The New Suburbanites of the 50's:
1954 being the Tercentenary of the Jews’ arrival in America, the historians and portraitists, formal and informal, are readying their paint brushes on behalf of the anniversary occasion, scheduled to begin next September. But will the subject sit properly still, in his Colonial wig from the costumers, for the official portrait? It looks uncertain, what with the American Jews (large sections of them, anyway) still very much on the move (this time to the suburbs), and acquiring decidedly new ways and costumes. Harry Gersh here gives us a kind of preliminary sketch of one sector of this current development, reported at first hand. Once ready to settle for a sixty-five-dollar-a-week civil service job and a small apartment in the big city, he finds himself the possessor of a home in the suburbs complete with lawn, garage, and trees—in short, a rather solid citizen.
Looking back, we can see that our generation was a generation on the move. Perhaps even more than our parents. They made the big jump over the water, and then they rooted themselves into the Jewish neighborhoods in New York and the other big cities. But we, the second generation, the young marrieds (not so young any more), who grew up in the depression of the 30’s, have made three moves from our parents’ homes in the old neighborhoods. And each move was, in some ways, as disturbing as our parents’ move out of the shtetl. First we moved to Greenwich Village; next to the more respectable middle-class sections of Bronx, Brooklyn, or Queens; and now, to Suburbia. It was the same in Philadelphia, in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Cleveland. Each town had its old Jewish neighborhoods, its bohemia, its middle-class areas and its new suburbs.
When enough people move, the scientists call it a movement. Naturally. And sociological studies have to be written about movements, and “think” pieces in serious magazines. And with every movement there is great discussion and taking of sides and shaking of heads. When it is a Jewish movement (meaning the Jewish sector of a general movement) the shaking of heads predominates. What are we coming to? But first, before we try to answer that question, we might retrace the winding route by which we came.
Most of our parents came over before the First World War, in the high tide of East European emigration. Jews with personal memories of the 1905 revolution; of the intricacies of the dialectical differences (sharpened by cheder training) between the many sects, parties, movements; of the pogroms of 1903-1908. Their first homes were in the ghetto of the Lower East Side or other metropolitan equivalents. But by the time the children were aware of surroundings, our parents had made the first step up the urban ladder, aided by the high employment and comparatively easy money of 1914-1918. So my family lived in Strawberry Mansion in Philadelphia. Joe’s parents were Brownsville, my wife’s were East Bronx. We thought of them as Jewish neighborhoods, still ghettos, but not slums. Not in 1920, anyway. We had already started our move outward, seeking a more “American” existence. We saw it then in terms of another bedroom, a private toilet. (We were ahead of the times even then.)
Most of us were still living there when the bubble burst. We graduated into the Works Progress Administration.
We did a lot of “settling for” back in those depression days when a professional rating ($23.51 as I remember) was enough to get married on. Our Saturday evening get-togethers followed a conversational pattern: politics, books, music, job—and then our imagined futures. Joe, who took every examination offered by any civil service commission, agreed to retire from ambition if he was granted a permanent post office job—inside, of course. Phil, the artist, wanted a Capehart with a hundred albums. Paul wanted a year in Paris—then he would accept the deluge. The girls’ desires were uniform and, for the times, beyond avarice: permanent appointments as teachers in a good high school. My ambition was specific, limited, and unimaginative. I offered to settle for $65 a week for the rest of my life.
To our own and our mothers’ surprise, each of us achieved his dream, or had it offered to him. Our parents had started with the traditional Jewish dreams of glory: the doctor of medicine, the counselor-at-law with a good corporation practice, the professor. But mothers are, of necessity, pragmatists, and ours were super-realists. By the time we were in college our mothers had trimmed their dreams in line with the times and a painfully honest appraisal of our abilities. My mother’s constant plea, after the initial dreams were dismissed, was: “Study for civil service.” But even when we had achieved their marked-down dreams, our mothers were a little astonished. Good fortune always was a surprise.
Paradoxically, looking backward, those days of depression, of bread-hunger and job-hunger, of Hitler and Franco, of Popular Fronts and Father Coughlin, were simpler than the books say, indeed simpler than the later periods. The answers were evident and concrete. We knew where we were and where we wanted to go. It was not merely youth that gave us the chutzpah to offer advice on how to run the world. The world itself seemed about to enter a new renascence. Today, I wouldn’t presume to offer advice even to the Mayor of New York—partly, to be sure, because I am no longer a citizen of that city. And therein lies part of the change, an important part.
Our dreams, back then, did not go so far as becoming citizens of Suburbia. Class lines, more a matter of feeling than ideology, were sharply drawn and Suburbia was on the other side of the tracks. But dreams achieved—even cut-price dreams—carry the seeds of corruption. So, in time, we breached the barricades. We turned our backs on the city. An escape? A sellout to the status quo and the material life? A new beachhead for the next push? Or a reconciliation with the realities of life?
Anyway, we moved to the suburbs. Or, as we referred to it more easily, to that house in the suburbs. For it was the house we thought we were after. The suburb, and being a citizen of Suburbia, was more than we bargained for, at least consciously.
