Back when Harlem was Jewish

Listening to the Tel Aviv Review podcast on Professor Jeffrey S. Gurock’s new book The Jews of Harlem: The Rise, Decline and Revival of a Jewish Community, I’m struck by both similarities and differences between Harlem and East End London’s Jewish communities.

Mulberry Street, New York City c. 1900 (copyright)

Although the degree of interaction between the Jewish community of nineteenth century East London and their neighbours is debated, there is interesting evidence for stronger interactions than those described by Professor Gurock for Harlem. Anna Davin has written how… “each Friday she went to a Jewish family to look after the fire and snuff the candles, tasks forbidden them during their Sabbath. They fed her well: ‘I have a reg’lar good lot to eat. Supper of a Friday night, and tea after that, and fried fish of a Saturday morning and meat for dinner, and tea, and supper, and I like it very well.’” (Davin, Growing up Poor: Home, School and Street in London 1870-1914, p. 148). Arguably, the layout of the East End, which had the different poverty classes living within close proximity to each other meant that local people had more chance to get (at least casual) work, sometimes partly paid in food, as in the above quote. Notably,  the Tel Aviv Review’s interviewer, Dr Dahlia Scheindlin, states in contrast how the “physical landscape” of Harlem “shapes the dynamic” of the sociological and political dynamics of where and how people live(d) in the area.

On the other hand, the difficulty in missionising amongst the Jewish poor is very much a common theme between the two cities. I written before how amusing it is to read in Bill Fishman’s ‘East End 1888’ how the Anglican Church attempted – and more or less failed at – the conversion of the immigrant Jews. He quotes the American Missionary Societies’ analysis of the cost of doing religious work around the world, which listed the outlay required for “converting a Jew” to be $2800 in contrast with an African, $14 and so on up the scale to “A Chinese, $100”. Fishman, East End 1888, p. 173.

Author: (sub)urbanite

Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of the Space Syntax Lab, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Online in a personal capacity.

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