Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF
I flew into Philadelphia on Wednesday for a conference hosted by Dr. Lila Berman and The Myer and Rosaline Feinstein Center for American Jewish Studies at Temple University. The conference, Jews and the American City, brought together some of the most prolific urban scholars in the country, including Thomas Sugrue, Lizabeth Cohen, and Robert Fishman, to explore the intersection between Jewish identity and American urbanism. Three panels, composed of historians, urban planners, and even an architect critic, addressed questions concerning Jews, development, urban planning, and urban politics.
Several themes emerged over the course of the day long conference: Jews continue to play a disproportionate role in urban development; Jews have always felt ambivalently about the city; Jews and African Americans are inexorably linked in the American urban past; and political liberalism helped to forge the Jewish urban experience.
I felt privileged to sit among such an amazing group of people as they wrestled with these ideas. One of the questions that continued to arise was whether or not the Jewish experience in the American city was uniquely Jewish. Joshua Siefman, urban planner and former head of the NYC Economic Development Corporation, could not convince himself that his choice to study urban planning was an essentially Jewish one. Max Page, on the other hand, necessitated the relationship between Jews, the city, and the commands written in the Torah. Page referenced biblical accounts of Sodom and Gomorrah, Enoch, Egypt, and the Promised Land of Zion to show that there are religious elements binding Jews to certain spaces.
After each panel, the floor opened to comments and questions. Attendees asked some very thought provoking questions about Jewishness, urbanism, and the larger structures at work in the Jewish urban experience. Two thoughts lingered in my mind as the program progressed through the evening, but too timid to approach the microphone, I kept my musings to myself.
First, I kept coming back to the idea of Jewish utopia. Is the persistent relationship to development connected to a profound religious commitment? Were Jews attempting to create a more permanent place for themselves—whether in the city or the suburbs—that would satisfy a longing for a Jewish homeland? Perhaps this can explain the willingness to move (or maybe, wander) from place to place in search of what might appease a deep desire for a markedly Jewish space.
Secondly, I wondered about the relationship between the historic impulse of Jews toward individualism and political liberalism and this impulse compared with the notion of the Jews as God’s chosen people, a collective group set apart as exceptional? The two might not be incompatible, but I think it’s worth thinking about how to reconcile the seemingly disparate identities.
Although I missed a seminar class, had to fly from Phoenix to Philly and back, and slept on a friend’s love seat sofa for three nights, I’m glad I decided to attend the conference. Not only was I exposed to some of the best minds in urban history, I might well be on my way to forming a dissertation topic. The discussion of Jews and the American city was very northeast heavy. Few scholars have explored Jews in the Sunbelt cities of the Southwest, and I might be able to carve out a space for my own research.
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