section of cover that just has the title
From the cover of "We'll Always Have Casablanca" by Noah Isenberg

Jewish immigrants wove stories from Harlem to Hollywood

In response to the recent political environment, increased attention has been paid to the centrality of the immigrant experience to the Jewish encounter with America. As I enjoy studying history from various perspectives, I want to share three new books that explore dimensions of that experience through different lenses: a neighborhood, cartoons and a movie.

When one mentions Harlem, most people don’t think of Jews. However, at the turn of the 20th century, Harlem contained the second largest Jewish community in the United States, and the third largest in the world, trailing only the Lower East Side and Warsaw.

cover of "Jews of Harlem" shows a color picture of a synagogue window and a black and white picture of a row of shops and a synagogueThat this fact is largely forgotten is a good reason to welcome Yeshiva University professor Jeffrey Gurock’s comprehensive and superbly researched history, “The Jews of Harlem: The Rise, Decline, and Revival of a Jewish Community.” Gurock captures the shifting dynamics of the neighborhood over time, including the relationship of the German Jewish immigrants who began settling in the era from around 1870 onward and the East European Jews who arrived in vast numbers several decades later (and whose arrival in Harlem was facilitated by the extension of Manhattan’s elevated train lines uptown).

The decline of Harlem’s Jewish community was even more rapid than its rise, plummeting from around 175,000 at the end of World War I to fewer than 6,000 in 1930. Most Jews fled the neighborhood, parts of which had become as overcrowded as the Lower East Side during a moratorium on housing construction during World War I, for the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.

A significant portion of the book portrays complexities in the interaction of Jews and African Americans, who succeeded Jews as the neighborhood’s largest ethnic group. Gurock also notes the black Jewish groups that were centered in Harlem, but which generally were not recognized as Jewish by the larger Jewish community.

The books moves through the present day, although the notion of a “revival” enshrined in the book’s subtitle may be an overstatement. Although the Jewish population has indeed increased dramatically — from around 300 in 1990 to more than 3,000 today — the decisive factor seems to be that young white people of many stripes are moving to Harlem because housing is cheaper. That said, amid the wholesale gentrification, some Jewish institutions are emerging. As Gurock notes, we are witnessing a “work in progress.”

The Jews of Harlem: The Rise, Decline, and Revival of a Jewish Community” by Jeffrey Gurock (293 pages, New York University Press)

In “The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877-1935,” art historian Matthew Baigell examines the portrayal of Jews in illustrations in mainstream periodicals (and especially humor magazines) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during the height of Jewish immigration to the United States.

cover art shows an old caricature of a nutcracker with a Jewish headThough the country was seeing an influx of immigrants from many lands, Baigell posits that the opprobrium toward Jews evident in these cartoons was of a more aggressive nature than that expressed toward other ethnic and national groups. The cartoons presented accentuated physical characteristics as deformities, and used Yiddish-inflected speech to render the characters’ words nearly unintelligible. But most prominent is the amorality — Jews were portrayed consistently as untrustworthy and out for their own enrichment at the expense of “real” Americans.

Periodicals like Puck and Life, which saw large national circulation, were likely responsible for the way many Americans — particularly those with little actual contact with Jews — conceived of Jewish immigrants. Cartoons such as one reproduced in the book depicting a New York street taken over entirely by Jews, with children abusing a lone gentile while Jewish cops stand by apathetically, likely appealed to their worst fears. In a time when fears of immigrants have been stoked anew, it’s especially worth looking at this disturbing history.

The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877-1935” by Matthew Baigell (213 pages, Syracuse University Press)

Film scholar Noah Isenberg’s “We’ll Always Have Casablanca” explores the classic movie, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, from many angles. I include it among books about immigrants because reading it helped me appreciate how directly the film approaches the plight of refugees and immigrants.

cover art for "we'll always have casablanca" shows the main characters of the film standing together with a camera operator in the foregroundThe genesis of the book was a 1938 trip by Jewish schoolteacher Murray Burnett and his wife to Austria, where they encountered firsthand the desperation of Jews under Nazi rule. The unproduced play Burnett then co-wrote with Joan Alison, entitled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” was purchased by Warner Bros. and rewritten by screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch.

What is striking is just how many immigrants were involved in the making of the film. Producer Hal Wallis, director Michael Curtiz, composer Max Steiner, the Warner Bros. and prominent actor Peter Lorre were Jewish immigrants. And a number of the actors were Jews who recently had fled the Nazis. Both French Marcel Dalio, who played the croupier, and Hungarian S.Z. Sakall, who played Rick’s headwaiter Carl, had escaped Europe in 1940, where their remaining families perished.

And many of the non-Jewish actors, such as Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains, were immigrants, as well. Conrad Veidt, who played Major Strasser, was married to a Jew, which led to their fleeing Germany.

This is not mere trivia — rather, it’s likely one of the factors that contribute to the film’s moral power. Most of the people at Rick’s have fled an intolerable situation and are desperate for a safe place to land. And the film’s deep Jewish background becomes especially relevant because, although downplayed, the refugee crisis that was occurring at this time was a disproportionately Jewish one. Isenberg quotes André Aciman’s assertion that in Casablanca “there is a structural absence of the Jewish question … All these Jews are on screen and yet they cannot address it explicitly. It’s all over the screen, but not in the movie.”

We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie” by Noah Isenberg (336 pages, W.W. Norton)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.