Jews in the Suburbs

After World War II, American Jews left the cities for the burgeoning suburbs.

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Reprinted with permission from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press). 

The most important aspect of the postwar mobility of America's Jews was their relocation to the suburbs and their movement into the middle class. While mirroring national currents, these demographic trends were more intense among Jews. Historian Arthur Hertzberg estimated that, in the two decades between 1945 and 1965, one out of every three Jews left the big cities for the suburbs, a rate higher than that of other Americans. Jews tended to cluster together in suburbia, but some brave pioneers moved into suburbs that contained few if any Jews. 

One of the first analyses of the impact of suburbanization on Jews was Albert I. Gordon's 1959 book Jews in Suburbia, which concerned Newton, Mass. Gordon had a Ph.D. degree in anthropology from the University of Minnesota. More impor­tant, he was the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Newton, an exclusive suburb of Boston, which had a large and growing Jewish population by 1959. The nickname of Newton was "the garden city." Old-timers claimed this was because of its many parks and flower beds. Others claimed it was because there was a Rosenbloom on every corner.

Why They Moved

There were many reasons for the explosive growth of suburbia after 1945. They included the increased use of automobiles, postwar prosperity, the pent-up demand for housing created by the depression and the war, the desire of veterans to resume a normal family life after the dislocations of wartime, the baby boom of the late 1940s and 1950s, government programs that encouraged the building and purchase of houses by veterans, and the postwar cult of domesticity that defined women's highest calling as mother and wife. The ability to deduct local property taxes and interest payments on mortgages from one's income in computing federal income taxes made suburban homes more affordable.

The postwar housing boom was concen­trated in suburbia. Pre-World War II suburbs increased in population, while new suburbs were created from scratch on tracts of land that had been woods, desert, and marsh. The great pioneer in this postwar suburban housing boom was Jewish builder William L. Levitt. By using the tech­niques of mass production that he had developed in constructing bases for the military during the war, Levitt built tens of thousands of affordable homes for families eager for a taste of the American dream after the depri­vations of the 1930s and the war years.

By 1960, a plurality of Americans were living in suburbia, and demogra­phers were predicting that by the 1990s a majority of Americans would be suburbanites. This mass exodus to what one historian called the "crab-grass frontier" took many students of American and Jewish demography by surprise. Coming mostly from cities or small towns, demographers were unable to appreciate the appeal of the new suburban lifestyle, which com­bined the convenience of living close to the economic and cultural oppor­tunities of the city with the opportunity of participating in an ersatz rural life of "country wagons," picture windows, mini-gardens in the backyard, and weekend barbecues.....

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Edward Shapiro is a Professor of History at Seton Hall University.