As I remember the 20’s, the years of our growing up, neither we nor our parents were deeply troubled about our environment. Some of the kids must have become gangsters, and some of the girls did wear low-cut dresses, but not near as many as the growing twenty-five-cent literature would have us believe. Whether from preoccupation with making a living, or lack of understanding, our parents didn’t even bother to warn us of these pitfalls. It might also have been a new feeling of security. They either respected our innate judgment or had faith in their disciplinary measures. They worried a great deal about our physical health, our standing in school, our future careers, but not about sex or guns. Nor did the problem of being a Jew in a non-Jewish world trouble them or us too much.
It was not that the world was more friendly to Jews at the turn of the century. If anything, it was far less friendly. And it was not that our parents lacked consciousness of themselves as Jews, or of the fact that they lived in a non-Jewish world. Even in our ghettos we lived in a non-Jewish world.
True, our immediate social milieu was the family and the landsman. When we visited, we visited uncles and aunts and cousins and grandparents. When it was our turn to serve the tea and cake, we served them to families who had lived next door in the old country. The New World friendships were made in the Workmen’s Circle, the union local (Yiddish-speaking), the landsmanshaft. As these friendships grew, we were sure to find other ties of blood, or yeshiva, or gubernieh.
Although limited within this frame, our parents’ social lives were very active. At least as active as ours today. There was as much visiting back and forth and a lot more going to meetings. And their meetings were so much more social. Our coffee and cookies after PTA meetings are pale beside their after-meeting tea.
But the ships that brought our parents to the golden land brought Italians and Poles and Slavs and Greeks. They moved in with us, across the street or around the block, shouldering aside the older colonies of Irish and Negroes and Germans. I know they moved in with us because their kids were part of the gang, or of the border gangs we fought. Friendships developed either way.
We were very well aware of who was a Jew and who an Irisher or Italian, but it was more like the awareness that named one boy “Red” and another “Skinny.” Sometimes we fought over these differences. The fight was perhaps more intense and bloodier if the insult that started it was racial or religious, but the difference was one of degree. We lived in a jungle world, as the books insist, but more because any children’s world is a jungle than because our world was set down in the middle of a slum or soon-to-be-slum.
Mom’s relations with her non-Jewish neighbors were tempered by her heritage of fear and distrust. But the neighbors never knew it. There were nods and hellos. On holidays we delivered “tastes” (you could make a meal of those tastes) of the holiday meichalim—hamentashen, matzos, potato lathes, fluden. There were no occasions for social intercourse beyond these demonstrations of friendliness and neighborliness. Neither we nor the neighbors wanted it otherwise. The neighbors’ social lives followed the same patterns of family and old-country province.
We were aware of Mom’s fear and distrust. We knew her stories of pogroms. We were specially fascinated by the story of Pop’s brother who lay all day in the mud while the hooves of Cossack horses cut at him. We understood these stories as episodes from another world, just as my stories that begin “when Daddy was a young boy” are unreal to my son. But we knew these things had happened because we were Jews, and that they had not happened to the families of non-Jewish kids. We knew and used the Yiddish phrases that damn the outsider. They were similar to the Italian, Greek, Irish, Polish phrases that damned their outsiders. But the storied goy was never identified with anyone we knew.
When we slammed into the house after school to drop our books and grab an apple, there was. always a second apple—and the same words of caution against getting run over—for that week’s buddy-buddy. At supper Mom displayed the same never satisfied interest in the momentary visitor whether his name was Moish, Luig, Mick, or Staish.
Actually, there was an “enemy- goy ,” the outsider we feared and distrusted. But he had to be more than a non-Jewish individual. He had to be the landlord, the people who owned the “interests” and the trusts, the rich men who controlled the police and, sometimes, Pop’s job. These were the goyim that were our enemies. But they were Luig’s and Mick’s enemies, too. Later we identified them as the class enemy.
But the places we lived in were ghettos, no matter how well concealed. We Jews were the majority group. Travel to the outside world was limited. So was our awareness of that world—and of being a small minority in a larger totality. We knew about the bigger world, but as we knew that there were 400 million Chinese at the bottom of the world walking around with their heads hanging down. (Today we seem to spend so much time saying “I am a Jew” or “I am a Negro.” We say it defensively or aggressively and look about suspiciously for someone’s confirmation. When we get it, we don’t know whether to be glad or mad. It may have been the times, or our parents’ greater sanity, but we didn’t make such a tsimmes about it then.)
In those days we were the majority in our community and we reacted as a majority. We were not hyper-conscious of our Jewish-ness. It was not that we were indifferent to it, or that we tried to escape from it. Yiddish was the lingua franca of the home and the business community. Things Jewish were ingrained in our lives and not resented. A major third of the kids went to Hebrew school, at least until Bar Mitzvah. (No one ever heard of “Bas Mitzvah.”) A second group was steeped in Sholom Aleichem and Peretz at the Yiddish-speaking Workmen’s Circle or Folk-shulen. Another group escaped after-school education except for a six-months’ cram course at twelve and one-half. Regardless of which group you belonged to, the relation to Jewishness was pretty much the same. It was taken for granted, accepted; it was unquestioned, it was not tortured and examined this way and that way.
Our parents had serious differences of opinion among themselves. The Orthodox held rigidly to the old ways. The rebels deliberately kept their shades up while they ate on Yom Kippur. The only difference it made to the kids was in the extra schools we attended. They all took too much time away from shinny and touch and gang fights. And we all broke down on the third day of Pesach and stole out of the neighborhood to buy treife candy and ice cream. (I think our parents knew it all the time.)
