Jews on the Frontier, a Roundtable: McKee

This is Part II of our forum on Shari Rabin's Jews on the Frontier. See here for Part I. Today's post is from RiAH's own Andy McKee, a PhD candidate in American Religious History at Florida State University.

Andy McKee

I’ve been tasked with providing a commentary on part two of Jews on the Frontier, titled “The Lived Religion of American Jews,” which contains chapters three and four of the book. These are, respectively, titled “I Prefer Choice Myself: Family and the State” and “Tis in the Spirit Not in the Form: Material Culture and Popular Theology.” Part two of the book, as Rabin explains in the introduction of the book, “explores the consequences of mobility in distinct but intersecting spheres of religious life – family and the life cycle (chapter 3), and material culture and Popular theology (chapter 4).” In this section of the book, she shows how Jews lived their lives outside of strictures of traditional Jewish law. While some have written about this as a process of assimilation, Rabin argues that a “more expansive standards of Jewish authenticity on the road, in the market, and in relationship to the American state” developed.

Rabin traces the history of “lived religion” through the usual suspects: Orsi, Tweed, Hall. Crossing, Dwelling, Faith, Community, 115th, they all make an appearance in the book’s introduction and early footnotes. Rabin notes that both Tweed and Orsi argue that the lived experiences of Catholics in America challenges the dominant Protestant narratives our field of American religious history loves to give. Indeed, as Rabin contends, in line with this scholarship on lived (as opposed to dead?) Catholicism, the study of nineteenth-century Jews in America reveals the “larger structures of race, economics, and the law” highlighting how a small percentage of the total population showed the power dynamics of America’s religious orientations.

And yet, at least by my count, there are more references to oysters in the footnotes of these chapters than to Orsis. The only citation of Hall, Orsi, or Tweed in Part Two on “Lived Religion” is footnote 8 in chapter 4, which mentions Hall’s edited volume alongside histories of capitalism and critiques of church history. This is not to say that Rabin’s use of lived religion is incorrect or fraudulent, but instead, I think, points to the ways in which the field of American religions, at least how I like to imagine it, has integrated these studies successfully. In Rabin’s work, lived religion signals, perhaps, less of a historiographical concern (though that is certainly present), and instead points us to the ways in which Jews attempted to, or not, remain Jewish when they should have been unable to. Being Jewish in the nineteenth century American West was a creative process. As Rabin so puts it, maybe “we should set aside the raucous evangelical preacher, the pious Christian mother, or the fervent Mormon pioneer,” and look at the “mobile Jew” as an archetypal religious American.

Rabin asks us therefore to consider how Jewish lives were lived Jewishly on the frontier of American life. Traditional birth, marriage, burial, and nearly everything in between challenged the lived Jewish experience of maintaining “Jewishness.” Access to proper foods, marriage partners, family life, and religious rituals determined how successfully Jews could retain their Jewishness, should they wish to. Chapter three subtitled “Family and the State” for instance, considers how “Jewish resources” were accessed, or not. Rabin examines birth, marriage, child rearing, and death in this chapter to argue that as Jews were shaped by the spaces of mobility, they to shaped how the West was shaped by Jews. While Jewish writers and later historians lamented the loss of community, Rabin moves to show how a narrative of Jewish assimilation fails to show how Judaism was lived and experienced in the nineteenth century.

If mobility, or the promise of mobility, drove Jews westward, the search for stability eventually seems to have taken over. Jews, Rabin argues, embraced the challenges of distance, worked to fulfill tradition Jewish practices but changed the meaning of Jewishness in various ways. Travel allowed far-flung Jews to get a Jewish education in large, mostly east coast cities. Rabin shows how Jews navigated funerary practices by buying plots of land to open Jewish cemeteries, but death often brought difficultly in securing proper burial grounds. Even in death, these Jews were mobile. People were mourned by friends and family, both Jews and non-Jews. Corpses were buried only to sometimes be unburied and then reburied when they could be taken to Jewish cemetery plots. Death practices, like nearly every facet of Jewish lives, were shaped by the freedoms allowed by the state, and made it possible for Jews to engage or ignore nearly every facet of their obligations to their faith.

Chapter four shows how theology was reconfigured to fit shortages of “Jewish stuff” for rituals, worship, and social relations. I like this categorization of “stuff” as an academic tool for thinking about how materials were moved, created, exchanged, and made meaningful to certain people. Rabin traces the development of information networks of knowledge, intellectual resources, and materials to show that attempts at remaining Jewish changed the boundaries of what it meant to be authentically Jewish. Mobility fueled new, creative Jewish ideologies. Sometimes, this was done from necessity. The lack of materials, knowledge, and Jewish bodies present at a gathering limited certain practices.

