Jews on the Frontier, a Roundtable: Curts

This is Part III of our forum on Shari Rabin's Jews on the Frontier. See here for Part I and Part II. Today's post is from Kati Curts, who is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Sewanee: The University of the South.

Kati Curts

I am an avid and long-standing fan of the project that became Shari Rabin’s award-winning book. Readers will find it to be a brisk, engaging text that is rich with fascinating historical details about otherwise unknown, often overlooked, and sometimes rather surprising sources. It recounts the lives, labors, loves, and losses of men (and, occasionally, a few women) who have not often surfaced in our histories of religion in America.

Readers of this blog have already learned about several of these figures from Kate Rosenblatt and Andrew McKee in their previous posts on Parts I & II of this book, respectively. Though I won’t spend much time myself delving into specific archival anecdotes that appear in the final section of this text, there are a great many more such men that you’ll want to read about for yourself—including Edward Rosewater, a telegraph operator who opens and helps close the book and is remembered in Rabin’s history not only for being the man who wired the text of the Emancipation Proclamation across the continent but also for founding a newspaper and Jewish benevolent society in Omaha, Nebraska. So too we meet here even less prominently positioned historical pioneers, like one Mr. Kusel, who settled on Menominee Indian land in 1851 and shortly thereafter wrote in to a Jewish periodical in order to publicly cheer and discursively map the presence of his co-religionists “in the backwoods country” who had gathered together on the Day of Atonement (1-2, 123). Indeed, it is figures like these who frequently receive pride of place in Rabin’s telling, and this is true too in the final section of the book, where an array of Jewish leaders also receive special attention. Even those rather well-known leaders we have met in other studies of American Jewish history—including prominent figures like Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise and Isaac Leeser—come alive anew in this book as we learn to consider them not only as prominent founders of emerging Jewish congregations and denominations but also as mobile Jews themselves, negotiating the challenges and chances afforded them in frontier contexts and across an increasingly westward moving U.S. nation-state. Fortunately, you’ve already gleaned much about this part of Rabin’s narrative from previous posts. So, part of what I want to do here is to help draw us all yet further into key aspects and argumentative interventions of this text—particularly as they relate to the final portion of this book and contribute to debates in the broader study of religion in American history.

As we move into Part III of this book, Rabin trains our eyes upon the ways that Jewish leaders aimed to unify and address the relational challenges of fast-moving and far-flung Jews across the American continent. For leaders like Wise and Leeser, the absence of authoritative rabbis and definitive, geographically-determined rites seemed an unsettling flip-side to the new-found freedom that many Jews, including themselves, found in the U.S. Consequently, we learn in this section how American mobility meant not only the chance to respond creatively to this new continental context but also how it obliged Jews to confront new kinds of problems—problems they had not encountered elsewhere, including, notably, those that concerned the formation and maintenance of Jewish community.

Religious leaders and ordinary Jews felt themselves increasingly thrust into what they referred to as a “congregation of strangers,” a setting that prompted feelings of alienation and estrangement, loneliness and distrust, uncertainty and anxiety, even as they sought affiliation with their coreligionists and others on the American frontier (103). This is a history, then, not only of physical mobility but also of the (e)motional terrain Jews in America traversed and transformed. “Unfettered mobility” was never just the removal of obstacles for movement across space, it also provoked and compelled new kinds of concerns for Jewish Americans about identity, trustworthiness, expertise, and community. Among the prevailing questions they asked themselves and one another was how important it was, or should be, to be a member of a formal religious congregation. How was being a member of a benevolent society—for example B’nai B’rith—really all that different than being a member of a particular congregation, especially if no such congregation really even existed in the frontier locales these men inhabited? Likewise, they wondered what to do about religious leaders and functionaries—rabbis and hazanim—who might have uncertain, maybe even suspicious, identities. Did this require some kind of official credentialing process to adjudicate the credible from the con-man? And what kind of individual or organization had, or should have, that kind of licensing authority? Furthermore, they wondered, was it even possible (let alone desirable) to organize or standardize the “dizzying array of Jewish practices” that so many of these 19th-century Americans encountered and developed for themselves in America (113)? And was it ever possible to organize without also standardizing?

