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Shari Rabin joins us for a wide-ranging discussion about her exciting new book, Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth Century America. We discuss why nineteenth-century American Jewish history is important, the debates over the distinctiveness of America and Jewish history here, the transformation of Jewish religious life in America, and the question of assimilation and what the history of American Jewish life has to tell us about our own time of DIY Judaism and post-denominationalism.
- Read the introduction to Jews on the Frontier
- Purchase the book on Amazon
- Follow Shari Rabin on Twitter at @ShariRabin
Other books, people, and ideas mentioned:
- Shari Rabin, “‘Let Us Endeavor to Count Them Up’: The Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Jewish Demography.” American Jewish History 101, no. 4 (October 2017): 419-440
- Sander L. Gilman, “The Frontier as a Model for Jewish History”
- Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” (2013)
- Ulysses S. Grant, General Order No. 11
- Isaac Mayer Wise (and digital archives)
- Isaac Leeser
- Joseph Jonas (the first Jew to settle in Cincinnati) describes the letter he received in 1816
Jews on the Frontier describes and analyzes the impact of what she terms unfettered mobility for nineteenth-century American Jews. She argues that mobility was a defining and distinctive characteristic of the American environment, in key distinction from the European world in which she suggests Jews were much more constrained in how they were able to settle and travel. The book is organized around themes of movement and belonging lives religion and creating a distinctive American Judaism for this mobile environment. That’s to say that the book progresses through trying to understand what’s interesting and new about the “unfettered mobility” which American Jews had access to, how this affected the way individual Jews practiced Judaism and also the efforts to build up American Jewish institutions by leading figures like Isaac Leeser and Isaac Mayer Wise. She concludes with 1877, a year she describes as a “catalyst for a rising tide of institutionalization and denominational identity that would peak during the Protestant-Catholic-Jews moment of the 1950s.”
Shari Rabin is assistant professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.
What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
Jason Lustig: I wanted to start by talking about the nineteenth century in broad terms. Why does nineteenth-century American Jewish history matter, especially given the demographic tidal wave of East European mass migration which would begin in the 1880s so shortly after your book ends?
Shari Rabin: I think the nineteenth century is really important. It’s gotten a lot less attention, when people think about American Jewish history they think turn of the twentieth-century: big cities, especially the Lower East Side. And so the sort of simplest intervention of this book is pointing people to the nineteenth century and to places outside of New York.
The nineteenth century is important for a number of reasons. First of all, most American Jewish communities were created in this period. There were new communities created in hundreds of cities all across the United States. This is a period of the rise of Jewish communities major cities like Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, San Francisco, L.A.—big cities but also in lots of smaller communities. A lot of American Jewish communities get their start in this period. But also I think American Jews in this period helped kind of set up the infrastructure of American Judaism. So when Eastern European immigrants started coming in the 1880s and later, they didn’t find a sort of tabula rasa. They came to places that already had a sort of infrastructure of American Jewish life and that on the one hand sort of helped them and interacted with them. But on the other hand, it served in some ways as a model.
The book, of course, ends in 1877, so I’m careful not to make too many claims about what happens after. But I do talk a little bit in the conclusion about this about how the the nineteenth century served as a prelude and helped set up what the Eastern European immigrants would would find. And also I think that in some ways, the issues that we see in the nineteenth century are repeated with a different emphasis, because later immigrants were more urban and there were many more of them. But I think some of the issues and challenges of American Jewish life that these American Jews in the nineteenth century were dealing with were also there for the later wave of immigrants, except they already had institutions and ways of dealing with it.
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JL: I found it really interesting that you ended in 1877. It’s just after 1876, so it almost matches up with the American centennial. You’re making an implicit chronological argument, in a way, that American Jewish history follows the pattern of American history—but just a bit off. At the same time, you’re also delineating an era before the rise of institutionalized American Jewish life. 1877 is a moment at the cusp of the creation of many communities situations whether you’re looking at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, founded just a few years before that, or any number of other examples.
SR: I think the 1776 point is interesting, and I think the fact that the book ends almost exactly a hundred years afterwards points, in some ways, to my interest in the state. I think that the American state, and how it frames Jews and it interacts with Jews, is important in the book. That’s part of why I think the nineteenth century is also important, that it’s not just this wave of immigration from German-speaking lands. It’s also that it’s coinciding with this period of the development of American state formation and westward expansion.