Occasionally there were reverberations from the outside. An older brother was refused entrance to medical school or college. A sister missed out on a good job. Many of us studied engineering, although we knew that that profession offered nothing to a Jew. We were neither Pollyannaish about these barbs nor did we dig out the machine guns. We accepted these evidences within a context we have since lost. Perhaps it is only in retrospect that that context seems better. In either case, its loss was bound to happen.
If one word can characterize our relations with ourselves, and the few others in the world, during the days of our bohemia, it would be “aggressive.” We were aggressive about our Jewishness and a bit more aggressive about our Jewishness being completely unimportant. The same held true for our priest-damning Catholics and our sneering ex-Protestants. By this time we knew exactly who our enemy was, and he was the common enemy of all the exreligionists.
We split up among the sects of the new prophets—Marx, Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky, Lovestone, Thomas—and the far more numerous sub-prophets. And we proved again and again, to our own satisfaction, that there was but one true church—ours. The Stalinists, who fished in all waters, played the Jewish angle for all it was worth among the older Jews. (Just as they dangled the lure of anti-Semitism among those who were particularly susceptible to emphasis on the Jewish landlord, the Jewish boss, the installment Shylock.) But most of us were cold-blooded in our refusal to be divided by a single comma or capital from that amorphous something called the Masses. We went out of our way to cultivate friendships with Negroes, insisting there wasn’t any color. We expected Gentiles to go out of their way to deny our Jewishness and their Christianity.
New York’s Greenwich Village, centered around 8th Street, and Philadelphia’s, spread from the poor man’s bohemia around 8th and Locust to the rich around Panama Street and Rittenhouse Square, and Chicago’s, moving restlessly between the Gold Coast and 57th Street, became our new home spiritually—and physically for the fortunate. The too poor, and the too family-bound, slept in their parents’ homes (most nights) and lived their real lives with us.
In this insulated existence we spoke knowingly of the Masses. We made large plans for them and blueprinted vital decisions. We even sent out missionaries to the trade unions and unemployed organizations. But most of them came back disillusioned, or found a middle way in government service. We abjured class distinctions, but we were, in effect, the upper class of the Masses, a kind of intellectual elite, junior grade.
We argued then as if the world and the things in it were either totally good or totally evil. You were either for us or against us. But we were not as flat and single-minded as this sounds. We were moved by sound and decent passions, although the evidence was hidden behind the implacable phrases we threw at the world. Our friendships were deep and loyal. Many of us studied honestly to find the true meanings of what we proclaimed so dogmatically. And our dedication (again with the exception of the hardcore Stalinists) was not so absolute that we lost all perspective and humor. Not only were we young, but the world seemed to be entering a new youth with us.
A good part of the whole group was Jewish, but in this climate we refused to acknowledge any attribute that might act as a divisive factor in the Mass world. We would sneer at contributing to Federation (even if we had the money). We were resolute in refusing to join organizations that had a specifically Jewish character. (I, and a few others, kept our childhood connections with the Workmen’s Circle, but the name of the organization seemed excuse enough.) But the renunciation was vocal and often a debater’s trick. It somehow was like marching in the May Day parade. We did it because it was the daring, the ultra-progressive thing to do. But we were poor marchers and uncomfortable in the ranks. We knew, deep inside, that we just weren’t the bare-legged, brawny-armed, in-perfect-unison, marching types. (Even later, in the army, we had trouble with the cadence marching.) So we made up for our defection in indirect, often hidden, ways. After the May Day parade, sitting around with our beer, we slid from “Banker and Boss” and “Left, Left, Left” to “Der Shuvah” and ended up with “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen.” What could be less progressive? No wonder the Stalinists were suspicious of us.
In the postwar world we settled down. Most of us got what we had offered to “settle for” in the 30’s. We were the young married couples with the postwar babies who caused the housing shortage. We fled the Jewish neighborhoods of our growing up, we fled bohemia. We came to the middle-class warrens of the outlying boroughs. We became respectable married folk. And we were prey, for the first time, to all the doubts and worries of the responsible family men.
For those who went, the war was a kind of purgatory, but not much more so than for those who stayed. In it we burned off our sins, our fleshpots, our revolt. And we came out to inspect the promised Gan Eden. The theology may be all mixed up, but many of us found a Limbo instead.
As a matter of fact, the new neighborhoods were in direct line of succession to our parents’ progress. If there had never been a depression and a Village period we would have moved from the East Side, then to the East Bronx (or Strawberry Mansion), then to the West Bronx. And that’s where the two of us wound up. With others it was Queens or Washington Heights or Central Park West and their Philadelphia or Chicago counterparts. But it was all the same. Amorphous areas without character or feeling. Still ghettos, even though there was a difference—but not always for the better.
Some of the group remained bohemian even when they had to seek apartments among the scorned middle class. But they were comparatively few, and they found it hard to establish contact with the new Villagers, the younger bohemians. So they became strident, or Stalinists. (This second crop, incidentally, was quite different from the 30’s vintage—worse—but that’s another story.)
One old friend from this group came to visit about a year after the return from the war. “Well,” he said, “how does it feel to live among the all-rightniks?” I blanched, because I knew that it was only our old friendship that had changed the question from “How does it feel to be an all-rightnik?”
Me, an all-rightnik, a solid burgher? A man who rushed for the subway in the morning; spent his day in hard, competitive, unimaginative work downtown; was sardined back home in the evening; holed up with the radio and sports page; took his wife to the movies once a week; woke up, one day, too old, without knowing what he had done or where he had been? No, I wasn’t that man. Whatever the external evidences to the contrary, I still thought of myself as my own man, inside where one thought of oneself. I still maintained a small, unrelenting search for salvation.
