Tovah Feldshuh was sitting on the subway recently, headed uptown, when she encountered something she had never witnessed in her 74 years of living in and around New York City: a public display of antisemitism.
“Those effing Jews,” she said a passenger started ranting.
Ms. Feldshuh, the film and Broadway actress who just completed a yearlong run as Mrs. Brice in “Funny Girl,” was stunned by the man on the A train who, she said, looked like a typical commuter. “Hate speech is the way you take an ax to society, the way you shatter it.”
There is no city in the world that is home to more Jews than New York, and no city in this country as defined by Jewish sensibility and culture. Jews have helped shape the New Yorkiness of New York since they began immigrating from Europe in large numbers in the 19th century. But since Oct. 7, the start of the Israel-Hamas war, many Jewish New Yorkers have felt something entirely unfamiliar: a sense that they are not home or perhaps not even welcome.
Many Jews say they have felt an uncomfortable shift in the city, a perception that their identity as New Yorkers is seen as secondary to their Judaism.
“Like every other New York Jew, I’m really troubled by the rise in antisemitism in this place that’s always been regarded as a haven for Jews,” said Senator Chuck Schumer in an interview.
Some are wearing their Jewish identities more publicly, an act of pride and defiance. Some are scared of being targeted with harassment. Even as more Jews are wearing Star of David jewelry and affixing the Israeli flag to their social media profiles, some are taking precautions too, including by changing their names to less Jewish-sounding ones on apps like Uber and Lyft.
Many say they feel further alienated by a split within the Jewish community between those who fervently support the Israeli government’s handling of the war and those who are enraged by it. Equally divisive is the schism between Jews who fear a rise of anti-Jewish bias and those who worry that such concerns are stifling free speech.
The situation has culminated in an uneasy season for much of Jewish New York. “As I’m sure a lot of people feel, the last eight weeks have been a real roller coaster of emotion,” said Hannah Bronfman, a digital media creator who lives in Greenwich Village.
If not in New York, ‘where can you be comfortable’?
The human toll in the Middle East has been staggering. The Hamas attack left more than 1,200 Israelis dead, with another 240 taken hostage, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Israel’s retaliation has killed nearly 20,000 Palestinians, according to officials in Gaza.
Nearly six thousand miles away, New York City has become a hub of daily protest, as activists urging a cease-fire have filled Grand Central Terminal, the Manhattan Bridge, college campuses and Times Square.
Many anti-Israel demonstrations have been peaceful — and attended by Jews eager to separate their Jewish identity from Israel. “I, as a Jew, personally feel horrified at what is being done by the government of Israel right now,” said Nina Dibner, 56, who attended a cease-fire rally on the first night of Hanukkah. “I want to speak very clearly that what’s been done is not done in my name.”
But increasing public displays of animosity toward Israel have rattled the country’s supporters.
“The language used in the protests and the speed with which the protests seem to devolve from protests into physical intimidation is alarming,” said Dan Senor, a co-author of the recent book “The Genius of Israel,” a senior official in the George W. Bush administration and a foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns.
“It goes way beyond criticism of Israeli policies,” said Mr. Senor, 52, adding: “It’s so clearly about being Jewish. That is very much a reality today of Jewish life in New York City.”
Bias is not a new phenomenon for Jews or Muslims in New York, but advocacy organizations for both communities have reported a spike in Islamophobia and antisemitism since the start of the war. The police have investigated an increase in reported hate crimes, some of which were aimed at Muslims, and many of which were aimed at Jews.
It has led some New Yorkers to exercise greater caution in public. Recently, when Edward Telzak, 68, was trying to find the Museum of Jewish Heritage, he considered — and decided against — asking a stranger for directions.
“If you’re uncomfortable here, where can you be comfortable?” he said.
Ms. Feldshuh says she has felt compelled to show her Jewish pride.
But she is also cautious. She wears a “Bring Them Home Now” necklace, often over a sweater, in honor of the hostages. She has started wearing a Star of David pin, but always beneath a coat.
‘New York is everybody’s city.’
At a Hanukkah party hosted last week by Mayor Eric Adams at Gracie Mansion, Jewish New Yorkers mingled with city officials and about 40 Israeli relatives of hostages still captive in Gaza.
Attendees talked about the topics that dominate Jewish conversation these days: Israel, the war, protests and antisemitism.
Bryan McNamara, 26, said he boarded a subway while wearing an Israeli flag pin recently. At one stop, “a 30-something white woman in a nice coat” approached him and whispered “Jew” along with an epithet in his ear, he said.