And the 1870s are also certainly when many of these institutions come into fruition, like the Hebrew Union College and the UAHC, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. There was talk of them for decades, as poor Isaac Leeser’s trying to get these institutions going as early as 1841, so they’re trying early on. They wanted these institutions—they see them as a way to regularize and stabilize American Jewish life. But it’s only in the 1970s when there’s a critical mass of Jews who are stable, who have resources, and who get around to creating these institutions.
JL: What do we learn about Jewish history, broadly speaking, from studying nineteenth-century America? And what does the story you’re telling about American Jews tell us about America at large, and the immigrant experience in general?
SR: Part of what is so interesting about the nineteenth century was the fact that it really had not been studied much at all (in the context of American Jewish history). Of course, there’s tons of stuff on nineteenth-century America and even religion in nineteenth-century America. And there’s tons of stuff about modern Jewish history in Europe. These adjacent fields are hugely important, and hugely central to how we think. So part of what was interesting for this project was digging in and seeing what focusing on American Jews can deepen our understanding of these two larger narratives.
In terms of modern Jewish history more broadly, the nineteenth century is this period in Central Europe of the story of Emancipation, and in Russia the ongoing interactions between the Jewish community and the Tsars. I was struck a lot in my reading by the literature that’s interested in Eastern Europe and Eastern European Jewish experience as distinct from Western Europe, where great people like Gershon Hundert are pointing out that there is a distinctive Eastern European mentality and approach to modernity—that you can’t study Eastern Europe using the lenses that have been developed in the study of German Jews and the story of the Emancipation and acculturation, etc. I think I didn’t lean on this too hard in the book, but I think one way to read what I’m doing is adding the United States to to this story, saying that there’s this Western European experience, there’s an Eastern European experience, and also the United States is its own sort of distinct experience, and you can’t look at the United States only through the models created to study Western and Eastern Europe.
In the first chapter I talk a bit about the politics of mobility, and I talk about the different politics of movement in Western Europe. There, you get a sort of organized mobility that there’s not a whole lot of state oversight. And then in Central and Eastern Europe, you get more of a monitored mobility. Certainly, the details are similar or different based on the state and that’s part of what’s sort of challenging about studying the German lands in this period, since we don’t get Germany until 1871. So throughout this period, there’s kingdoms and and city states and all these different units, each of which has its own policy towards Jews. But I think we can say that in much of Central and Eastern Europe, Jewish movement is monitored. If you’re Jewish and it says “Jewish” on your passport, where you can move and live is a matter of state interest. In the United States, I would argue this mobility is unfettered for Jews. They’re able to move and they’re not even marked as Jewish by the government in any way. So they’re going wherever they want to, in a sort of chaotic fashion in this period of westward expansion.
So that that’s what I think we can add to our understanding of modern Jewish history. Looking at this emphasis on mobility which is also, by the way, connected with the Jewish institutional life, because in places where there is monitored or organized mobility there were official Jewish institutions and communities. And in the United States where there is unfettered mobility there’s also this absence of institutions.
JL: I was particularly struck by your language of “unfettered mobility,” which is a particularly apt way to describe the ability of Jews in the US to move more or less freely from place to place. But it situates your book, in my view a little uncomfortably, as a bit closer to the idea of American exceptionalism, which so many people have moved away from since we want to say that history is universal, nothing is particularly exceptional, all people and nations follow the same rules. It seems to me that you’re making an argument, in a certain way, in favor of a kind of distinctiveness of the American Jewish experience.
But I would add that I don’t entirely disagree with you, especially when it comes to mobility. Look at the Pale of Settlement, the epitome of restrictive mobility. But the Russian comparison is maybe the most stark contrast that we can make, and it might not reflect the complex realities of mobility in Europe, where Jews were also increasingly mobile even if they were restricted in some ways. And so I’m not so sure that the distinction that you’re laying out is so stark.
SR: Fair enough. I’m not arguing that America is exceptional, not only because that’s like a dirty language in academic circles these days. I think what I’m trying to do is not to say that America is exceptional because of its freedom, liberty, etc. I’m trying to say that there were specific conditions related to the formations of the American state and American capitalism that shaped the kinds of religious life that developed here. If you look at any state in the nineteenth century in Europe, like Bavaria, Russia, or France, I think I’m pointing to the conditions of the state and the state’s interest in Jews and in religion and in movement have coalesced to shape the Jewish life that takes place there.
