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.

California alone encompassed 700,000 of them, San Francisco was the veteran Jewish settlement, of course, and remained a bastion of German Jewry well into the twentieth century. Yet even before World War I, East Europeans had begun arriving there in modest numbers. By World War II they outnumbered the Central Europeans. By the 1980s they constituted three-quarters of the Bay Area’s Jewish population of approximately 95,000.

Their presence in Los Angeles was far more vivid. Like the city itself, the Jewish settlement in Los Angeles developed much later than that in San Francisco. As recently of 1900, Los Angeles’s 2,500 Central European Jews supported only two synagogues, a small collection of fraternal and philanthropic activities, and a single downtown social club, the Concords (strictly German). Then, between 1900 and 1920, the Jewish population surged to 30,000, and the great majority of these were East Europeans.

Some came for business opportunities, some for the mild climate. In any case, they never stopped. Even the Depression did not slow their arrival. As in Miami Beach, they came in proportions almost twice those of non-Jews, and the decades of their greatest expansion still lay ahead. In the burgeoning westward migration after World War II, the rate for Jewish newcomers again surpassed that of the population at large. Thus, even as Greater Los Angeles itself had become America’s second largest metropolis by 1980, with a population of 6,000,000, so the 600,000 Jews of Los Angeles constituted 10 percent of that population and 12 percent of American Jewry altogether. More Jews lived in Los Angeles than in Philadelphia or Chicago—or Tel Aviv. Indeed, except for New York, Los Angeles Jewry was the largest urban community in the world.

It was a comfortable enclave. As elsewhere in the United States, the Jews of postwar Los Angles made their most spectacular fortunes in property development. S. Mark Taper, an English Jew with experience in London home construction, arrived in Los Angles in 1939 to lay the basis for one of California’s great real estate empires. Louis Boyer similarly became one of the state’s largest home developers, putting up 50,000 units by the mid-1960s.

At one point in the late 1960s, Jew comprised perhaps 40 percent of southern California’s homebuilders and at least half of the builders of shopping centers. Other Jewish entrepreneurs provided their building materials. David Familian’s pipe and supply company was the city’s largest. Reuben and Lester Finkelstein built their grandfather’s scrap business into the vastly successful Southwest Steel Rolling Mills, the city’s second largest. Harvey Aluminum Inc., founded in 1934 as a small machine tool company, became southern California’s leading producer of aluminum, titanium, and special alloys.

Jewish builders not infrequently began investing their savings in banks and savings and loan associations, until Jewish builders-cum-financiers surpassed even the older film magnates as the city’s economic heavyweights. All the while, too, Jews continued to play their traditional role as producers of consumer goods. As in the East, southern California’s clothing industry was largely Jewish, as were liquor and tobacco, and much of the wholesale food trade.

From its earliest days, southern California was a sanctuary for escapists of all varieties. Jews, too, often relished their new freedom from the communal pressures of Eastern and Midwestern cities. By the 1980s, less than half of them belonged to congregations, a propor­tion much lower than the national average. The intermarriage rate in southern California was estimated at 40 percent. Yet organized Jewish life in the area was by no means skeletal. Over 100 syna­gogues functioned in Greater Los Angeles. Shortly after the war, also, the Hebrew Union College and Jewish Theological Seminary estab­lished branches there. In the neighboring Santa Susanna Valley, a large Jewish retreat for young adults, the Brandeis Camp Institute, offered a mixture of Israeli music and Jewish pop culture. A Jewish Federation‑Community Council grew respectably over the years, administering a wide variety of communal services through profession­ally staffed neighborhood branches.

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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.