In 1861, the United States was teetering on the brink of an internal war that would pit brother against brother and call into question the very existence of the country. Adding to the unrest roiling the nation, New York’s most influential rabbi of the time, Rabbi Morris Raphall, was urging members of his synagogue – and anyone else who would listen, for that matter – to support the South and slavery.
Much of New York City, including most of its Jewish residents, was pro-slavery because of that city’s deep ties to the South and the cotton trade. With the textile trade an integral part of the city’s economy, New Yorkers were afraid that a Civil War and an end to slavery would adversely affect their booming economy. (The Reform Movement within that city’s Jewish community was a notable exception to the prevailing sentiment.)
This fact is one of the surprising revelations chronicled in history Professor Howard Rock’s latest book, Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World, 1654-1865. The work is part of a three-volume set, City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York, With a Visual Essay by Diana L. Linden, that was awarded the 2012 Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award from the Jewish Book Council. Rock is one of five authors and two editors to share in the prize.
In announcing the honor, the council referred to City of Promises as “an unparalleled and essential study of one of the most significant Jewish communities in the modern world.” Reviews of the boxed set have been good. A starred Kirkus review reads, in part, “Such a large historical project could have easily descended into tedious and dry academia, but instead all three volumes are briskly paced, well-researched and insightful. Aficionados of urban histories, in particular, will find much to enjoy.” The New York Times called it a “surprisingly accessible narrative” and Publishers Weekly referred to it as a “highly valuable and vastly immersing study of how New York came to be considered a Jewish city.”
After a 35-year teaching career at FIU that included multiple stints as History Department chair and a four-year term as Faculty Senate chair, Rock was looking forward to easing into retirement in 2008 as a professor emeritus when he received a call from his former Brandeis classmate Deborah Dash Moore, co-author of his previous work Cityscapes: A History of New York in Images. Moore asked him to participate in a project chronicling the 350-year history of New York’s Jewish community (she served as general editor of the project).
“For some reason, the biggest Jewish community in the world had never been written about,” Rock says. “Portions of it had been written about, but not the community in its entirety.”
Unable to resist, Rock spent the next three years researching and writing Haven of Liberty.
“The idea behind the project was to synthesize the secondary literature that exists, but there wasn’t much for the period I was working on,” Rock says. “I wound up doing most of the research myself.”
Rock, who still teaches one course a semester at FIU, will travel with his wife to New York City in March to accept the award.