Review: On Middle Ground

Mark Greenberg

Mark I. Greenberg is Dean of Libraries, Western Washington University, Bellingham.

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Mark Greenberg, "Review: On Middle Ground," Journal of Southern Religion (22) (2020):

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Eric L. Goldstein and Deborah R. Weiner. On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. 385p. 978-1-4214-2452-1.

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Scholars have spilled much ink exploring Jews' regional experiences in America.  Engaging the regionalism debate as well as a much broader historiography, Eric Goldstein and Deborah R. Weiner’s On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore offers a prodigiously researched and highly nuanced history of Baltimore Jewry.  Readers unfamiliar with the contours of American Jewish history will find myriad connections to topics important in African American, ethnic, labor, political, and urban history.

Drawing from Baltimore’s geographical and cultural position between the North and South, the authors convincingly argue that Baltimore Jews occupy a historical and historiographical “middle ground” (2).  Jews have been in the middle of many of Baltimore’s most important economic, social, and political developments. Despite their disproportionately large leadership role, Jews’ involvement and impact are not easily characterized or uniformly positive, however.  Nearly every aspect of Baltimore Jewish life, as well as Jews’ relations with the broader community, display the “contradictions and ambiguities” (2) inherent in their middle position.  The authors’ emphasis on these contradictions and ambiguities creates a thoughtfully crafted, though not easily summarized, exploration of the city’s Jewish history as well as an important variation to established narratives about the American Jewish experience.

Goldstein and Weiner’s discussions of Baltimore’s first Jewish leaders and the subsequent 1826 Jew Bill provide an early and effective example of their focus on the historical and historiographical middle.  “While histories of Baltimore Jewry have focused primarily on the perceived exclusion of Jews from public life,” they write of the colonial and early national periods, “the truth is that the 1826 constitutional amendment giving Jews the right to hold public office was the result of Jews’ already robust civic involvement” (36).  By the time the bill passed granting Maryland’s Jews full equality, several Jewish businessmen had helped to advance nearly every aspect Baltimore’s economic, institutional, and civic growth.

From a population of 1,000 people in 1840, Baltimore’s Jewish community grew ten-fold over the next four decades.  The city’s geographic location as a supply center for retail goods moving south and west drew immigrants from Central Europe (particularly Bavaria), many of whom made the economic climb from peddler to retailer or wholesaler.  A vibrant array of synagogues, social and educational organizations, and charities formed to cater to Jewish communal needs.  Though equal under the law and increasingly acculturated, Jews remained largely separate from their non-Jewish neighbors. Drawing from a long historiography that argues for the increasing influence of progressive tendencies in nineteenth-century American Judaism, the authors once again chart a middle ground, contending that new Baltimore congregations emerged more often for practical rather than ideological reasons.  In the pre-Civil War era, Baltimore’s traditional congregations were more progressive than in many other cities, and “reform-minded” congregations were more traditional.  Together, Baltimore’s varied religious institutions represented a “confusing mélange of pressures and opportunities that all Jews faced in their encounter with a new, open society” (86).

The “great wave” of Eastern European Jews who came to America between the 1880s and early 1920s transformed Baltimore and its Jewish community.  Though some immigrants merely passed through the city on their way south or west, by 1920 only New York City had a larger percentage of Jews among its foreign-born residents.  “In many respects,” write the authors, “Baltimore’s distinctive qualities were bound up with its middle-ness – more industrial than cities to the south, yet lacking the heavy industry of the North; an immigrant port of entry with a historically large black population; a large city with a small-town, socially conservative culture” (114).  Within this setting, Eastern European Jews enjoyed relatively greater social acceptance in a society focused less on religious or ethnic distinctions and more on the racial divide.  Orthodox Judaism, Yiddish culture, Zionism, charitable organizations, and garment industry trade unionism flourished in East Baltimore’s crowded Jewish neighborhoods.  More acculturated (“uptown”) Jews helped support their Eastern European (“downtown”) coreligionists’ transition to America, but carefully guarded their economic and social standing and influence.  The authors ably portray fluid community relationships characterized both by cooperation and conflict.

With severe immigration quotas in force by the early 1920s, the years between the two world wars bridged Baltimore Jewry’s “immigrant era” from the post-World War II period when a “fully American Jewish community emerged” (243).  Like earlier eras in the community’s history, the transition was fraught with contradictions. Baltimore Jews experienced increasing Americanization but rising antisemitism, particularly in social and educational settings but less so in state politics where they became a political force within the Democratic party.  Secular ideas and lifestyles appealed to a growing number of Jews, while Orthodoxy maintained a strong hold on others.  Central and Eastern Europe Jews remained separate in many social spheres but came together to form the Associated Jewish Charities and for other matters of mutual interest and benefit.  Some immigrant Jews continued to reside in East Baltimore, but over 80 percent of Baltimore Jewry relocated to the city’s northwestern suburbs by 1940.  Occupational mobility and growing affluence helped make this migration possible, but developers’ and realtors’ efforts to manage the spread of African Americans into Jewish neighborhoods and limit the spread of Jews into gentile neighborhoods preserved racial segregation, restricted Jews’ residential options, and created new vibrant Jewish enclaves where synagogues, community centers, and other Jewish organizations flourished but Jews and Christians experienced limited social interaction.

The authors’ careful analysis of the interplay between race, religion, and residential patterns continues into their discussion of the decades following World War II, when Baltimore Jewry became more economically and socially integrated but also residentially segregated.  By 1968, over 90 percent of Baltimore’s 106,000 Jews lived in the northwest metropolitan area, particularly Pikesville.  They were “pulled” further out of the city and into the northwest suburbs by Jewish builders who promised newer and nicer homes next to other Jewish families and near Jewish communal institutions.  They also were “pushed” into the county by blockbusting practices, which exploited racism to promote white flight, manipulate home prices, and steer black families seeking homeownership into older Jewish neighborhoods.  As in other American cities, Baltimore’s increasingly acculturated and affluent Jewish community played important leadership roles in politics, the arts, professional sports, and philanthropy. Unlike in other American cities, however, Baltimore Jewry’s residential density, close-knit cultural identity, and social conservatism promoted continued attachment to Orthodox Judaism, which thrives in the city to the present day.

In the book’s epilogue, “the challenges of a new century,” the authors explore forces that have reshaped Baltimore Jewry over the past two decades.  These include the growth but increasing self-isolation of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, regional mobility and globalization, continued suburbanization and the spreading out of the city’s Jewish residents, and the decreasing influence of Jewish business and philanthropic leaders.  The cumulative impact of these forces prompted the authors to question the continued existence of a “Baltimore Jewish” identity.  Their conclusion: “For now, both the Baltimorean and the Jewish aspects of Baltimore Jewish identity seem secure” (320).  Secure, as well, is the lasting and positive contribution of On Middle Ground to the history of Baltimore and American Jewry.