Conformity? How we dreaded it, watched for the first symptoms of corruption in our friends and ourselves. Remember, nonconformity was the hall-mark of our group. Our parents were nonconformists. They were nonconformists in politics back in the old country and socialists in this. They had broken from the very strict conformity of their parents’ Orthodoxy. We started with that background and made it a positive part of ourselves, almost a reflex, during our maturing. Now we were face to face with the very pattern of conformity. The responsibilities of family were one pressure. Desire for comfort and ease, especially after the years in the navy, was another. Age did its part. And waking up to find that our pet solutions weren’t sound solutions—and some of the older answers, somewhat revised, were closer to truth.
When we were preparing to take over the world, we were four books to the left of our parents. At that time we blamed their Roose-veltism on lack of understanding, on age, on back-sliding. As a matter of fact they were following a logical pattern. We were the mavericks. Mom, for instance, although she had spent time in the Czar’s jails as a revolutionary and dangerous character, was a conservative woman with a great desire to be a part of the American world and its ways, yes, to conform. So what was wrong with that, if they were good ways? In matters of sex and morals and dress and furnishings, she was rather “narrow.”
Now, in our postwar West Bronx, I was trying to find a pattern for my own way. And the realization came that we had been always trying to build all-encompassing religions. With some it was vegetarianism, with others Marxism, with us it was non-conformity. And it didn’t have to be that way. We could be non-conformist in politics or religion or dress, but did we have to furnish our home in those plumber-built chairs to prove our freedom? Were we giving in to comfort or, maybe, revolting against revolt? Interpret it as you wish, we took a new turn in the road, and essentially—as it turned out—we were closer to Mom’s and Pop’s way than our bohemian pattern.
For the first time, I found myself nagged for specific answers to an old question: “What am I if I am a Jew?”
The question didn’t come up in that form. If it had it could easily have been avoided. But I did struggle with, “Do I join the American Legion or the Jewish War Veterans or the American Veterans Committee?”
My first continuing experience with formal religious services was in the army and navy. The first Pesach and Yom Kippur out of uniform brought questions that didn’t seem to have any answers except “surrender.”
And when Johnny was born the struggle within became intense.
We would have helped ourselves to work out an answer back in the Village days. We lived together, close-knit, and spent hours in thinking through our problems. But, perhaps, these problems weren’t for joint attack. In any case, the brilliant mind lived in Queens, the logical one in Brooklyn, the feeling one in Jersey. And we had trouble with baby-sitters.
Of course, we didn’t need the full social lives we formerly knew. After the many years of separation it was good to live by ourselves for a while. Children restricted movement still more. But we did need some society. We were conscious of a real gap. We needed other people of like hates and enthusiasms to talk to, to laugh with, to go to the movies with. Our parents had an answer for this problem: “the family,” in the sense of mishpocheh, clan. But the family was as dispersed as the gang. Even those that lived within walking distance shared little with us beyond a common ancestor. Our parents, who thought that siblings and cousins and uncles and aunts are born loving each other, were shocked when we voiced doubts about community of interests with the family.
The other possibility was the apartment house. But it took at least a year to get to know the people on either side and another year to work up a relation with the folks upstairs. And we were snobs. Without objective evidence (except Sunday’s lounge clothes) we assumed that we were the only free souls and the other tenants were the all-rightniks. Seeing someone in the elevator with a book other than the current book club choice was a shock, although it happened fairly often. We still were sufficiently defensive of our new bourgeois accoutrements and surroundings to look for and imagine dividers between ourselves and the rest of the community.
Events leading to the third move reached a climax the day we recognized a certain identity between Johnny and the yelling brats milling around the schoolhouse. The idea came hard—but it came—that John would walk alone, be six one day, and disappear into that mob. We saw the school with new eyes. The political clichés disappeared into the reality of a particular school for a particular child. If that chattering pile of brick and glass was to house my son, then what kind of pile was it? And if those teachers were to teach John, then who were they and what would they teach him?
We wound up in a village in a township in mid-Westchester county. Other friends saw the same visions and wound up in upper reaches of Westchester, in Nassau, Suffolk, nameless places in New Jersey.
We didn’t move because of the school. The school was a trigger that released all the dammed up social push-and-pulls of income change, social dissatisfaction, need for identification, crowded subways, and lack of closet space.
The West Bronx had been a way stop, not a home. We made no ties there, sank no roots, left no friends. The community didn’t have enough identity to differentiate it from a thousand others. No one seemed to belong to it. And, more important, no one seemed to worry that there was no belonging.
When we visit my folks in Philadelphia we occasionally drive past the old neighborhood and nostalgia wells up and I point out to my wife and my son the corner I lounged on, the ice cream parlor I took my first girl to, the park I played ball in. When we drive down the East Bronx, my wife shows us her old house and shul and school. When we pass the apartment house in the West Bronx it’s as if We never knew it.
The changes wrought by the war touched us deeply, but many wore off in a short time or retreated from consciousness. In contrast, the changes brought about by the move to Suburbia, while they came slowly, seemed to affect us basically. Some of the changes appear slight, mere surface conformations, but are not without significance. For example: the incidence of fancy sport shirts and suede shoes falls off sharply. And the incidence of convertibles also falls off from the city to the suburbs. It must mean something.
