The best books about Jewish lives in urban America

Deborah Dash Moore Author Of Urban Origins of American Judaism
By Deborah Dash Moore

Who am I?

I grew up in New York City on the corner of 16th Street and 7th Avenue in an apartment on the 11th floor. I loved the city’s pace, diversity, and freedom. So, I decided to study New York Jews, to learn about them from not just from census records and institutional reports but also from interviews. After publishing my first book, I followed New York Jews as they moved to other cities, especially Miami and Los Angeles. Recently, I’ve been intrigued by what is often called street photography and the ways photographs let you see all sorts of details that potentially tell a story. 


I wrote...

Urban Origins of American Judaism

By Deborah Dash Moore,

Book cover of Urban Origins of American Judaism

What is my book about?

Jewish immigrants to the United States landed in cities just as they began to grow. Starting with a string of colonial cities along the east coast, Judaism took root among the diversity of urban America. In three succinct chapters, Urban Origins of American Judaism tells the story of the emergence of synagogues in all their variety, the impact of Jewish street culture on religious life, and finally, the power of photographs to shape spiritual memory.

The books I picked & why

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City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York, 3-volume box set

By Deborah Dash Moore, Howard B. Rock, Annie Polland, Daniel Soyer, Jeffrey S. Gurock

Book cover of City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York, 3-volume box set

Why this book?

Understanding New York Jews is key to understanding American Jews. There is no city like New York City and there are no Jews like New York Jews. In the middle of the 20th century, they made up around 30% of the total city population. This three-volume award-winning set uncovers aspects of the city’s history that even aficionados don’t know. Each volume can be purchased separately but together they paint an absorbing panorama across four centuries. I like to teach the volumes. They are fresh each time I read them, with lively prose and compelling vignettes. Reading them is like walking the streets of Gotham with a great guide.


Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit

By Lila Corwin Berman,

Book cover of Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit

Why this book?

Lila Corwin Berman argues that for Jews in Detroit, the city includes the suburbs. Just because Jews moved outside the city limits did not mean that they abandoned the city in their own understanding. In this provocative book, Berman digs deep into the reasons why Jews moved and the arguments they had over moving. She thoughtfully discusses the politics of race (and racism), real estate, and religious change. Metropolitan Jews challenges accepted pieties, making you pause and think. 


Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed

By Gerald Gamm,

Book cover of Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed

Why this book?

Gamm’s book goes beyond just a study of urban Jews to juxtapose Jews and Catholics to figure out the paradox of his title. The book cover, just to drive home his point, shows the entry stairs to a flourishing Catholic church filled with people juxtaposed to the front of a massive, abandoned synagogue. Gamm argues for the significance of religion in shaping Jewish and Catholic practices. From the portability of Torah scrolls and the congregational structure of synagogues, Judaism facilitated mobility. By contrast, parish boundaries and a church hierarchy encouraged rootedness among Catholics. It’s a fascinating and persuasive comparison that illuminates Boston but also helps to make sense of other cities. 


On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore

By Eric L. Goldstein, Deborah R. Weiner,

Book cover of On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore

Why this book?

Goldstein’s and Weiner’s history of Jews of Baltimore is an unconventional account of this border city. Jews in Baltimore were definitely located in the middle between white Christians on the one hand and Blacks on the other. The book does not flinch from uncovering just what this middle ground meant, how the antisemitism that pervaded Baltimore propelled some Jews toward conservatism (including the support of slavery) and others toward progressivism (including abolition). At the same time, the book explores the rich diversity of Jewish religious life in the city that parallels Jewish participation in building important elements of Baltimore’s economy. I loved learning about a city that was new to me.


Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America

By Beryl Satter,

Book cover of Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America

Why this book?

The key to Beryl Satter’s book lies in her title, Family Properties. The book grew out of a daughter’s desire to know her father, who died when she was young. Satter peels back layers of her Jewish father’s fierce advocacy for Blacks in Chicago, his relentless effort to uncover and hold accountable the white men (both Jewish and Christian) who were profiting from the housing segregation that made Blacks desperate to move out of the ghetto. Satter follows her father’s ultimate failure to prevent the exploitation of Blacks. She also reveals the anger directed at him by many Jews who were on the other side. Satter writes with empathy, showing her father’s complexity (he was a landlord as well as a lawyer), and resists the impulse to judge him. 


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