And I do think that the United States was distinctive, because of its lack of interest in Jews. And in the nineteenth century its expanding empire offers these new opportunities and challenges for Jews. So I would say distinctive, not exceptional.
JL: So we’ve talked about geographical distinctiveness but what about in chronological terms. I was recently reading another book Robert Chasan’s reassessing Jewish life in medieval Europe. He’s obviously writing about an entirely different context but the language and tenor he uses to describe medieval Jewish migration seems to strike a chord with what you’re talking about. I’ll quote from his book, where he says: “the movement of Jews beyond the usual perimeter of their prior settlement seems to have involved decisions on the part of a small number of adventuresome Jews, that economic opportunities in these developing areas warranted the gamble of attempting to settle in them. To be sure, this decision may well reflect the limitations encountered in places of prior settlement. But Jewish migration into northern Europe looks much more like the entirely human drive toward betterment for self and family.” Now, clearly I don’t think that we can directly compare nineteenth century America and medieval England for instance. And we should note that Chasan is trying really hard to paint a picture of medieval Europe as more positive for Jews and less lachrymose. And of course, Jewish mobility in medieval times was certainly not “unfettered,” to use your term. But regardless of any differences, it’s fascinating that the kind of language of Jewish migration resonates with the way that you’re talking about mobility. So do we have parallel stories of personal ambition and adventure?
SR: Of course, this is not the first time that Jews moved or went to new places. But I think it is a place where Jews were able to move without fear of expulsion and you know Ulysses S. Grant’s Order No. 11 notwithstanding. It’s a case of a kind of radical voluntary migration, and it’s not just migration from point A to point B. You have people moving dozens of times in search of economic prospects, and across huge swaths of land. So it’s really on a new, radical scale. The amount of movement that they’re doing, I think, is what’s also distinctive here as well as the state’s absolute refusal to classify Jews as such in any way. There’s no limitations on Jews as Jews for the most part. But nor is there any aid or assistance to Jewish communal life. So they’re able to move and mostly as individuals, not as groups. And then if they want any sort of Jewish life, they have to create it on their own.
I do think there are parallels to other periods in Jewish history, but I see nineteenth-century America as a particularly intense example of it, and then I want to argue that this these conditions created a very different sort of development of American Judaism in these new places where it’s difficult to practice the basics of Jewish life. People still want to maintain Judaism and they adopt new kinds of criteria of authenticity in formulating their religious lives.
One of my favorite sources is a deposition from 1859 where a Jew in St. Louis claims that his children, his three sons, are Jewish even though their mother is not Jewish he’s raising them as Jews. He’s had them circumcised, and the father himself never changed his religion and his children are Jewish. It’s a fascinating for a number of reasons because that kind of chutzpah to say, you know, forget millennia of Jewish law that says that Jewish identity comes from the mother. I’m claiming a Jewish identity for my children. And he’s using a tool of the state, a legal deposition, to claim this patrilineal descent.
I’m not going to say that something like that never happened elsewhere or prior in America or Jewish history. But I think it is a striking document and I think you’d be hard pressed to find at the very least that other other places in the world in the nineteenth century this kind of insistence and sort of expansion of the parameters of Jewish authenticity.
JL: I think one of the differences, especially if we want to think about what’s novel and the American Jewish experience, is the lack of state or government intervention into Jewish life. Whereas if you look elsewhere the state is very involved in providing the Jewish communities with the authority to police Jewish life.
SR: This is something we don’t really see in the U.S. It’s not that there’s no interaction with the state. There isn’t the same sort of state interest in Jewish life or activity per se. The state does play a role. Someone can have a deposition insisting on the Jewish identity of their children, and there’s options for civil marriage through which presumably the father who wrote that deposition had married a non-Jewish woman. So there’s the tools of civil marriage which there weren’t in many places in Europe. There are ways that the state shows up and frames Jewish life. But it’s more of a tool than a sort of overseeing entity. There are a couple examples given in chapter 1 of places where the state does end up intervening in activities of Jews and the Civil War most strikingly, right, Grant’s Order No. 11—very short lived but still interesting that Ulysses S. Grant sort of banished the old Jews from the Department of Tennessee because he was associating them with speculation. But that’s a blip, and in most cases you see the state bothering Jews disproportionately in the name of other things. There’s licenses required for peddling that are onerous, and Jews are dispassionately affected, and sometimes antisemitic rhetoric gets into those discussions. But for the most part it’s not about Jews per se.
