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Friday, January 1, 2021

Jews of Troy, 1850-1950

by Harvey Strum, Sage Colleges
Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved by the author


Creating a Community

“Mechanic Benjamin Fivel, a member of Company B, 105th Infantry, who was severely wounded during the Hindenburg line drive, has received his honorable discharge and returned to his home in Troy.”(1) From World War I, this story is one of the forgotten accounts of Jewish immigrants living in small towns and midsize upstate New York cities, especially in the Hudson Valley. Looking at the experiences of ethnic and religious minorities who settled in upstate New York can provide us with a fuller understanding of the immigrant experience and the problems and opportunities available to ethnic and religious minorities populating in upstate communities. How did these immigrants identify with America, and how did they adapt and change to their new environment? How did immigrants, especially the Jews of Troy, express their desire to maintain or reject the values and experiences of Jews in Europe? To what degree did they create institutions that preserved their ethnic and religious identity as distinct from the Anglo-American Protestant majority, and to what degree did they shed their customs, spiritual practices, and identity to fit in as “real Americans?” Did Jewish immigrants and their American-born descendants feel obligated to help Jews abroad? To what degree did Troy's Jews identify with Zionism as either the Jewish people's nationalist movement or as a refuge from persecution for the Jews of Russia, Romania, Poland, and Germany?

Ever since the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654, Jews grappled with the same questions---how to maintain Jewish identity in an overwhelmingly Christian society and cling to separate ethnic, religious, cultural, and social values to navigate between their Jewish identity and Americanization. The repeated problems of relatives and co-religionists in Europe raised other questions---was the solution for the European hostility to Jews mass migration to America or the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine? In looking at these questions, historians have focused on Jewish immigrants' experiences in New York City or in Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. Local Jewish historians partially filled the gap and researched the experiences of Jews in midsize cities in the Hudson Valley and upstate New York. (2)