The Jews of Cleveland: a Conference Summary and Reflection on Local Studies

Rachel Gordon

Last week at the Cleveland Historical Society, a group of academic contributors to a forthcoming volume on the Jews of Cleveland met. Primarily historians and religionists from North America and Israel, we discussed our chapters-in-progess and the Jewish history of Cleveland.

Why Cleveland?

For decades, scholars of the Jewish experience have sought to expand our gaze beyond the obvious centers of Jewish life in America. Yet, Ohio -- important as it has been in the history of Reform Judaism, and in terms of early 20th century Jewish population growth -- still gets short shrift. Cincinnati and Cleveland have significant Jewish histories

Our topics are varied and include Cleveland Jews and the Civil War, Orthodox Judaism in Cleveland, Cleveland Jewish family history, Jewish interracial neighborhood activism, the city's Jewish education offerings, Superman's Cleveland origins, Jewish urban flight, and the mid-twentieth century founding of Cleveland synagogues.

With the beginnings of Cleveland communal Jewish life in 1839, when a group of 19 Jew immigrated from Unsleben, Bavaria, the city included two large Reform synagogues by 1850. Like other major American cities, Cleveland felt the second phase of Jewish immigration to America as Eastern European Jews fled persecution in the last decades of the 19th century. It was in Cleveland's garment industry, second only to New York's in the early 20th century, where these Jews largely found work.

By the 20th century, as our conference presentations revealed, Cleveland's diverse population had begun to give the lie to a unified Jewish community, with various stripes of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews in coexistence. In her keynote address, historian Hasia Diner exhorted conference attendees to reconsider use of the term, "Jewish community" -- a phrase that many use interchangeably with "American Jews," but which often suggests a false consensus.

Diner also posed the question: why do we scholars choose our topics of study at a particular moment in history? Recalling that many cities and towns conducted community studies in the mid-twentieth century, in honor of the tercentennial celebration (1954) of Jewish life in America, Diner challenged us to think about what it is that we value about these local studies in 2015.

I thought back over the past two weeks of world news, which had brought reports and reactions to Israel's election. American Jewish responses were sundry. What I noticed along with this diversity of reactions was how important it felt to many Jews to make clear that they did not necessarily agree with other Jews. "Other Jews do not speak for me," has felt like a common theme in American Jewish reactions to current events, particularly those relating to the Middle East, over the past year. As a minority in the American population, Jewish anxiety about being lumped together with all other Jews seems realistic. I hear the reflexive assumption, in my classrooms, that all Jews, or all Mormons, or any member of a religious minority group, must think and act like other members of the group. Local studies such as this one about Cleveland remind readers that even the smallest groups contain diversity within. We just have to be willing to look for it.


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