In Rabin’s analysis we see many different ways in which mobile Jews in the early and mid-19th century answered these questions. For some, including Wise and Leeser, congregational affiliation was central. Yet, for many others, including many of those Jews-on-the-move who corresponded regularly with leaders like Wise and Leeser, other bureaucratic and technological means proved to be far more significant in how they found and sustained community. It is for this reason that personal correspondence and its transport by way of an improving postal service, the printed press and an expanding railroad system, and statistical collection and the development of increasingly sophisticated census data, among other things, all prove to be more central to the analysis Rabin offers in this final portion of the book than whether one was a member of a formal congregation.

Jews on the Frontier attests to the ways that the tools and technologies of American political and social life made up what Rabin refers to as the “infrastructure” of 19th-century American Judaism, and she suggests, perhaps also of American religion more broadly. Rabin demonstrates how and why denominations and congregations were (and should be) less significant to understandings of 19th century religious life than previous scholarship has tended to recognize. This is one of the key interventions of the text as a whole. In this final section of the book, Rabin brings this crucial observation together with a broader argument about the structures of religion in American life—how both institutions and individuals get networked into a broader infrastructure of mobility in America. It is those institutions and individuals who best facilitated and helped other Jews negotiate their opportunities and obligations of mobility that proved to be most vital in Jewish Americans’ lives. Circulating newsprint, statistical collection, circuit-riding preachers, rail-riding rabbis, and the contingent labor of hazanim are all shown here to be central to the story of how mobile Jews sought to transform themselves from strangers into friends in 19th-century America.

It was only later and never inevitable that congregations were formalized as central unifying constructs among many Jewish Americans. If scholars have tended to emphasize those later congregational affiliations, this is because, Rabin argues, historians have tended to focus too much on later periods of American Jewish history, explaining how that later 19th & early 20th-century moment was the time when “a rising tide of institutionalization and denominational identity…would peak” (144). In this book, Rabin instead presses readers back in the chronology of American Jewish history in order not only to better see that earlier time for the more institutionally messy and mobile history it offers us, but also because, she insists, this earlier moment actually offers us a better way to understand and make sense of the patterns of our own historical present. For Rabin, what is sometimes told as a story of religious declension, de-institutionalization, assimilation, or secularization is better understood as part of long-standing movement(s), particularly those built upon and structured around the realities and relational dynamics of mobile Jewish life in America.

Indeed, Jews on the Frontier teaches us to see a considerably more complex rendering of all of American religious life – which brings me to the second intervention this book makes that I want to emphasize here. That is, how Rabin not only situates Jewish life in relation to its extra-institutional infrastructure but also connects it to a central ideological narrative or what she refers to as the “mobile imaginary” of 19th-century America: the relationship of the discourse of unfettered mobility with that of Manifest Destiny (124). It was in and through this unique mobile imaginary that Jews helped situate, stabilize, and strengthen their own particular religious forms as part of broader American movement. Indeed, mobile Jews joined other 19th-century Americans in making assumptions about and contributing to racial, social, and political projects centered upon the idea that whiteness and westward expansion were signs of “civilizational progress.” If Protestants advanced progressive theologies in support of Manifest Destiny, Jewish Americans too contributed to such imaginaries. “As Americans deemed white, they too were to replace the Spanish Catholics and Native Americans who had previously ruled and occupied the land,” Rabin explains. “They benefited from Manifest Destiny and they applied its language and concepts toward their own religious ends, mixing and matching it with Jewish diasporic and messianic traditions” (124). This part of Rabin’s argument is rather brief, offering her and other scholars the chance to expand upon it in research yet to come, but it nonetheless manages to play an important role in Rabin’s larger analysis not least because it is one place where she shows specifically the ways in which concepts of “progress” were never solely promotions of Protestantism, and demonstrates how racial and religious imaginaries in this mobile American context were never innocently rendered. Certainly Protestant Christianity contributed to Manifest Destiny’s many ideological forms in important and influential ways. This is something we know—and we’ve come to know it well from previous studies in American religious history. But we learn from Rabin here that 19th-century Jews, too, were agents of and discursively implicated subjects in the imperial project of Manifest Destiny’s racial, geographical, and sociopolitical expansion.