It’s the same with Sunday Sunday closing laws. They are about managing time. And by the way they’re not particularly good for Jews. For the most part the state is interested in other things, and even if Jews sometimes get caught in his crosshairs.
JL: I wanted to talk a bit about the title and especially how you see Jews on the frontier. Of course, titles are not always the work of the author, but rather the publisher. But still, can you tell us about what you mean when you say “Jews on the frontier”?
SR: The title actually came relatively late. As a dissertation, this was called “Manifest Jews.” That was very clever, it alluded to manifest destiny, and also Jews becoming “manifest,” you know, becoming apparent, and also a manifest like a ship’s manifest. And then I wanted “frontier Jews,” but they came to “Jews on the frontier.”
The frontier is this loaded concept, especially in American history and the history of the West. I tend to be kind of loose about it. This is not the frontier as, you know, west of the Mississippi River or in a sort of classic Frederick Jackson Turner determinism. I used Sander Gilman’s definition of the frontier. He wrote a book called Jews at the Frontier that’s about the frontier places where different groups interact and and build and destroy. I’m interested in frontier in the sort of broad sense. I think at another point I describe it with mobility, that it is a kind of milieu and mentality of the frontier which happens in all kinds of places. In the book there are a lot of examples from the West and from places that I think are classically the frontier, but there’s also a lot of material from the south from the Midwest even from the northeast. And even, you know, for Jews places that were not the frontier were still frontier-esque places, as relatively new environments in which they were interacting with all different kinds of people and trying to build something. So that’s my sort of take on the frontier issue.
JL: Certainly the frontier you’re describing isn’t the frontier the average person today would think of. You’re describing it in a way that folks living in the nineteenth century would have understood it.
SR: Certainly, the frontier is different at the beginning of the nineteenth century than it is at the end of the nineteenth century, with westward expansion, but also I think I’m saying something even more broad which is that the frontier happens in many different places, even not in the West. I use some of the diaries of Abraham Cohn who was a peddler in New England. And I want to use a frontier experience of this peddler in rural Massachusetts. So it’s it’s more of a concept than a than a place, I would say.
JL: But of course, it’s also something very specific, both in your way of talking about it as manifest Jews, as well as this language of the frontier for the book. One of the things that comes through is the participation of Jews in westward expansion and you gesture out in the introduction when you point to the mural of Emanuel Leutze in the U.S. Capitol, which depicts a West largely devoid of people, perhaps problematically.
SR: It does have people, just not a lot of diversity.
JL: But it does raise an important question that needs to be addressed, about the place of Jews and America’s settler-colonial history.
JL: Yeah. So Jews are absolutely part of that. Others have focused more on sort of Jews participation in an earlier the very earliest sort of waves of of westward expansion and their interactions with Native Americans. David Kaufman for instance has written on the relationship between Jews and Native Americans. And I do talk a little bit about some people who who were directly part of that process. Sahlman Núñez Carvalho shows up once or twice I believe when he made it into the book and he’s someone who brings me to garret hypocenter John C. Fremont Westword exhibition in 1852 his fifth expedition in search of a route for the transcontinental railroad. He’s someone who is kind of directly involved in that project and wrote fascinating sort of memoirs of those travels. Because I’m mostly interested in sort of the development of Jewish religious life.
And the book is mostly not about those sort of the very first Jew to make it to X territory. It tends to be about what happens once there’s kind of a critical mass. And because a lot of them were peddlers, they often weren’t the very first wave of settlers. They came afterwards to provide services to those people. But Jews certainly are part of the larger American project of westward expansion. They go to these new places and they settle there. And I think what’s interesting to me is that they’re enthusiastic participants in this process and they’re excited about being part of a national project and they use a lot of the same sort of rhetoric of of manifest destiny and they but they also internalize it and use it to describe themselves and their own experience the kind of language of imperialism and and manifest destiny and this is chapter 6 talks a lot about this and it’s called “the empire of our religion,” and that’s a quote from from one of my sources.
