The Jewishness and Legacy of a Bronx Community

For the first time in more than forty years as a historian, I have written a book where Jews are not center stage. In Parkchester: A Bronx Tale of Race and Ethnicity, my people share the limelight with the Irish, Italians, and white Protestants who, during the first half of this planned community’s eighty year saga, populated a neighborhood which back then was racially-segregated to its core. Later, Jewish migration out of Parkchester played a role in the peaceful transformation of this East Bronx location, which has become predominantly African American and Latino, with many immigrants from Africa and East Asia. Today, almost no Jews remain in Parkchester. Indeed, one of the two erstwhile synagogues is a mosque, one of six Islamic houses of worship and community in the area. The other former synagogue is a charter public school.

Yet in Parkchester’s early years, Jews were an integral part of this ethnically and religiously mixed community. Aspects of Jewish communal life–the area of American Jewish history that has traditionally captured most of my attention–are of course granted their due in Parkchester. But now, as the book is hitting the streets, I wish to double back and revisit, albeit briefly, elements of the community’s internal religious history. These reflections should be especially important for those interested in the nature of post war religious life. It was a period where few Jews were ritually observant, day schools enrollments were still very low while Orthodox and Conservative rabbis battled it out for control of synagogue life. My observations are based both on a core of historical documents and my own memories since, as I reveal at the end of the book, I grew up in that neighborhood, lived there for the first twenty years of my life, and attended, with my family, the Young Israel of Parkchester.

In pre-war times, iconic Jewish neighborhoods such as the Bronx’s Grand Concourse were hot beds for the growth and maintenance of Jewish identification. The Jewish signage of stores, restaurants, hangouts and sometimes–but certainly not always– synagogues showcased places where Jews congregated on an ongoing basis. After World War II, suburban locales, on the other hand, did not possess such organic ethnic meeting places, as Jews now lived comfortably among gentiles in heterogeneous environments. There, those who wanted to had greater opportunities to drift away. Yet, studies of suburban localities show that, even in these tolerant environments, most Jews chose their houses in sub-divisions close to their own kind, creating ersatz Jewish streets that contributed to a degree of group connection. Remarkably, due to the way Parkchester’s owners, as social engineers, filled up their buildings-–without prejudice towards religion or national origin but certainly with regard to race–Parkchester’s Jews were even riper for assimilation than their Levittown co-religionists. For in seeking an apartment there–and competition for space was robust–they had consciously or unconsciously opted to be residents in a place where there were no “Jewish buildings.” Nor, as they walked through Parkchester’s thoroughfares or sat out in the bucolic Metropolitan Oval at the center of the complex, would they come upon a Jewish-named emporium or even a Kosher-style deli; instead, they invariably found themselves relaxing on park benches not far from Irish and Italian neighbors. Hence local Jewish communal leaders faced a most daunting task in attempting to induce Jews to remain tied to their faith and traditions.

Surely in Parkchester, as in suburbia, the synagogue played an essential role in fostering continuity among those who did not want to drift away. But in the East Bronx, the Orthodox and Conservative houses of worship and community were even more important because there was no Jewish Y or Jewish Community Center around to offer an alternative Jewish meeting place for young and old. (Interestingly, there was no Reform Temple in Parkchester, most likely because Parkchester Jews were scions of East European immigrants. For them, whether or not they were traditionally observant, liberal Judaism, which still smacked of German American Jewish aristocracy, had no cachet) In any event, like their suburban counterparts, the rank and file of both neighborhood synagogues harbored similar religious values. Very few members of either congregation were Sabbath-observers. Still, of course, in their heydays of the 1950s-1960s, both the Orthodox and Conservative synagogues were packed on the High Holidays. However weekly attendance had to be encouraged, particularly among families that opted to send their boys and girls en masse to the Hebrew schools of Temple Emanuel of Parkchester and of the Young Israel after the public school day was over to prepare for their bar mitzvahs or, in the case of Emanuel, bat mitzvahs as well. Only handfuls of deeply committed, but not always overly observant, Parkchester Jewish families put their children on buses or subways to Jewish day schools since there were no such intensive training schools in the neighborhood. We will return to the experiences of these youngsters, who eventually bore the moniker “whiz-kids,” at the end of this essay. But for now, suffice it to say, the religious educational experience among Conservative and Orthodox–affiliating families in the Bronx of the 1950s-1960s remind us how slow was the path towards the efflorescence of modern yeshiva education within post-war communities.