This striking aspect of Rabin’s argument also allows us to see one way this book confidently responds to scholarship that, she argues, tends to orient too much and too often upon an analysis of Protestant hegemony. In contrast, Rabin teaches us that too often Protestantism has served as simultaneously the documentary finding of our archival studies and the prevailing interpretive presumption of what we will find there. This is a bold provocation, but it is based not on a simple assumption that lived practice or pluralist provision is necessarily equal to or even somehow manages to exceed structural constraints. Instead, Rabin builds this argument upon a study of the creative but contingent lives of mobile Jews amid the infrastructures and imaginaries they found themselves and that they labored to reproduce. For Rabin, then, an appeal to “lived religion” isn’t a simple interpretive counter-pose to narratives of hegemonic Protestantism. One might wonder whether she just wants to have it both ways, but that does not seem quite right either. Instead, Rabin suggests that such an oppositional approach to the study of American religious life reduces the complexity of both interpretive positions. She, perhaps like the subjects of her history, moves readily, if not entirely resistantly, between and amid both. Any narrative tendency toward Protestant consensus in histories of religion may “rightly emphasize the power dynamics and social structures shaping American religions,” she writes, but “go[es] too far in declaring Protestantism to be the first cause of them all.” This is an important nuance. Rabin wants to challenge what she sees as the Protestant/pluralist binary manifest in much of the historiography of religion in America, turning instead to a different kind of diagnosis. “Beginning with Jews instead of Protestants and turning to the unexpected and unauthorized religious formations of the road,” she argues, “we can see that the United States is not primarily Protestant or pluralist; rather, it is mobile” (142). Re-centering studies of American religion on the vast array of Jews moving around and about 19th century America, as Rabin has done here, urges those of us who have learned well the narrative of Protestant hegemony to confront historical complexities otherwise belied in our presumptions about Protestantism and its legacies of domination in Christonormative conception.

The argument Rabin advances in this book contends that what is particularly American about the wide array of historical figures we meet in this text is not their tendencies to assimilate or resist patterns of Protestantism or pluralism but rather their characteristic mobility amid these interpretive prototypes. It is the opportunity and obligation to move—physically, structurally, ideologically—that best characterizes all religious life, including Jewish life, in America. Rather than create what she describes as “overwrought divisions between what is Jewish and what is Protestant,” Rabin argues that to see American Judaism for what it was (and is), historians must recognize the “commonalities, overlaps, parallels, and internal complexities” of religious lives forged and reformed on the move. In this final portion of the text—titled “Creating an American Judaism”—we see how that mobility, as infrastructure and imaginary, “as both a product of political dynamics and as a set of challenges that all religious communities must confront,” facilitated the ways in which American Judaism and American religion itself was (and, she says, is) imagined and interpreted—by historical subjects like those she uncovers in the archive but also by all of us as scholars and students, who endeavor to make sense of that documentary record (142).

As an example of that imaginative, interpretive work by both historical figures and historians, Rabin emphasizes three discursive tropes that each contributed to this broader mobile, American imaginary she describes. Concepts of “the Jewish pastoral ideal,” the motif of the “Jewish heart,” and the “progressive” appeal of a “continental minhag” are crucial components of her analysis in Part III. Some might see in the success of these three tropes the powerful press of Protestantism upon Jewish ideation in the U.S. context, but such an interpretive move is, Rabin suggests, to misunderstand the mobile dynamics of Jewish life. Instead, she explains how these ideals and imaginaries required no specific or hard-to-acquire material resources nor did they necessitate formalized institutional congregations, aspects that proved to be beneficial for many of these mobile Jews as they moved around and about the continent. Together, they helped advance a new set of forms in and for American Judaism, a set of forms and transformations that proved influential because they furthered the mobility of Jews in America and helped Jews manage the particular challenges they faced in this new continental context. Ultimately, Rabin asserts: “Hand wringing about the consequences of mobility was not a sideshow to more pressing concerns, it was the engine of the era’s transformations” (139). This book describes, particularly in this last section, how mobile Jews were not just subject to these transformations but served as crucial and creative agents of them, crafting and reconceiving American social and political life while forming an important place for themselves within its imperial contours.