Of the basic changes, the first has to do with the earth and growing things. Most of us accept and repeat the cliché that holds the Jew estranged from the land. Our vision of ourselves is of an urban creature isolated by time and trade from the mysteries of seed and soil. The mystery was not dispelled by the move to Suburbia. However, it became a known and common mystery, shared by Jew and non-Jew, wrestled with from March through October, worried about the rest of the year.
After the moving man dumps you into your house—with no janitor or superintendent to call upon in emergencies—it takes two days to break a path through the furniture and coiled rugs to get the coffee going. On the third day the new master steps outside to survey his broad acre(s). It was on the third day of the creation of the world that God caused grass to grow and herbs to bring forth seed.
It is pleasant to walk on your own earth and feel your own green grass and plan your own mysteries of birth and bloom and death. Only in our wildest dreams, the ones we didn’t tell each other, did we include the ownership of broad acres, half-acres, quarter-acres. It is pleasant—but also worrisome. The clichés take on meaning. The cultural tags become things rather than words. When I spoke grandly of my house, my fourteen trees, my three varieties of lilac, my prize roses, my friends were envious. But they also were apprehensive. “Can you take care of things like that?” Even my wife, with all the required high school and college courses in botany, looked at the fertile earth and wondered would these growing things flourish under a new name on the deed of ownership?
The decision, slowly arrived at, that success and failure with the land is not affected by ethnic background, has deep importance. Yes, we knew it before. Great scholarly studies proved it conclusively. Our basic political and ethical premises were built on the fact. But these are not the same as planting the seed with your own fingers, in soil prepared with your own salt sweat, and seeing the green-white tendrils push up to become flower or fruit. This is proof that penetrates deeply.
Of course, there are kalyikehs in every field. They come to complain every weekend. Success due to hours of work, fertilizer, rain, weedkiller, worry, and prayer is ascribed to goyishe hent. It’s the new version of Mom’s goyishe kop.
There is some trauma involved in this ascription. To mitigate it I will explain one of my secrets to which I owe my reputation as a husbandman. The grass is greener on the other side. This is particularly true on my side. My lawn comes down from the fieldstone fence in a gentle slope, then down a steep bank, on to a level stretch, finally down to the street in a sharp slope of pachy-sandra. Passers-by can see the lawn only at an oblique angle. From that angle almost everyone’s lawn looks like a green carpet. The brown spots, the crab grass, the plantain, show only when you walk over the lawn and look directly down. This looking for trouble is done only on your own land. The neighbor’s lawn always looks greener than yours.
My observations indicate that there is no difference between Jew and non-Jew as husbandman. We are victims of our own clich6. We come to the land with a full-blown insecurity that shows itself in constant comparisons and seeking for advice.
The realization that the green thumb is not a goyishe monopoly is the significant change for the urban Jew transplanted. As he works his ground, finds interest in the garden section, he learns that seeds do not wither in his hands and soil does not turn sour under his ministrations. The estrangement was a temporary one. The Jew’s trees leaf and make shade, his roses bloom into November, his worms loosen the soil better than Monsanto’s Krilium. On the way into town on the 8:37, laden with lilacs or “mums,” he is no longer a stranger.
There is an exception, of course. All groups are blessed with nudniks. But even the most ardent assimilationist will not gainsay the primacy of the Jewish nudnik. It is accentuated when the nudnikery is horticultural. However, it just so happens that my strawberries have a depth of color, a sharpness of taste. . . .
The second significant change has to do with man as a political animal. The urban creature lives far from the seats of political power. He comes up with a biennial spate of indignation about conditions in City Hall and a quadrennial dose of great partisanship. The rest of the time he calls forth anathema on the politicians in power. Added to this generality, which we shared, was our own attitude toward politics. We still hung on to our earlier attitudes toward the wielders of the police power. Cops were Cossacks. Politicians were venal. Successful politicians had to be crooks. An honest man couldn’t win. And if he did, they stole his office from him. Look at what happened to the five New York City assemblymen elected in 1919. We felt as a group—aggrieved, hopeless. We fought in the political arena but we knew we couldn’t win.
But in Suburbia the seat of political power is down the road, around the bend. Taxes are a real problem, not a vague something that the landlord pays out of your rent money. In the village and township you pay out cold cash and expect to see it well—and immediately—spent. Generally it is. When a couple of hundred voters make a formidable bloc, uneasy politicians walk warily.
In the city, when the streets are dirty, or when the garbage collection is unsatisfactory, you may threaten to call the Board of Health. (Always the Board of Health, regardless of the problem or real culprit.) But, you make the threat to a neighbor and then forget about it unless you are willing to be considered a crank. Go fight City Hall!
Out here it’s different. Every day the garbage man comes around back and empties your cans. Every day a highway man sweeps the streets. The men and their supervisors are aware that they do their jobs under the vigilant eyes of the householders and taxpayers. Complaints are immediately investigated.
The trees on my land are mine, and my private responsibility. But the five maples fronting the street, though mine, are the village’s responsibility. Last year I noticed that the bark on one tree was split and the wound oozing. I called the Village Hall. Within twenty-four hours a highway department man came to investigate and diagnose. We differed on the diagnosis so I made a second call. The next day the village manager himself came to see what was bothering a citizen and a taxpayer. Ah, power. . . .