Alon Nimrodi, whose son, Tamir, 19, is among the kidnapped, said he was stopped in traffic near the United Nations when protesters surrounded his car and shouted into the closed windows, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The slogan is viewed by some as a call for Palestinian liberation, but others take it as an incitement to violence.
“My blood was boiled,” Mr. Nimrodi said.
That anyone should feel uncomfortable riles Michael Rapaport, the actor and podcast host who has become an influential presence on Instagram, blasting protesters and those caught on video engaging in antisemitic behavior. “That ain’t New York,” he said.
“New York is everybody’s city. It’s a Jewish city. It’s a Black city. It’s a Puerto Rican city. It’s a Chinese city. It’s everybody’s.”
But some lifelong Jewish New Yorkers say it feels less so.
Since early October, Ms. Bronfman, the investor and digital media creator, has felt a new tension, as she looks at people on the sidewalk and wonders if they have ripped down posters of kidnapped Israeli babies. Recently, someone confronted her on the subway “about how I should be speaking out more about Gazans.”
An additional cause of stress for Ms. Bronfman, she said, is the expectation she feels from social media that as a Black woman she should not be allied with Israel. (Ms. Bronfman notes that her support of Israel does not extend to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.)
“As a Jew of color,” she said, she disagrees with those drawing connections between the experiences of Black people in America and Palestinians. “The two things,” she said, “could not be further apart.”
A cease-fire rally
Powerful emotion is driving Jews who take a critical view of Israel, too.
On the first night of Hanukkah, hundreds of demonstrators gathered at Columbus Circle, including Ms. Dibner and her friend Lee Schere, also 56. “I am feeling very affirmed by so many people coming out to protest the violence of the war,” she said.
Ms. Dibner and Mr. Schere are not convinced there is a rise in antisemitism as much as “a collective fear of antisemitism” stoked by the right, she said. They worry it is being used to “squash voices that are pro-Palestinian.”
Sara Erenthal, a Brooklyn artist who was born in Israel, said she regretted the spike in Islamophobia and antisemitism, which she sees in part as fueled by the strikes on Gaza. “I really personally think that the blame is on Israel — a lot of it, not all,” she said.
Hers is not a view shared by those raised to revere Israel as a small but mighty defender of a Jewish homeland surrounded by large, often antagonistic Arab countries.
“Israel,” Ms. Feldshuh said wistfully, “this brave little sovereign country.”
A new Jewish New York moment
A “huge diversity of opinion should be expected in New York,” said Jake Cohen, 29, “because we are in the thought and culture center of the world.”
Mr. Cohen, the author of a Jewish cookbook called “I Could Nosh,” was braiding challah dough in a friend’s kitchen on a recent morning, in preparation for a Shabbat dinner they were hosting for about 200 gay Jews. He was wearing a shirt that said, “Mommy’s Little Matzo Ball.” He has long dressed in an outwardly Jewish style, though this has recently caused his mother to worry. Not him.
“I’m 6-4, in shape and ready to fight Maccabee style,” he said.
He was being kept company in the kitchen by Alex Edelman, the comedian and star of the one-man show, “Just for Us,” which recounts his attendance at a meeting of white nationalists. He and Mr. Cohen discussed the diversity of the city’s Jewish population.
“There is a Jewish moment happening in New York,” said Mr. Edelman, 34, “because it’s one of those few spaces where you have people with so many different opinions.”
“You know what they say about Jews,” Mr. Cohen interjected. “Three Jews, seven opinions.”
“They don’t say that,” Mr. Edelman said. “That’s not the math.”
To be able to live an outwardly Jewish life was a secondary benefit for Lola Mozes when she moved to New York more than 70 years ago. Foremost was a yearning for safety. Laying her eyes on the city from Ellis Island, she said, she felt illuminated by hope. “The lights of New York,” she said, searching for words, “it doesn’t exist any place in the world. It’s majestic.”
Ms. Mozes then was about 21 years old, newly married and pregnant. It was a fresh start after almost unspeakable trauma during the Holocaust. Her parents and brother were murdered by Nazis. She survived five concentration and death camps before making it to New York.
She and her husband settled in Brooklyn, but since Oct. 7, she is less comfortable in New York.
“Now with the antisemitism just becoming rampant, I feel anger and the uneasiness I felt actually as a child in Poland,” she said. She finds herself struggling with the same question that haunted her childhood: “Why would you dislike me? I’m not different than you are.”
Amelia Nierenberg contributed reporting.