These are compelling and critical contributions not only to the historiography of American Jewish life but also to the study of religion in America more broadly. To conclude, I want to hone in on two sets of lingering questions I have about the stakes of the historical rendering Rabin has offered here. First: what made an institution particularly successful in facilitating or negotiating American mobility? That is, what made an institution something more, something extra, something infrastructural? We learn, for instance, that benevolent societies like B’nai B’rith were particularly well-suited to this task, partly because they coincided with and collided less with a culture of voluntarism than other denominational institutions tended to. But I can imagine an argument that suggests this very aspect of voluntarism cannot and should not be understood outside its Protestant contours. And yet, as I write this, I am also reminded by Rabin that we too often and too easily find Protestantism in just these kinds of interpretive moves. So, how does Jews on the Frontier help us answer that question differently than we otherwise might when focusing not on those ever-present Protestants in American religious historiography but on the mobile, 19th-century Jewish Americans of this book?

Second: if prior scholarship has tended to help us recognize the ways we reinscribe and re-enact forms of Protestant subjectivity in our historiography by suggesting we are somehow all Protestant (or post-Protestant) today, Rabin counters with the firm assertion that “we are all mobile Jews, grappling religiously—in all kinds of configurations—with the uncertainties, possibilities, and limits of American life.” We—all of us—she argues, find ourselves in a world that is “best described as lonely, isolating, … suspicious, and above all, mobile.” Our world—like that earlier 19th-century one—is also shaped, she says, by chaotic geographic movement, vast technological change, and lots of new ways to seek stability, identity, and community…not only in congregations and denominations but perhaps more so “through social media, consumer products, family practices, and multiple traditions” (145–146). Among the things this book does best is to invite discussion and debate about this kind of historical description and genealogical ascription. Are we all today, as Rabin claims, mobile Jews? What are the stakes of this kind of diagnosis—of a 19th-century past rendered in and for our 21st-century present? What does it urge us to recognize—about ourselves, about the role of our institutions, about the tenuousness of our relations, (or perhaps instead our relational resiliency in the face of increasing mobility), just to name a few possibilities?

Or, to ask this second question in a slightly different register, what must we theorize differently, now that we have begun to learn how to better recognize the important contributions of mobile Jews to the historically-generated categories that we scholars and students of religion have too often tended to ascribe too quickly or too easily to Protestantism? The question of voluntarism may offer one such possibility. Another might be the concept of “progress” she (and we) continue to grapple with today. Knowing now the contested ways in which it has been imagined, not only by the Protestants of our typically-told histories, but also the ways in which 19th-century Jews debated among themselves and imagined it rather differently, how might we rethink or reinterpret “progress” as an historically-derived category of and for our own now? Or, to take another quick example, I wonder how ideas about and projects for a “continental minhag” (whether the “American” minhag proposed by Wise or the Sephardic-influenced version of shared rites described in relation to Leeser’s writings) might prompt us to re-think or re-theorize concepts of what we have otherwise referred to as “civil religion” in America (136). These are just riffs, though—random examples I’m throwing out here as points of departure for discussion and debate. I imagine Rabin and those who follow in the wake of her important book can imagine many other, and better, areas for us to re-think and re-theorize. How might we all now trek a bit more adventurously into the theoretical frontier into which Rabin has led us with such historical sure-footedness? I, for one, look forward to seeing where else she and others might take us, particularly now that we have such an archivally rewarding text with which to begin plotting our paths and for which to begin recognizing new patterns of movement and motive.


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