Review: Jews on the Frontier

Bryan Edward Stone

Professor of History at Del Mar College

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Bryan Edward Stone, "Review: Jews on the Frontier," Journal of Southern Religion (20) (2018):

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Shari Rabin. Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: New York University Press, 2017. 208 pp. ISBN 978-1-4798-3047-3.

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Few experiences are more central to Jewish history than mobility. Jews were forged as a people by their providential flight from slavery, and the Jewish religion, with its disembodied, omnipresent deity and universal moral code, is a faith built to be portable. It’s peculiar, then, that historians of American Jews have tended to focus on the rootedness of their subjects, their connections to particular places and institutions. Shari Rabin—an assistant professor of Jewish studies at the College of Charleston and associate director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture there—rightly brings our attention back to the constant movement of Jews between these rooted centers, the mobility they shared with other Americans. In doing so, she reveals the extent to which Jews were absorbed in the nineteenth-century American frontier experience but also, more significantly, uncovers the many ways a peripatetic frontier existence shaped American Jewry itself.

Like other nineteenth-century Americans, Rabin writes, Jews were aware that “the full fruits of American life required the willingness to move” (14). She details how, in Europe, Jewish activity and religious identity were rigidly circumscribed by authoritarian governments, and every personal decision, including where and when to move, required unpleasant, often dangerous interaction with state authority. In America, on the other hand, where government largely ignored their religious and ethnic difference, Jews enjoyed “unfettered mobility” (33), and they joined other Americans in their restless drive into the hinterland. By their adaptability and perseverance, Rabin further suggests, mobile frontier Jews were “the archetypal religious [Americans] . . . selectively revealing, expressing, and creating religion” as they went (9).

In telling this story, Rabin relies on a vast collection of primary materials, especially published comment in Jewish newspapers and the personal papers of national Jewish leaders. She generally avoids local historical sources—congregational records for instance—in order to provide a truly national focus. On one representative page, for example, she offers illustrations from Apalachicola, Florida; Quincy, Illinois; Davenport, Iowa; and Los Angeles, California, with passing reference to six other California gold rush towns (72). This approach accurately reflects the diffusion of Jewish people throughout the nation, but it also subsumes local inflections, especially in her coverage of southern and western Jewish communities that self-consciously distinguished themselves from larger populations in the North and East. Readers looking for regional history or for a distinctly “southern” or “western” take on Jewish life will not find it here: if anything, Rabin implies that mobile Jews were likely to move on to somewhere else before any particular locale could make its mark on them. They were defined, in this view, by migration rather than permanence.

For a great many Jewish arrivals in the United States, the means of their migration was peddling, carrying stocks of merchandise, often on foot, ever-further into the frontier. Even when they settled down as Main Street merchants, nineteenth-century Jewish peddlers remained in the frontier, in small towns where competition was limited and demand for their goods was high. Thus by the Civil War, Jews resided in at least 1,000 towns throughout the nation (30). Dispersal offered individual freedom and commercial opportunity but also presented risk to Jews’ distinctive identity. Absent institutions, structured communities, the material necessities of Jewish life, how could that identity be preserved? The hardships of maintaining a ritualized Judaism in the remote American frontier are well-documented in other histories, and they were commonly observed even as they were happening—often with great tut-tutting about the compromises to their faith that frontier Jews chose to make. Rabin takes a great leap ahead by observing instead that these exact anxieties energized American Judaism toward necessary development, that “hand wringing about the consequences of mobility . . . was the engine of the era’s transformations” (139).

Transformation occurred because the dispersal of Jewish people throughout a vast country “produced unwelcome side effects of mistrust, scarcity, and anonymity” (103) that had to be addressed and overcome. Individuals scattered and Jewish connections frayed. Nascent congregations wanted to grow but were skeptical about welcoming the strangers who frequently appeared in their communities, often staying only briefly and neglecting to contribute financial support. Migratory spiritual leaders, few with genuine rabbinical credentials, were a frequent occurrence, and fraud was a legitimate concern for congregations that might consider hiring them. A particularly enlightening chapter focuses on the unavailability of Jewish ritual objects: the decorative cases containing scrolls of scripture called mezuzahs that are affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes; Hebrew prayer books; the rams’ horns (shofars) sounded at the High Holidays; and even the sacred Torah scrolls that are the object of worship and study and the centerpiece of the synagogue. In addition, kosher food was hard to obtain where certified providers were scarce, and mikva’ot, the ritual baths whose regular use was required of Jewish women, were virtually unavailable. Small communities, not to mention migratory individuals and families, could not afford rabbis to officiate over life events or offer spiritual instruction, mohalim to provide circumcision of newborn males, or teachers to instruct children in Jewish tradition and the Hebrew language.

Jewish observance is unimaginable without such resources, and their absence required frontier Jews to adapt, resulting, in Rabin’s words, in “a range of idiosyncratic forms” of Jewish identity and practice (71). Perhaps services could be held without a Torah, or with Christian prayer books, or without gathering a minyan, the requisite number of worshippers; or, as sometimes happened, contrary to tradition, perhaps women could be counted toward the minyan. Maybe simply refraining from eating pork, rather than adopting the full range of dietary restrictions, was adequate to call oneself kosher. Perhaps taking a non-Jewish spouse was acceptable as long as you raised your children to know they were Jews. In any case, the forms of Jewish observance were often left to the imaginations and the choices of individual Jews and isolated communities.

Facing this dizzying array of behaviors, national Jewish leaders—Rabin appropriately foregrounds rabbis Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati and Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia—sought ways to standardize Jewish religious practice, to certify spiritual leaders, and to define Jewish identity in a distinctive American landscape. From this effort emerged some of nineteenth-century American Jewry’s most characteristic innovations: the Hebrew Union College, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the International Order of B’nai B’rith, and a variety of nationally circulating Jewish newspapers and other publications. Through such institutions, American Judaism became a “congregation of strangers” (103), even though, as Rabin makes clear, this standardization project met with mixed results and often erupted in voluble conflict within the faith. She leaves no doubt, nonetheless, about its importance in shaping the more familiar American Judaism that arrived in the twentieth century.

To her great credit, Rabin doesn’t contrast these accommodated practices against some “true” form of Judaism, but recognizes them as pragmatic efforts by Jews in difficult circumstances to affirm their Jewish identity. What matters is not their declension but their persistence in remaining conscientiously Jewish against all odds. If anything, their idiosyncratic practices required more attention, imagination, and self-awareness, a greater commitment to surviving as Jews, than the forms routinely observed in more developed Jewish centers. Rabin convincingly describes frontier mobility as the motive force behind one of the most creative and constructive eras in American Judaism.