Reviewed by Hasia Diner (Department of History, New York University)
Published on H-Urban (February, 2002)
This collection of essays, reminiscences, and vignettes of Brooklyn Jewish life span a century and a half, going from the 1850's through the most recent past. Together as a group and each one by itself makes an important point. Brooklyn housed within its borough borders numerous Jewish communities. Jews in Brooklyn formed communities and created cultural practices that originated in Russia, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Syria, Morocco, and numerous other diasporic settings. Since the first central European Jews came to Brooklyn, New York's sister city across the Hudson, numerous religious, cultural, economic, educational, and entrepreneurial activities have flourished. Each one was a kind of universe unto itself, and each reflected Brooklyn, New York City, the United States, and the places from which Jews have hailed. Brooklyn, according to Abramovitch and Galvin, always functioned as a city of neighborhoods. Borough Park was not--and is not--Brownsville; Canarsie and Flatbush shared little other than the fact that they were not in Manhattan. So too the essays share little, other than Brooklyn. Some are based on empirical scholarship. They offer readers analytic interpretations of archives, community newspapers, and other historical materials, built around conceptual problems. Others share feelings with readers about daily life--food, friends, family--and bask in the warm glow of the quotidian. For many of the writers here, Brooklyn is first and foremost the place they left and, as such, these articles view the place a mnemonic of a long lost past.
In the 55 essays here, divided into five discrete sections, "Coming to Brooklyn," "Coming of Age in Brooklyn's Neighborhoods," "Cultural Influences and Community Life," "Jewish Institutions and Interethnic Life," and finally, the most personal and poignant, "Leaving Brooklyn/Returning to Brooklyn," the range of Brooklyn Jewish experiences emerge in the hands of historians--professional and amateur--as well as anthropologists and memoirists. The scholars who have written here have explored such issues as Jewish-black interaction in Crown Heights, the planting of Hasidic communities in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, the creation of Jewish educational institutions, and Jewish criminals on these mean streets, as well as others. Together, the scholarly articles spanning history, anthropology, folklore, ethnomusicology, and linguistics point to importance of studying a (relatively) small place. No one, to the credit of the book, really tackled Brooklyn as a whole, but rather teased meaning from Jewish life in the past and present in the neighborhoods that constituted the heart of the borough.
Because the book is intended to be broad and eclectic, it defies conventional criticism. The easy co-existence of serious anthropology or history with the musings about the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of childhood enhance the book and make it likely that the book will be of use to numerous audiences. The book is indeed an important testimony to the porousness of audiences for historical writing. Books as well as film, lectures, and other presentations of the past need not be divided into "scholarly" and "popular." The Jews of Brooklyn should be considered a notable addition to the corpus of writing in American Jewish history and the history of New York, but it should also offer hours of good reading to many who enjoy these excursions into the sensuality of the past.
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Hasia Diner. Review of Abramovitch, Ilana; Galvin, Sean, Jews of Brooklyn.
H-Urban, H-Net Reviews.
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