Mobile nineteenth-century Jews were constantly thinking about their next meals. Or, at least according to some, they should have been paying better attention. One of the main ways Rabin shows how Jewish challenges of authenticity occurred around food preparation practices and eating habits. Often hamstrung by inability to procure kosher foods, mobile Jews ate pork, shellfish, and joked, to paraphrase Rabin, about the chasm between their diets and their religion. One traveler, the Charleston, South Carolina-born artist Solomon Nunes Carvalho went hungry when in the Far West because he refused to take part in eating a porcupine that was prepared for dinner one night. He wrote “The meat was white, but very fat, it looked very much like pork. My stomach revolted at it, and I sat hungry around our mess, looking at my comrades enjoying it.” He wrote that the porcupine weighed about thirty pounds.

Jews also pop up in unexpected places. Or, at least until you finish this book, they are unexpected. Sure, we know that Jews lived in cities like Cincinnati and San Francisco, but Rabin moves us to places like Apalachicola, Florida; Silver City, Idaho; and Quincy, Illinois, to name but a few of the many, many examples given in these chapters. She also moves us between locations, and takes us on the trails of nineteenth century America, as shown in the porcupine incident of 1853. While Cincinnati and Isaac Meyer Wise pop up in this narrative, the focus is mostly on lesser known mobile Jews and the spaces of Judaism they inhabited. The specter of Wise does haunt the pages of this section, as the tension between individual practices and communal obligations were ever present and rarely ever settled. The stuff of American Judaism Rabin contends, rightly of course, were consumer choices, no longer primarily communal products.

A central theme to this section, and I think the book as a whole, is the idea of using mobility as a trope for American religious history. I really like thinking about this conception as American religion in the nineteenth century as something focused on movement. New settlements, new railroads, confidence in a future marked by new cities, opportunities, and changes. I want to return to Carvalho briefly because I found his account so interesting and in many ways he embodies the “unfettered mobility” of the lived religion of nineteenth century Jews. Though he only appears on two pages in this book, his writing in Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West, published in 1860, raised questions for me about how Jews imagined their religion against others in this mobile period.

In the preface to his book, Carvalho, writes about his engagement with Mormons in Utah. He writes, “While the Latter-Day Saints publicly adopt every opportunity to openly avow and zealously propagate the System of Polygamy – in direct opposition to the established and acknowledged code of morality, as practiced by all civilized nations – I bu (?) exercise my prerogative in exposing some of its abuses, which consider destructive to morality, female delicacy, and the sanctity of marriage.” The abuses of a polygamous life occur, Carvalho wrote later in the book, “when human passions are allowed free scope, and not subjected to laws, either social or moral.” Quoting the book of Genesis, Carvalho refutes the biblical premise of polygamy. He then spends several pages of his book giving a practical explanation of the evils polygamy writing that in a community of 50,000 men and 50,000 women, polygamy practices would leave some 27,000 men wifeless. For Carvalho, society basically collapses in on itself from there.

So my question for Rabin is this: how did mobile Jews imagine themselves in relationship to other American religions? If they viewed their religion as possessing practical tools for changing to fit the challenges of the American landscape, did they think other religious groups could do the same? Or were others less religious, however measured, compared to the adaptations Jews were able to make?

Mobility certainly affected other North American religious groups in the nineteenth century. As Jews stretched their legs and moved across the frontier, I wonder what more could be said about the lived experience of limited mobility. The idea of frontier, the west, and the promises of mobility pulled Jews across the continent. Freedom is everywhere in this book for its actors. So, which Jews could not move freely? The network of correspondence that developed during this period and connected Jews to families across the country reflects a fear by some that their relatives would be less Jewish as they moved. Of course, we all know that distance makes the heart grow fonder, but I’d love to hear more about Jews who feared that other Jews would lose their Jewishness. How did this feeling of loss reflect onto those who chose to remain Jewish? The emotional ties created, sustained, and sometimes lost during this time show how the idea of a stable Jewish identity was inherently unstable, sometimes on purpose, sometimes due to messy circumstances.

Focusing on Jews in this narrative allows Rabin, and the reader, to think through the processes of mobility over long distances, were shaped, and shaped space, place, geography, and the environment. Travel and settlement in the nineteenth century was never easy, let alone trying to remain loyal to an ever-shifting definition of authentic religion. I’ve been thinking about the issues raised within this book as I teach religion in American history this semester. This book is built from a wonderfully vast archive, both geographically and temporally, and I’d love to hear you talk about how you choose your actors. Who got cut out? Why? Rabin asks us to consider what it meant to live as Jewish person in the nineteenth century. The story told in part two, of a quest “for authenticity on the road, in the marketplace, and in relationship to the American state,” gives us a means to understand the tests, fears, and being forced to face a lived religion built from “unfettered mobility.” In this, Rabin’s work promises to challenge scholars of American religion to journey beyond our standard narratives of stable religious actors, and to explore the unruliness and the untidiness of the everyday.


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