Daniel L. Feldman

Reactions to changing demographics

In New York State Politics on January 5, 2012 at 11:53 am

The older established residents of the district did not react to the Russian immigrants the same way they reacted to the Chinese. Many of my constituents, often of Russian-Jewish ancestry themselves, regarded these new Russian immigrants as obnoxious and pushy. Indeed, after a lifetime of struggling with corrupt officials, with inadequate supplies of food and merchandise in poorly-stocked stores, or with unfriendly bureaucrats in Moscow or elsewhere, some of these immigrants had developed rather aggressive habits, arguably as a survival mechanism. Ironically, then, my older constituents, ancestrally Russian-Jewish themselves, would plead with me: “Get us more Chinese, not these obnoxious Russians!” The Chinese were “nice,” they explained – polite, not pushy.

I had some trouble with the negative characterization. My constituents had no doubt forgotten that when their grandparents and great-grandparents came to America in the great wave of East European Jewish immigration in the 1880s, the well-established, assimilated German Jews of that era also regarded them as uncouth and obnoxious. The highly-noticeable few generated an image that stuck to them all in that generation and in ours. My grandfather, who was part of the 1880s group, could recite large tracts of Shakespeare by heart – in Yiddish, of course, not English – but was likely more scholarly and gentlemanly than many of the “superior” German Jews that looked down on him.

We do owe those German Jews some debts, however. Jacob Schiff and others like him supported the Settlement Houses and other charities that made life tolerable for many of those impoverished new immigrants. They also created Hebrew Technical Institute, where the children of the new immigrants, “obviously” unsuited for academic work, could learn to work with their hands at trades. Under the leadership of its beloved principal, Dr. Edgar S. Barney, who instilled in his students the spirit behind its motto “hands, heart, and head,” my father and my uncle, who became respectively an interior designer and company owner, and a teacher of the deaf, were proud graduates of Hebrew Tech, later the model for Brooklyn Tech. By 1910 the school had already numbered “the head of the Parks Commission in Newark,” New Jersey, and “mechanics, architects, electrical engineers, factory Superintendents [sic] and owners, teachers, authors, and inventors” among its graduates.  Graduates in Cooper Union, Hebrew Technical Institute Holds Its Commencement Exercises, The New York Times, May 12, 1910.

Yet another demographic change altered the district’s political coloration. Especially in East Midwood, east of Ocean Avenue, and in the further western sections of Midwood west of Coney Island Avenue and north of Kings Highway, as the older constituents died or moved to Florida, very religious Jews purchased their homes. The Orthodox Jews of my childhood did not differ very significantly from other Jews. They kept strictly kosher, while we ate more-or-less “kosher style.” They had separate sections for men and women in their synagogues. The men might wear yarmulkas, or hats, all the time, not just in synagogue – but some of them did not even do that. But these new Orthodox Jews made much more strenuous efforts to separate themselves. Some, like the various sects of Hassidim, wore beards and long coats if they were men, and wigs and long dresses if they were women, with their arms always covered. If they were modern Orthodox, they still took pains to dress “modestly.”  And overwhelmingly, they followed the conservative line in politics. Their preferred newspaper, the Jewish Press, touted a sickening version of right-wing politics, often bordering on racism.

West of Coney Island Avenue and south of Kings Highway came another kind of Orthodox Jewish community, the “Syrians.” I put the term in quotation marks because the community included Jews from other Middle East countries as well, but the Syrians predominated. During the mid-1980s, Representative Stephen Solarz persuaded the Syrian government to let many Jewish women leave, arguing that there were too few marriageable Jewish men in Syria for them. Jerrold Nadler, Steve Solarz: Foreign Affairs Expert, The Jewish Week, October 30, 2010.  The publicity surrounding their immigration to the Ocean Parkway area helped draw more and more Jewish immigrants from the Middle East to that part of the 45th. By and large, this community vigorously proclaims its Orthodoxy but privately, I have been given to understand, practices a more relaxed version. Although it tends toward political conservatism as well, it had less impact on the voting results in the 45th because many, if not most of its members have summer homes in Deal, an expensive town on the New Jersey shore, and register to vote from those residences. It exercised significant political impact through campaign contributions, however, since many of its members had tremendous skill at retail business. Members of that community created the “Crazy Eddie” appliance stores and the Duane-Reade drugstore chain, among many other very successful businesses.

Thirteen years after I left the Assembly seat, what to many was a startling political reversal reflected, in part, these demographics changes. In the special election held on primary day, September 13, 2011 to replace Anthony Weiner, who had resigned his position as the Member of Congress for the 9th Congressional District in Brooklyn and Queens, the Republican-Conservative candidate, Robert Turner, defeated David Weprin, the Democratic candidate, who also had the support of the Working Families and Independence parties.  In the 45th Assembly district, Turner won 5916 votes, or just under 70 percent of the total, to Weprin’s 2605 votes. Statement and Return Report for Certification, Special. Assembly 23-27-54-73 Congress 9 09/13/2011 Kings County All Parties and Independent Bodies, page 2, City of New York Board of Elections.

But the transformation had been well underway while I still served. In the next post, I will explain how this change in character affected the politics of the district then.

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