They internalized that language and talk about how they’re planting the banner of Judaism in unknown places, so they replicate the rhetoric of the empty land. And they’ll say, you know, “here where the war whoop of the Indian once was called out, now we are praying to our Lord in the ancient Hebrew language,” so they’re participating in that discourse of the disappearing Native Americans. Also, there’s there’s quite a bit of anti-Catholic anti-Spanish sentiment. So they’re using that which allows them to participate in this broader American project, but they also bring it into their own specific language and rhetoric about the development of American Jewish institutions.
JL: So on that note, one of the things that struck me was that you didn’t really deal directly with people outside of the Jewish sphere. Can we effectively comprehend Jewish history by focusing on the Jews to the extent that other groups don’t play a part in the story in a more direct way?
SR: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think I start from the assumption that these Jews are surrounded by non-Jews, and so a lot of what I’m charting is given the fact of their radical immersion in American life. How do they then try to cobble together religious lives religious community, etc.? Finding nine other Jews to make a minyan is a big struggle for these people. But, you know, certainly when they’re not trying to find religious religious life and find other Jews, they are surrounded by all kinds of people, Native Americans, African-Americans, white Americans. That’s part of the story, and part of the story too is is about how there’s a lot of scholarship on how Jews become white in the twentieth century. From my perspective, looking at the nineteenth century, I want to say that Jews are white in the nineteenth century. In American law, they have access to citizenship and unfettered mobility, and that mobility is in many ways premised on Whiteness. And in everyday life there aren’t that many Jews in America at this point. Most Christians don’t even know when they’re when they’re looking at one. So they’re seen in large part as white. Now, of course, sometimes when they find out they’re talking to a Jew things will come out. And there are some moments that I talked about where Jewish differences and the sort of visibility and sort of of the Jewish community and of individual Jews kind of pushes against that and makes them sort of a subject of the attention. But for the most part, they’re seen as white and they have those privileges.
JL: So let’s shift gears here for a second. Obviously a big part of what you’re discussing in the book is the religious transformations of Jewish life in America. What’s the overall trajectory that you’re tracing? What’s it telling us about American Jewish life in general, whether we’re looking at the nineteenth century or the twenty-first? And also, as I read through your book I was reminded of this famous 1816 letter from a Philadelphia Jew to Joseph Jonas, a figure who ultimately would settled in Cincinnati. Jonas received this letter which wrote, “In the wilds of America, and entirely among the Gentiles, you will forget your religion and your God.” Now, is this what you’re describing in so many words? Is it a story of the decline of religious practices? And what does it tell us about the transformation of Jewish life?
SR: That fear that, you know, America is going to be the death of Jewish practice, is a fear that that you see in this period for sure. But that’s not what I think happened. A couple of times in the book, I talk about my discomfort and rejection of notions of assimilation or Protestantization. I think actually what we see is kind of a reallocation and realignment of Judaism. The case of the deposition that I mentioned is so fascinating because it’s someone really, truly wanting to maintain Jewish identity and practice, but in this way that breaks with traditional Jewish laws. I think it is fair to say that there is a sort of breakdown in halakhic practice, but I don’t think that that necessarily is a decline in Judaism.
I think in fact there’s been an expansion in understandings of Jewish authenticity and kind of using the tools of American life these used kinds of reconceptualize what Judaism is. And really there’s a lot of of language from, you know, rabbis complaining about this and I think a lot of scholars have sort of followed them and seen this as signs of of assimilation. But I guess I want us to sort of look more closely at these individuals themselves and to come at it less with a sort of report card: Are they a member of a synagogue? Are they observing kashrut? Instead, being more sensitive to to what they’re actually doing on the ground. So that’s what I’d say is that there is a maybe a breakdown of interest of practice according to the strictures of halakhah, but that’s accompanied by a sort of reformulation and expansion of what Judaism means to these people.
JL: I think it’s really interesting that you’re bringing up rabbis as those who are especially big complainers about the egregious practices of American Jews. You might even see it as an expression of their sense of their own slipping authority in a way, especially since this is a time when there are so few rabbis in the US. And it’s interesting to think about how these fears of assimilation have something specific to do with this question of clerical authority.