Where the Conservative and Orthodox synagogues truly differed-–apart from seating patters and differences in ritual during services that many did not habitually attend–was in the attitudes among their clerical leaders towards Christianity in the neighborhood. Here, as is often the case, a local saga amplifies a national Jewish trend. Conservative Emanuel’s several rabbis fully embraced ecumenism, sometimes exchanging pulpits with priests and ministers and holding joint services on Thanksgiving within a strip of turf known as inter-faith row. The Orthodox Young Israel’s spiritual leader of long standing did not. Significantly, during the time when Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II and absolved Jews from guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus, the Orthodox rabbi, who regularly edited the congregational newsletter, made sure to reprint excerpts from an opinion piece that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University penned warning Jews about the dangers of inter-faith dialogue. Arguably, it was precisely this change in Church attitude that mightily contributed to harmony within Parkchester, as Catholic youngsters would no longer be taught that Jews killed Christ and would eventually cease to bring such prejudice into daily encounters when playing among Jewish kids. The Orthodox rabbi had to have known that tolerance reigned in his midst; still he hewed to the denominational line that Rabbi Soloveitchik limned. It is not known how many of the Young Israel’s laity picked up on their rabbi’s subtle apprehensions, especially since Christian politicians were often welcomed at their shul and always began their remarks about neighborhood issues by saying what a fine job the rabbi was doing. Secular cooperation vs. religious conviviality was a nuance lost on most congregants. What is most certain is that no one in the Catholic community knew what was contained in the newsletter or who the eminent Rabbi Soloveitchik was.

Meanwhile, during an era during which Conservative and Orthodox operatives nationwide battled with each other for control of communities, following suit, Parkchester’s Orthodox rabbi never countenanced Temple Emanuel’s existence even though, at one point, the Conservative rabbi lived in the same building as he on West Avenue. And later in Parkchester’s Jewish history, when educational programs were initiated, on a rotating basis, to serve the by then increasingly elderly population, the Orthodox rabbi barred his “colleague” from teaching at the Young Israel. And while the Orthodox rabbi, more pastor than preacher, rarely discussed “politics” in his homilies, on occasion he would take a swipe at the perceived illegitimacy of his Conservative opponent who ministered only a few blocks away.

Finally, we return to the significance of those “whiz-kids” who endured the daily commute to their Jewish day schools. In the 1950s-1960s, when elementary and secondary yeshiva education was not yet the coin of the Modern Orthodox realm, a few Young Israel families enrolled their children in these schools. Among some families, only their sons were so favored, while their daughters went to public school, a gender differentiation that needs to be noted. Indeed, it was one of the girls who missed out on the chance for elite training that her brother was given who came up with phrase “whiz kids,” which carried a certain degree of sadness on her part for what she was denied. Come the Sabbath, in keeping with what were then long-term Young Israel protocols, these “whiz kid” boys were given the chance to lead services and deliver divre torah. The rabbi often ghost wrote the speeches, and two devoted lay leaders extended themselves on behalf of the kids, teaching them the liturgy and the songs of the prayers. One of these men, additionally, reached down to recruit the most interested Hebrew school boys and instructed them on how to lead the services on their bar-mitzvah day. These recruits had to promise their teacher that they would attend Sabbath services regularly for the entire year after their bar mitzvah. Some did; it was a unique 1960s style of baal teshuvah behavior. For the record, sometime in the late 1960s and in the pre-Orthodox feminists era, one of the girls whose parents scrimped and saved to send her to the Ramaz School—she was an only child—was given a chance to deliver a sermon at a Youth Sabbath. She walked to the pulpit and had her brief shining moment without much comment or dissent either from the rabbi or congregants.

The investment of these families and the synagogue leadership in the “whiz kids” proved successful. One of the boys was ordained at Yeshiva University and served as a rabbi in New Jersey for close to forty years; another became a congregational president in another New Jersey community. The fellow who was unquestionably most committed to the neighborhood remained president of the Young Israel of Parkchester even after he moved to Riverdale and returned yearly to lead High Holiday services for the elderly remnants of the once vibrant shul. Another proud alumnus became the Executive Producer of Rehov Sum Sum (Hebrew Sesame Street), which attempted to promote understanding between Jewish and Arab youngsters in Israel. Four others, who once sat in the special boys’ section of the shul, became academics. One taught Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University; his brother taught Semitic languages at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University, A third, a long-time professor at the University of Michigan, became one of the world’s leading authorities on the history of Russian Jewry. And a fourth has, for 43 years, taught American Jewish history at Revel and has been privileged to be the historian of our Jewish and larger Parkchester community.

About the Author
I am the Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and former chair of the Academic Council of the American Jewish Historical Society. From 1982 to 2002, I served as associate editor of American Jewish History, the leading academic journal in that field. I am the author or editor of 22 books, including my most recent work, Parkchester: A Bronx Tale of Race and Ethnicity (NYU Press).
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