It takes a while for this sense of concern and power to sink in. For the first year or two in Suburbia, local elections (we may have four a year) confuse the new voters. They cannot figure out what we’re voting for this time—or why. Eventually, one issue or election rouses the good citizen. It may be a vote on whether to build a new garbage-disposal plant or to buy a new fire engine. (We don’t delegate too much authority to our legislators.) If these issues do not do the trick, there’s always the school board election or the school budget referendum. Everyone has kids.
By definition, a good big-city citizen is one who registers, votes, and knows the issues on which he bases his choice. It takes more than that in Suburbia—but it’s a lot more fun. Once the citizen learns that his personal efforts can have a serious effect on the final decision, he enters into a new relation with his neighbors.
Last year I helped organize a township citizens’ league to study local problems: garbage disposal; democratic nomination of school board members; overlapping of town and village government. I was elected chairman. The total membership was smaller than my Workmen’s Circle branch in the city, but every meeting was front page news in the local paper. The mayor, the township supervisor, the school board members came to speak and seek help. Strangers nodded to me at the station. Even the chairman of the town Republican organization called me and said, “Now, Harry. . . .”
What has this to do with the urban versus the suburban Jew?
The urban Jew has been seduced by the pundit and the politician. He himself may not vote the way the papers say he will, but out of his inward uneasiness he tends to accept the casual handing over of a Jewish bloc to the Democratic or liberal Republican nominee. In Suburbia, where you can actually see the votes fall and the power divide, things are different.
The forecasters spoke so knowingly of the increase in Democratic votes because of the influx of urban voters into Suburbia. But a 100 per cent increase in the Jewish vote in our area somehow didn’t budge the rock-hard Republican majority. The bloc didn’t work. Not yet, anyway. The Jewish voter, so much closer to the political realities, found he wasn’t a bloc. He was far more important in swaying decisions, even if they were smaller decisions, but his vote wasn’t in the bag. If it were not that so many turned so easily into Republicans, I would say it’s a good thing.
The synagogue symbolizes the most important change in the move to Suburbia—a change in our concept of ourselves as Jews. In the rest of the country the leaders of the Jewish community can argue about who represents The Jews. AJCommittee, AJCongress, B’nai B’rith, Jewish Labor Committee, Workmen’s Circle, the synagogue councils, each represents substantial numbers of Jews, and each, at times, presumes to speak for The Jews. But none of them represents a really significant portion of the five million. In Suburbia, there is no question about who speaks for us.
There has never been an American equivalent of the civil power of the organized Jewish community in the shtetl of the Pale or in British Palestine. The Federations and Welfare Funds in the big cities claim some kind of hegemony, but actually they don’t have it, except (what an exception!) over fund-raising. The closest thing to a Jewish community in the United States is the suburban synagogue. True, its power is only psychological. It is, nonetheless, real. The Jew is perforce a member of his religious community. Even if he refuses to accept formal membership, he does not openly dispute the synagogue’s right to speak for him.
Like any broad statement regarding human beings, there are numerous exceptions. There are those whose conformity is rebellion. However, the measure of the truth of that statement is that it holds true for even our group, which had so much training in non-conformity.
Part of our refusal to accept spokesmen in the city was that we found it unnecessary to think seriously of ourselves as Jews. We resented the spokesman (usually identified with our employers) who called us to account and then told the world what we thought, felt, wanted. How did he know? Here, there are fewer of us. We are a measurable, countable quantity. Perhaps we feel the return of a fear we thought we had lost, or, if not quite that, then a certain anxiety.
In moving from city to suburb we had, if only subconsciously, a vision of a less “Jewish” existence. Though the accusation has been made by various kinds of ideological and institutional zealots, this is not a running away from Yiddishkeit. But it is a running away from the ghetto, however plush-lined. It is running away from life within a bloc—political, social, cultural. One aspect of our relations with our fellow citizens had been pre-determined and we couldn’t successfully fight it in the city. In Suburbia, if only because of the smaller and more copable numbers, we could help fashion our own personal and group relations. But, paradoxically, this makes us more conscious of ourselves as a group. Further, it makes us more of a group. So already there are zealots of another kind, who worry about the dangers of Jewish huddling together, clannishness, in the suburbs. (Always something new to worry about.)
The old choices were: acceptance of tie-less, rootless community without community contacts; constant rebellion, which is tiring as you grow older; hysterical adoption of what is a foreign culture even if it does include Hebrew, dancing the hora, and playing the chalil. But, as we early sensed, wasn’t the last no more than a going back, in another guise, to the zealotry we left in bohemia?
We rejected these. Still, in seeking a less “Jewish” existence, no matter how subtly expressed, we find in Suburbia a more “Jewish” existence. (If the reader equates “less ‘Jewish’ existence” with “better existence” the equation is in his own mind, not this reporter’s.)
When we looked over the communities into which we might move, we checked around to find out whether there were other Jews living there. If there were none, or too few, we presumed that positive efforts had been made to keep them out. This is an attraction to some but not to us. So we looked further. And when we found that the community was 99 per cent Jewish, we also looked further.
In one sample area in Suburbia, covering most of two townships, there are about 1,000 Jewish families among 6,000 non-Jewish. This area supports three synagogues—one Conservative-cum-Reform, fairly old and well established; one fairly new, Conservative- cum -Orthodox; one very new, ultra-progressive. Between them these synagogues have about 550 families officially enrolled—50 per cent plus of the potential. This percentage is not striking when compared to small or isolated towns away from metropolitan centers. Compared with New York City, from which many of these families moved during the past eight years, it is tremendous.