SR: Certainly, there’s not a lot of rabbis in this period. There are a lot of sort chazzanim who are who are kind of schlemiels, who are hired to do the stuff of Jewish life in a given congregation. One of my favorite documents that I found in my research was a contract for one of these chazzanim in Pittsburgh. Ouf, it’s like a three month contract for basically no money. And not only is he expected to lead services and teach the children but also schecht the meat, dig the graves, and clean the synagogue building. These are employees, not sort of heightened, respected religious authorities.
But there are some rabbis, and there are leaders. In the second half of the book I talk a lot about Isaac Mayer Wise and Isaac Leeser. I think part of what’s fascinating about them is, first of all, they certainly are trying to bolster their own authority. Part of what goes into the creation of Hebrew Union College, for instance, is a desire to create concrete credentials so that, at the very least, there is some kind of standard for Jewish religious leadership. And they’re very careful to distinguish themselves from the sort of chazzanim-for-hire. They want to see themselves as separate, but at the same time they’re decrying what they see out in the American Jewish world, they’re pretty obsessed with it. And I think that’s part of the argument is that not only were there these eclectic forms of Jewish religious life that developed in this period, but that many of the institutions and ideologies of American Judaism were direct responses to this.
Isaac Mayer Wise’s efforts are not only about creating an English-speaking, middle-class, respectable American Judaism. It’s about creating an American Judaism that everybody can agree on that can deal with the issues of chaos that he sees on the ground. At one point, he says that he’s fearful that in twenty years’ time, American Jews won’t even recognize each other anymore because each congregation and each individual has its own reforms. They’re very aware of these various eclectic forms of religious life and he’s breaking with halakhah and they’re trying to do what they can both Wise and Leeser who often are seen as kind of reform and orthodox and as doing different things. They both are obsessed with this question of how do we create an “American Judaism,” meaning a Judaism that is suitable for the lives that these Jews are living throughout the American continent.
JL: Maybe one way to think about what you’re talking about here is the poverty of the concept of assimilation. Part of what you’re arguing here is that Jewish life in the US has been a flowering diversity, not just a downward trajectory.
SR: Absolutely right. If our standard of Jewishness is a narrow sort of congregational membership or a narrow, you know, strict observance of halakhah, then I guess one could see assimilation. But I think that there’s tons of poverty in how we understand Judaism. I think that what we actually see is is a sort of complex, diverse engagement with Judaism in and out of congregations and, you know, in and out of conversation with halakhah. And and I think this is the sort of the bonus of instead of looking at, you know, at synagogue records, which you know have a certain appeal as very easy to access and say lot of important and interesting things. But in the synagogue minutes you can see them agonizing over how to deal with these Jews who are only optional or occasionally coming into their walls.
But I think starting with individual Jews and looking at their lives and experiences and seeing the ways in which they engage with Judaism, that allows us to see a more complicated story than one of simple assimilation. Think about the guy who’s so desperate for his children to be seen as Jewish that he has a deposition taken. Now I don’t think you can call that assimilation, even if he is married to a non-Jewish woman.
JL: He’s very much wanting them to be Jewish.
SR: He’s not trying to leave the Jewish community, exactly. He’s fighting his way in. And he’s not the only one. There’s a whole controversy in New Orleans about this same issue of circumcising the sons of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, and there are many sources dealing with that question, there’s lots of intermarriage in the nineteenth century. And yet these individuals and their families are still trying to stay within the bounds of the Jewish community.
JL: I mean I guess one of the things to think about here is we’re both talking about the poverty of the language of assimilation. It carries so much ideological baggage. People talk more think about acculturation or hybridity today. And so, how can we bridge this gap between how scholars might see the language of assimilation as problematic, and the way it’s part of a broader discourse?
SR: I think what the book does is trace anxieties about assimilation, which are in many unfounded. I think that looking at this pre-denominational history of American Jews helps us understand more fully the current denominational moment. And I think it could enrich our conversations about contemporary American Judaism and the eclecticism and lack of affiliation and all these things that people are concerned about today. I think if you look to the nineteenth century and see that in some ways these are sort of essential, continual, inherent aspects of American Jewish life, it can take away a little bit of the language of panic because part of what it does is show that what is may be seem as bad for institutions and from the perspective of rabbis is not necessarily bad for Judaism and Jews. In the nineteenth century, there were lot of things that are similar to what we see now. And the institutions and ideologies are not the state of nature. They were creations of a particular time and context intended to solve particular problems. The denominations and the congregations should not be our standard of the health of of American Judaism. They’re one aspect that was not inevitable, and is not inherent to American Jewish life.
