Jewish Studies before Jewish Studies @Fordham: Interview with Professor Daniel Soyer

This year, Fordham’s Center for Jewish Studies is celebrating its fifth anniversary.  But before the formal founding of the CJS, many professors, students, librarians, and others taught, studied, and cultivated the study of Jews, Judaism, and Jewish history and culture at Fordham.  This blog series features interviews with some of these people and celebrates their lasting contributions to the university.  

This interview features Daniel Soyer, Professor of History at Fordham University, whose research and teaching focuses on Jews in New York.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the work that you do?

I am a historian of American Jewry, and especially of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe who arrived in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – and especially in New York City, which then became the greatest Jewish metropolis of all time. From that starting point, I have also written on New York politics, which, of course, had a strong ethnic component. My training was in US immigration history, and I teach that at Fordham, along with courses in American urban history, the history of New York City, and modern Jewish history.

My scholarly interests, I guess, are also very personal. I was born in New York and grew up in Queens. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for over forty years now, commuting to the Bronx since 1997. I’m interested in my own urban surroundings, and in my own background as an American Jew. I love living in the midst of the history I study.

My friend, the late artist Yonia Fain, used to say that when he was sitting in a room with one other person, he always felt that there was a third person present – and that third person was History. Yonia lived through many of the cataclysmic events of the 20th century. My own life has been much, much less dramatic, and much, much less traumatic, but I also have the feeling of being made up of history, even if that history is that of gradual social and cultural processes.

Daniel Soyer (photo credit: Patrick Verel)

When did you start teaching at Fordham and what was Fordham like at the time? 

I started teaching at Fordham in 1997. My impression is that Fordham was then in transition from being an essentially local (maybe regional) and parochial (in the narrowest sense) institution to one that had wider horizons both organizationally and intellectually.

Your area of research is American Jewish history, and the history of Jews in New York in particular.  Most recently, you published Left of Center: The Liberal Party of New York and the Rise and Fall of American Social Democracy (2021), and you edited two books: The Jewish Metropolis: New York from the 17th to the 21st Centuries (2021) and Jewish New York: The Remarkable Story of a City and a People (2017).  Your earlier work included studies of Jewish immigration to New York, Jewish immigrant associations, the stories of Eastern European immigrants to America, capitalism, socialism, and globalization. How did you become interested in the history of Jews in New York, and what are some of the contributions to scholarship that you are most proud of?

One correction: I was a co-author of Jewish New York: The Remarkable Story of a City and a People, which itself is a one-volume version of the three-volume City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York (2012), of which I co-wrote with Annie Polland the middle volume, The Emerging Metropolis: New York Jews in the Age of Immigration, 1840-1920. It’s a complicated citation!

I started graduate school at NYU with the goal of getting an MA in History and training as an archivist. I was interested in Jewish history, and especially in Eastern Europe. But the action in the History Department seemed to be in American history, and so I shifted my focus in that direction, to look at Eastern European Jews as they arrived and got settled in the US. In a course she offered at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Dr. Jenna Weissman Joselit suggested that someone do research in the fantastic collection of records of the landsmanshaftn (Jewish immigrant hometown societies) that YIVO had recently amassed. I said, “I’ll do that.” That became not only my MA thesis and PhD dissertation, but also my first book.

Some things I’m proud of:

  • The book on landsmanshaftn, which shows how the immigrants Americanized on their own terms;
  • In the collection of immigrant autobiographies that I edited and translated with Jocelyn Cohen, bringing to light the stories of “ordinary” people’s lives as they themselves saw them;
  • Showing the continued connections between immigrant Jews in the US and the “old country” through travel and travel writing, and the ways in which those connections influenced political attitudes;
  • Raising the historical profile of the anti-Communist left, which I think has been neglected in the historiography.

What are you currently working on?

I have finally decided to drop the pretense, and get to the point. I am writing a history of my own family in the context of modern Jewish history, or maybe it’s a history of the modern Jewish experience through the lens of one family from the Russian Pale of Settlement to the US and Israel. Hopefully, this will not be a narrow genealogy, but an exploration of the tremendous transformations in Jewish life that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the rise of modern cultural, political and religious movements; mass migrations; integration; genocide; the revival of Jewish sovereignty; and revolutions in the ways Jewish identities were constructed.

One thing that working on this project has done is bring me back to my original interest in Russian Jewish history. I’m trying to excavate the life of my great-grandfather, Abraham Soyer, as he grew up in a traditional milieu in a Russian shtetl, moved his family to “deep Russia,” emigrated to the US, and became involved in the revival of Hebrew as a modern literary language.