An easy assumption would ascribe this marked increase in synagogue membership to the increased religious feeling that is supposed to mark the last decade. The trouble is the assumption is too easy. So, too, is the assumption that the increase is due to the greater pressures toward conformity in a circumscribed milieu. It must be remembered that, for our group, with our background, going to synagogue is in itself an act of non -conformity.
The average metropolitan Jew is not a synagogue member. If pushed for a reason, he may cite principle, lack of interest, laziness, or busyness. His religious observance is restricted to services for the dead and staying home from work on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He may feel vaguely that he’d like his son to be Bar Mitzvah, but the accidents of neighborhood and his son’s friends will be more determinative. The number of circumcisions holds up, but more and more are done by the obstetrician rather than by the mohel. But move this average Jew to Suburbia and chances are he’ll join up.
One suburban rabbi discounted the entire premise of the above. “Percentages seem to bear you out,” he said. “But I doubt their validity. Middle-income and upper-income Jews have a higher percentage of synagogue membership even in the city. And it is these Jews who move to the suburbs. It is not so much that the non-member Jew moves out here and joins, but that the city synagogue member moves and transfers his membership.”
The rabbi spoke without benefit of questionnaires or surveys. He admitted he was arguing from sense and feeling rather than numbers. It is true that a majority of the new suburbanites are in the over-$5,000 a year class and that this group, wherever they live, has a better record of synagogue membership than the lower-income levels. But a member of his own board of directors said, “I wouldn’t belong to the temple in the city. I do here.”
A second rabbi’s experience was opposite. “Most of my new congregation are new to synagogue experience,” he said. “In the city it takes an effort to become a member. You have to make the decision, go find a synagogue, walk in, and join. Usually, no one helps you, even at the last stage. So it’s easier not to join. But out here it’s the path of least resistance to join.”
Since there isn’t one Suburbia, the relationship between the synagogue and the new Suburbanite varies with the type of community into which he moves. In the completely new settlements in Long Island and New Jersey they build their new synagogues in the collective image of their new consciousness and old memories. The new centers are sparked by the younger men rather than the older. They have very active women’s groups and very progressive Sunday schools. These tend to be more Orthodox, or closer to traditional Orthodoxy, than the older synagogues. But in the established synagogues of the old communities the pattern is far more complex.
Life in the Jewish communities in the suburbs must have been serene and unrippled before the war. There was a high degree of social, economic, political, religious uniformity. As the latter uniformity disappeared, the serenity went with it. Today the financial picture of the community ranges from economic noses just above the water to the older too-plush, too-comfortable unawareness of reality. The political complexion runs from rosy red to stark white. Backgrounds vary from fifth generation German-Jewish stock to first generation East European. Add to these differences the usual coolness between the old settler and the newcomer and the trouble is built in.
Some old synagogues made positive efforts to keep the new wave from washing away the old ease. Some welcomed the first newcomers, and then, suddenly aware of what they saw as brashness and pushing, tried to stem the tide by running out of seats or raising the dues. By and large, neither of these attempts was successful. The differences usually are resolved when the newcomers can out-vote the old-timers.
One of the anticipated advantages of the small town—even a “bedroom” town—was the transfer of part of our social life into the small-town neighborhood community. And this came to pass, as it does to most emigrees. But the friendships built up in the suburban community are no more accidents of propinquity than are city friendships. Friendships develop from likenesses in interests, age and economic levels, dislikes. Sometimes you find them in the families next door. Usually you find them in families around the corner or across the plaza.
It is the village neighborliness—the same neighborliness that permits a “good morning” to any man seen at the station more than twice, and most of the women; an occasional beer with the man next door; a joint effort with the man across the street in clearing the leads and gutters—that builds the first pressures toward membership in the synagogue. The man next door may go to Immaculate Conception, the man across the street to St. Luke’s, and the man on the other side may spend his Sundays at Lee Hills Country Club, but this man is a Jew. He knows it, his neighbors know it, and the other Jews in the community know it. Some positive action seems indicated.
Life in Suburbia is highly organized. Most people have some organizational ties to their neighbors. The civic organization keeps an eye on tax rates, traffic on residential streets, and exceptions to the zoning code. So we joined the civic organization. The first time we sat with our next-door neighbor. The next time we sat with that couple who supported our stand on school taxes. At the PTA we picked up a few more kindred souls. Since our politics are liberal, and there are few enough other liberals, we were close friends very soon.
Some among these new friends are Jews. Jews find Jews, especially when the cover of millions is removed and you count yourselves in hundreds. The man and wife who sided with us at the civic organization are people we know. When they repeat at the PTA, they’re probably people we visit. If they also can commiserate politically, we’re well on our way to friendship. If they happen to be Jews—we start speaking the truth to each other. And we find that the major social organization among the Jews is the synagogue. Our new friend goes and his friends go. If we don’t go the occasions for seeing our new friends are limited.
There are some little things, too, that add up. Here, in Suburbia, we buy tickets from the police and firemen—and not as a propitiatory gesture. The firemen do have the most wonderful fireworks display on the Fourth of July and the police do fly Santa Claus in to the ball field in a helicopter. It’s not worth a buck and a quarter each? It’s the same with the bazaars. We buy tickets and go to the Catholic church shindig. But the synagogue bazaar is really a heimishe simcha. That weekend we set our principles or lack of interest or laziness aside and go—and find our new friends. Pretty soon they have us cornered.
