly urban. By mid-century, they made up 18 percent of all American city‑dwellers. In 1957, the census found that 96 percent of all Jews lived in cities or city suburbs; of these, 87 percent lived in cities of 250,000 or more. For the population at large, the latter ratio was 33 percent. Small‑town Jews may have been far better integrated with their Gentile neighbors than were their big‑city kinsmen, but they were also a disappearing phe­nomenon. In smaller communities, Jews preferred their children to have access to a wider pool of Jewish spouses. Their children agreed. Few of those who attended college elsewhere displayed much interest in returning to the old homestead.

Between the larger urban centers themselves, for that matter, the shift of Jewish population was be­coming significant. In 1957, the 2,114,000 Jews of Greater New York represented 40 percent of all Jews in the nation. In 1976, numbering 1,998,000, the proportion dropped to 30 percent. Altogether, Jews were sharing in the gradual postwar shift of the American population southwestward. A 1979 survey revealed that some 600,000 Jews already lived in the Midwest. More significantly, over 1,000,000 Jews, 18 percent of American Jewry, lived west of the Mississippi.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.