A drawing of Abraham Soyer by his son, Raphael Soyer
(“Untitled,” c. 1925, Jewish Museum)

Your family has deep roots in the Bronx.  Your grandfather, Moses, and his twin brother, Raphael, were both well-known artists.  Can you tell us more about your family’s story and how your personal history intersects with your research?

My great-grandparents Avrom and Beyle were raising their six children in the provincial Russian city of Borisoglebsk, where Avrom was a Hebrew teacher to the small Jewish community there. When he lost his permit to live outside of the Pale of Settlement, he and Beyle chose to emigrate. The oldest children, twins Moses and Raphael, were twelve. They first went to Philadelphia, where they had family (an example of “chain migration”), but soon moved to New York, where prospects for a teacher of Hebrew and Hebrew Bible were better. They settled in the Bronx, where Moses, Raphael, and their siblings grew up. As you mention, Moses and Raphael became painters, as did their younger brother Isaac.

Moses Soyer, “Three Brothers” (Brooklyn Museum)

Everyone else – brother Israel, and sisters Rebecca and Fannie, became teachers. New York City became their new homeland, whether they were centered in the Bronx, the Upper West Side of Manhattan (including Lincoln Square – see Raphael’s painting, “Farewell to Lincoln Square”), or in Bohemian Greenwich Village. 

Raphael Soyer’s “Farewell to Lincoln Square” (1959)

I should also mention that my mother grew up in the Bronx, where she attended Taft High School. Her father was a prominent local dentist and her mother was a school teacher. They lived on and around the Grand Concourse, which is where prominent Bronx dentists and such tended to live.

My mother’s grandparents all immigrated to New York in the 1880s and 1890s, so my roots in the city go back well over a century – of continuous residence! I feel fortunate to have that personal connection to a place that is also such a fertile field for historical research.

Rebecca teaching Moses to dance in Raphael Soyer’s “Dancing Lesson” (Jewish Museum)
A letter from Moses Soyer to his grandson Daniel Soyer (Smithsonian Archives of American Art)

One of the dominant themes in your work is immigration.  How does working at a university founded by immigrants, in a city of immigrants, impact the research and teaching that you do?

One of the purposes of studying history is to enable one to see one’s surroundings in four dimensions – in time as well as in space. Even though my research is on the immigrant wave of a century ago, it gives me some perspective on the immigrant city I live and work in now. And vice versa, observing the living immigrant city informs my perspective on the past.

Teaching immigration history, urban history, and Jewish history in New York City is great. The students can go outside and see how what they are studying looks in real life. They can do this on their own, of course, but in all my classes I also assign activities that involve finding traces of the past in today’s city. We also always go on at least one field trip together, something like a walking tour of a neighborhood like the South Bronx, Washington Heights, Harlem, the Lower East Side, or Jackson Heights.

What Jewish Studies courses do you typically teach on campus, and what inspired you to teach them?

I teach “HIST 1851: Jews in the Modern World,” a survey of modern Jewish history that is one of the choices among the History Department’s “Understanding Historical Change” courses that students must take as part of the Core Curriculum. Students also have a chance to write papers on Jewish themes in my NYC and immigration history classes.

In the coming year, I hope to offer a course in American Jewish history. This would be the first time that I would be teaching it, though it has been offered before by one of our visiting fellows, Dr. Ayelet Brinn.

Honestly, I offer these courses because I’m interested in them. But I hope that the students are also, and I’m sure that they can get something out of them which will help them understand their world better.

Daniel Soyer (right) leading a group of Fordham alumni on a walking tour of the Lower East Side

In what ways has Fordham’s Jesuit and Catholic missions impacted the work that you do, in the classroom and beyond?

As a Jesuit and Catholic university, Fordham takes seriously the humanities in general, and history in particular, and this has been a great encouragement in my teaching and research. Certainly, teaching at a Catholic institution has made me think more seriously about the role of religion (as opposed to just ethnicity), religious diversity, and, unfortunately, sometimes religious bigotry, in American history and culture, something that I think many American historians, with their secular(ist) training and personal inclinations neglect.

Any thoughts about Jewish Studies @Fordham as we celebrate its fifth anniversary?

It turns out that Jewish Studies has existed at Fordham for some time. Not only were there colleagues who studied Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic Judaism, but also modern Hebrew literature, Jewish ethnography, antisemitism, the history of Israel, and Jewish history. But some of us never even got to teach in our research specialties. It took the arrival of Magda Teter as Shvidler Chair to bring Jewish Studies out from underground, introduce Fordham Jewish Studies scholars to each other, create a coherent framework for the study and teaching of the discipline, attract students, and make Jewish Studies visible on the campus and the community. Thanks to Dr. Teter and now also Dr. Kattan Gribetz for all the great programming, collaboration with other institutions, and nurturing of students for Jewish Studies at Fordham!

Thank you, Daniel, for such a moving and informative interview!