More fundamental are the problems raised by the kids. Somehow we don’t worry so much in the city about the problem of children’s identifying themselves with the Jewish community. On the street, in the school, among their friends—and even at home—they find out what they are and what it means. But when your street, counting both sides, has twenty houses, twenty families, and only one other than your own is Jewish, you wonder and worry. How will the child know that he is Jewish and what it is to be a Jew? So we look about the house and take inventory.
My wife doesn’t bench licht and I don’t own a tallis. The mezuzah is gone from the door. (In the city there always was one left from tenant to tenant.) So outside our telling him so, and the occasional Jewish meichel, how will he know?
One answer is the gradual introduction into the home of Jewish objects: holiday-explaining records and books, a menorah, a Haggadah. But most parents’ knowledge of Judaism is nine parts feeling and one part fact. This feeling cannot be so easily transferred to the children. So we hurriedly read a chapter ahead of the child. Next year we’ll send him to Sunday school.
The synagogue board of directors has the Sunday school fees rigged. It’s just as cheap to join the synagogue and send your child as it is to send him without joining. I don’t know whether we’ll resist the bargain.
There is a tendency to drop membership or activity after the Bar Mitzvah period, whether the boy goes through the ceremony or not. But immediately, new problems arise.
Intellectually, many of us will maintain that the religion of the girl our son brings home is of minor importance. (It’s of greater importance in the boy our daughter brings home.) But this is not an intellectual business. Our inheritance from Bube and Zeide outweigh liberal logic Common interests, common backgrounds, chances of conflict-whatever rationalizations we use—we prefer that our children marry Jews. This you do not leave to chance. In the city the odds are in your favor. Out here you stack the odds.
The answer, again, is in the social organization of the synagogue. The friendships the children make in school are either strengthened or weakened by participation in the synagogue’s junior league. The fif teen-and sixteen-year-old doesn’t go to night clubs, at least not in our community. His dancing is done either at home or in a community social center. You send him to the synagogue. I doubt that parents deliberately plan this maneuvering of their children’s social lives—but that’s the way it works.
Each of the above reasons for change has some validity. A place to go. A place to belong. A continuum through our children. But they are not enough. Our early lack of physical and philosophical connection with the synagogue was casual. Our later positive rejection of the synagogue was—we thought—principled. Our present positive identification seems somehow unprincipled. Our earlier Jewishness was untroubled and un-tortured. Today it has a nagging quality.
The nose-counters and dues-collectors are quite pleased with the upward curve of memberships and contributions. But are the members and contributors also pleased? So many of us do belong to the synagogue. And many of us do send our children to Sunday school. But there’s a consciousness of loss that cannot be exactly pinned down.
When we were children there was nothing special about being a Jew in our kid relationships. Or about Luigi’s being Italian. We knew it and let it lay. Later, when I was madly in love with Eileen, Mom mumbled about the shikses, but the rest of the community took it for granted. They also took for granted that a marriage would not come out of this passion. To use a political analogy: the Jews and Italians and Irish were commonwealths within a federal republic. In the suburbs the separate segments of the community seem more like allied sovereign nations speaking slightly different dialects of the same root language. We maintain cordial relations and cooperate on political and civic fronts. But we live apart. Our children are made aware of this apartness too young.
Perhaps this, too, is a coming full circle. My great-grandfather lived in a tightly knit clan culture. Will this be true of my children? But to expect or want this—isn’t it an unrealistic nostalgia for a hazy past inexorably lost? And if this development did come about, wouldn’t the price be too high? Maybe the people who worry about the return of clannishness, the building of a wall (even a fancy wall) between ourselves and our neighbors, have a point. Or do they?
And mixed up in all this there is a sense of betrayal. Some of my friends cover it by sneering at their past, especially their Village past. They speak of that period as if it had been a kind of adolescent aberration, best forgotten, or, if remembered, to be laughed off. The trouble is, they also laugh off or forget those very sound and decent values we fought for, and helped establish for ourselves and all the rest of America during that period.
Others in the old gang cover their uneasiness with hyper-activity in the traditional areas—Federation, or the synagogue, or Israel, or even the Jewish Labor Committee. But they work too hard at it.
But why a sense of betrayal at all? We haven’t really sold out. We haven’t changed essentially. (Of course, if this is to give you any reassurance, you must learn to brush off those sneering accusations from the old leftist friends.) This life in Suburbia is no more, and no less, “American” than life in the East Bronx. No reason why it should be.
We came out of a comfortable world. Our enemies were tagged, known, positioned on a physical and ideological map. It isn’t true any more. We live among those ancient class enemies. The class-enemy goy we didn’t recognize in Luigi and Staish lives next door. We know now (hope anyway) that he isn’t the enemy we thought. Sometimes we wonder.
Many of us turn for satisfying answers to our many questions, not to the cosmic dicta of the communal organizations, or to the intricate scientific analyses, but inward. It is important to integrate the inner and outer man—the school, the grass, the defense, the factual learning—with the Jew. This is a private process, and a longer story—of which we have so far seen only the beginnings.
In all the above there is little mention of those who come to the synagogue because this is the place where Torah lives. But these are the minority in Suburbia, as they are everywhere.