JL: I like the way you put it, that these institutions aren’t necessarily part of the state of nature. Especially at the turn of the new year when we get so many letters in the mail from institutions with appeals for funds, we see this continued communal panic or anxiety about the continuation of Jewish life and especially institutional life.
SR: One thing I’d say about that is there’s all this panic who are like, “Oh no, people aren’t being members of synagogues, synagogues are struggling.” I think looking to this early in history leads us to ask the question, why do we have congregations and synagogues in the first place? Why were they there? What was their role in the past? And I think we can see in the in the nineteenth century that they were never particularly stable, and they were for many Jews not the primary form of American Jewish life. The things that we have received in the American Jewish community today are constructed, and are one one option that emerged out of history—but not the only option.
JL: I think we continue to see some of these anxieties. You’re talking about people in the nineteenth century who were concerned about the falling away of religious practices. And today we have the recent 2013 Pew study of American Jewish religious life, another infamous claim of America’s effect on Jewish practice.
SR: I know, and I think that just because American Jews are doing things outside of synagogues or outside of halakhah, just because what they’re doing isn’t seen in the Pew study, it doesn’t mean that they’re not doing things and that they’re not creating Jewish lives in all kinds of creative ways. And another thing I’ll say is that, as I was writing this I was living in Brooklyn and going to independent minyan. And I was struck oftentimes that I’d be spending the day talking about the nascent Jewish communities in the nineteenth century and how eight guys would get together in someone’s store on the high holidays or or would buy a burial ground and they’d just cobble things together, and then I was in Brooklyn where young Jews are doing basically a similar thing, but by choice. I think one lesson is is that the grassroots, DIY forms of of Jewish religious life have been a constant, and also are really important and empowering for American Jews.
Speaking of surveys, one of the things I’ve charted is sort of rise of American Jewish Demography. And I had an article come out on this American Jewish History. When American Jewish communities are writing letters to newspapers describing Jewish life in their community, they’re super enthusiastic. Everybody wants to describe their community and be published in the newspaper. But as soon as the leaders send out a survey and say, hey fill out the survey, no one wants to fill out a survey. They get less than half of the surveys returned to them. I think empowering ordinary people to take ownership and agency over their Jewish lives has been how they want to engage with Judaism. The top-down forms of Jewish life, for many Jews, have not been particularly satisfactory.
JL: So do you see, in a way, a return to some of the DIY Judaism with an interlude of institutionalism, or can you trace more of a through line?
SR: I haven’t done the study, but I think I would say that these kinds of kind of DIY, idiosyncratic sort of practices and forms of Jewish life have been a constant in American Jewish life. I think there are times when they been more or less prevalent.
And it’s different in the nineteenth century. There wasn’t a denomination or an institutional infrastructure for them too, where it didn’t exist, so it was kind of by necessity that it was DIY, and now it’s more of the countercultural, explicit rejection of the institution. So it is a little bit different, but I think it is a constant. I I also think that there is a sort of crescendo in the twentieth century that peaked in the 1950s, of this institutionalization and denominational affiliation, where the U.S. in the mid-century, these high rates of synagogue affiliation and the concertizing of the different denominational identities. And so I think that’s a moment of the height of that kind of American Jewish establishment. Since then, we’ve seen more and more kind of deviation from that.
And of course it’s never totally separate. There’s always a back and forth, and American Jews are resourceful and use what is around and helpful and meaningful. Sometimes they show up to synagogues, and sometimes they don’t. They cobble things together in their own ways and sometimes they create whole sort of communal formations like the Havurot of the 1970s, and more recently with the independent minyanim to kind of concretized that sort of DIY approach.
JL: You conclude the book with a really remarkable way of talking about it, where you say “We are all mobile Jews, grasping religiously with the uncertainties possibilities and limits of American Jewish life.” So you started the book with a gesture at the 2013 Pew study and then at the end you returned to the present, to twenty-first century American Jews as mobile, just like the people you described in the nineteenth century. So what does this history tell us about religion today, both among Jews and also broadly speaking?
