Jews in the Suburbs

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

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Jewish Identity in Suburbia

The problems of postwar American Jewry were of suburbia. The diffusion of Jewish population into the suburbs and exurbs diluted Jewish identity. In the compacted Jewish neighborhoods of the cities, Jewish identity was absorbed through osmosis. In suburbia, it had to be nurtured. Jewish suburbanites lived in localities where, in con­trast to the city, most of the people were not Jews, the local store did not sell Jewish newspapers, there were no kosher butchers, synagogues were not numerous, and corned beef sandwiches were not readily available.

The Jewish identity of suburbanites was both weaker and narrower than in the cities. Here there were no bitter quarrels between the religious and the secularists, Yiddishists and Hebraists, Communists and Socialists, and Zionists and Bundists. Pessimists feared that suburbia would be a graveyard for Jewishness. In his religious apologia This Is My God (1959), Herman Wouk painted the prospect of Jewish oblivion in American subur­bia. It was "the threat of pleasantly vanishing down a broad highway at the wheel of a high-powered station wagon, with the golf clubs piled in the back." Mr. Abramson, our golfer, had not disappeared. "When his amnesia clears, he will be Mr. Adamson, and his wife and children will join him, and all will be well. But the Jewish question will be over in the United States."

The situation, however, was not as bleak as Wouk imagined. The most important and surprising fact about suburban Jews was how many wished to continue identifying as Jews. This was demonstrated by the fact that the first generation of suburban Jews tended to congregate together. Some suburbs--such as Silver Spring outside of Washington and Great Neck and Scarsdale outside of New York City--had large Jewish communities, while neighboring suburbs had relatively few Jews. Suburban social life was divided along religious lines. While anti-Semitism was generally not a problem in suburbia, Jews and Gentiles socialized within their own group. Sociologists referred to the "five o'clock shadow" to mark the separation of Jews and Gentiles in their own social worlds once the workday had ended. Suburban Jews, despite their cultural assimilation, felt more comfortable among fellow Jews.

By far the most common expression of Jewishness in suburbia was membership in a synagogue. Suburban Jews might not believe in God, as Albert I. Gordon noted, but they believed in God's people and wanted to be part of it. The easiest and most popular way of doing this was by joining a synagogue. One survey of a suburban Los Angeles congregation revealed that less than two percent of the respondents said they had joined because they were religious. Synagogues benefited almost by default from the lack of rival forms of Jewish identity in suburbia.

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