SR: Another thing I’ll say about the Pew study is that what’s interesting to me about all these discussions of affiliation is that they have a very short and narrow historical memory. Affiliation is a new American question. In most places in Europe in the nineteenth century, you were marked as Jewish on your identity documents. You didn’t affiliate or not. Affiliation in and of itself, as a of mode of of Jewish identity, is a new one. And I think you can see in the story that I tell and even now that affiliation particularly in the form of congregational membership has often been sort of unsatisfying to Jews and often an ill fit with more capacious understandings of Jewish identity.
And then on the sort of the dramatic conclusion, I kind of went back and forth on that last line and how grand I wanted to be. But I think I’m getting at a larger way in which these eclectic forms of of religious practice that we see are ways of dealing with with what I see as the distinctive features of American life, really the possibilities available to Jews. But those possibilities also come at a cost. I talk about anonymity and loneliness as key features of American life, and so what I see as sort of religion for these American Jews but also in America more broadly is the attempts by people within the context of the American state and American capitalism, are attempts to make sense of their lives to find stability and meaning and identity.
And that’s something that is not limited to nineteenth century American Jews but can be found in all groups and in all areas. I’d say that’s what people are are trying to do, is to create stability and to stave off the loneliness and anonymity of American life.
As to the American immigrant experience more broadly, I do think that in some ways I’m arguing for a new way of thinking about religion in America, focusing on Jews. I do think Jews are useful and they illuminate aspects of the American experience because their change in status was so profound. And they also had no religious infrastructure. So Catholics and Protestants coming to the U.S. in the nineteenth century either were coming from places where they were the majority, or not, just in some cases were minorities but also had religious infrastructure. And then once they got to the United States there were already Protestant denominations set up, and the Catholic Church. You know there’s a fascinating story of the Catholic Church’s kind of westward expansion, but there was a clear hierarchy with religious authorities to add and funding to kind of do that.
So Jews, I think, are different in ways that are interesting but I think they point to some of the rules of American life, how it demands invisibility and individuality of difference. And also, the ways in which the sort of conditions of mobility create real religious problems. I don’t think it’s only Jews either. The strictures of halakhah help to highlight the challenges that being in new places and on the road pose to religious life. But I think one could find similar dynamics among other Jews and among other non-Jewish groups. I think you could see in those groups as well, if you look at individuals and the religious lives I think you might find a similar dynamics and similar responses to the challenges of mobility.
JL: I’d like to come back, as we conclude, towards what we started with. I had initially asked you about the relevance of this time period, of the nineteenth century, and you were talking about what it teaches us about both American and Jewish history. And so the last thing I’d ask might be: In what ways does this all help us understand why Jewish history matters? What I mean by this is that I think what you’re telling us here is a very important story about the development of American Judaism and the distinctiveness of America as a place where Jews have had a certain kind of mobility. We might ask, though, the extent to which this is distinctive. It’s a tough question, if it’s part of an increasing mobility in modern times across the board leading up to today, when almost all listeners to this podcast will enjoy it on a mobile device of one kind or another. And so we can think about the importance of mobility in terms of a much broader history. What I would ask you here is: What’s the takeaway in terms of understanding why Jewish history matters, and not just this nineteenth century period but in terms of understanding American history at large? To what extent should we say that someone who wants to grasp the contours of American history needs to look to Jewish history and see what you’re engaging with as a critical component of our understanding of the development of America?
SR: I think I’d say a couple of things. I think in terms of mobility in America, Jews provide a really interesting window on to the dynamics of diversity and discrimination in American life. They’re sort of in between. And I start with the assumption that Jews are seen as white, but then I talk a lot about sort of the invisibility and individualism of difference. I think that helps us to bring together how race and religion are understood in in America. It’s not just that Jews are a different religion, or a particular religion. It’s that they get along best when their difference is not something that can be seen on the body. And that is individual in particular people. So I think it sheds light on these questions of who gets accepted in America and under what conditions.
And then the flipside of that is looking at the question of religion in America. I think looking at Jews helps highlight how religion has been really important in America, and it’s not something that can only be looked at in sermons and in churches. Religion played a larger role in people’s lives, and outside of traditional places where we look for religion.
Why does Jewish history matter for historians overall? I think it provides a different window onto histories of diversity, acceptance, and non-acceptance, and also expands the cast of characters that that we associate with with American history and especially this kind of earlier pioneer history. And Jews also bring us to new questions to look at to look at other aspects of religious life beyond institutions and beyond interior belief.