Jews on the Frontier, a Roundtable: Rabin response

Today we conclude our roundtable on Jews on the Frontier with a response from the author, Shari Rabin. See Parts I, II, and III here. Shari is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and the Director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture at the College of Charleston.

Shari Rabin
This book was in many ways motivated by a frustration and a hope. A frustration with what I felt was a disconnect between American religious history and American Jewish history and a hope that I might be able to create conversations between those two fields. Given that origin story, I really could not be more delighted to be having this conversation, first in person in Atlanta and now on the USReligion blog. Thank you to Charlie for orchestrating the conversation and to Andy McKee, Kate Rosenblatt, and Kati Curts for their close readings of the work.

I am going to start by attending to Kate and Andy’s questions about my subjects: who are they, why are so many of the men, and what about the mobility of women? I went looking for records of ordinary Jews moving throughout the American hinterland and their religious inclinations and expressions. I went to archives and basically tried to look at anything that dealt with American Jews before 1880 on the off chance that there would be something shedding light on mobility and/or religion. It really was needle in a haystack research and I was not able to find a whole lot of women’s materials.

Of course women are central to American Jewish history and American religious history – women’s history is American religious history, in Ann Braude’s famous formulation, and when you look to the congregations, women are absolutely present.[1] Karla Goldman’s wonderful book on this period, Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism (Harvard University Press, 2000), draws attention to this, and in fact one of my favorite findings was that women were being counted in a minyan in the 1850s, for pragmatic reasons. As some of you have noted, however, one of the main interventions of the book was to decenter the congregation as a unit for understanding American Judaism. So, this is one possible reason for the dearth of evidence. There were, however, some intriguing hints of women’s autonomy – an ad for Jewish governesses in the 1870s and examples of Jewish women operating Jewish boardinghouses, in the process effectively commercializing the Jewish home and family. Jewish women were subject at the end of the day to the same constraints as other American women, for whom individual travel was socially suspect if not prohibitively expensive or potentially dangerous. And here it is worth noting that the bulk of my subjects are not only male but also young and economically precarious – two categories of Jews that are not often the subject of scholarly attention.

For the work on religious corporations, I must tip my hat first to Sarah Barringer Gordon for her wonderful work on African American congregations in the early republic.[2] The fact that Jews now gathered in legal corporations was significant –this was the only place where they were identified as Jews by the state. They had to write charters – which they saw as documents of great significance – create boards, and set about the work of communal governance. This also meant that they could end up in the courts – I’ve actually been working on an article for a while about this. It seems to me that some amount of transformation happens in religious life just through the process of adapting to the corporate form, and in court cases in particular, you can see how this encouraged Jews to make Judaism and its peculiarities legible to a Protestant-inflected legal system.

Both Kate and Andy raise questions about interactions between Jews and the non-Jews who surrounded them. Kate raises, in so many words, the question of anti-Semitism. To what extent were the restrictions of the moral establishment really oblivious to their implications for Jews? There were cases – most egregiously California in the 1850s – where explicit anti-Jewish motivations for Sunday closing laws were expressed, but my sense is that most non-Jews were simply too unfamiliar with Jews to directly target them. Jews were small in number and widely dispersed – they remained sufficiently individual and invisible to go un-thought of. One proposed chapter from the dissertation prospectus that I never wrote was explicitly about representations of Jewish mobility in American culture, especially literature and the press, and that kind of study would likely produce different results; but from looking at the state and at everyday life, I did not see a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment. When non-Jews did take notice, more often it was marked by curiosity and even fascination.

Andy: thank you for digging into the example of Solomon Nunes Carvalho, who, by the way, was from Charleston, and is the subject of a recent documentary called Carvalho’s Journey.[3] A few other interesting notes about him: he was traveling on behalf of the American state – looking for a route for the transcontinental railroad, and he wrote his memoir in support of the presidential aspirations of John C. Fremont, who had led that expedition. At the end of the trip he went to Los Angeles, where he helped local Jews organize the first Hebrew Benevolent Society there. So he encompasses a number of the themes of the book really nicely. As Andy noted, Carvalho was no fan of polygamy, but interestingly, he was somewhat sympathetic to Brigham Young, writing, “I received a good deal of marked attention from his excellency, Governor Young; he often called for me to take a drive in his carriage, and invited me to come and live with him, during the time I sojourned there.”[4] Far more common, however, were interactions with Protestant neighbors, however, including in churches where some Jews attended worship.

Jews regularly interacted with individual non-Jews, but they also did keep an eye on other religious communities. They mostly thought that everyone else had things figured out, and they looked to their models of doing things and debated what would work for them. For instance, we see Isaac Leeser complaining about the confusion within American Jewry, “this circumstance will not be met with in any other religious denomination in the country; for they all have statistics.”[5] A version of the denominational model was appealing to him and to Wise, but there also is one example of a Jew looking to the Mormons as a model for solving the chaos of American Jewish life, suggesting the creation of a Jewish territory and eventual state, where the Sabbath – and all of the other resources of Jewish life – could be kept. Furthermore, it would rescue Jews from being a minority and prevent conversion, intermarriage, and/or assimilation.[6]

This brings me to Andy’s questions about feelings of loss, which were real, as were feelings of anger and bewilderment when Jews denied or ignored Jewish practice or affiliation. For instance, the editor of the Jewish Messenger impugned the masculinity of Jewish who denied or ignored their Jewishness and family members in Europe wrote frantic letters to their children in America (see the Loewner family in chapter 3). And there were Jews who did convert to Christianity. For instance, on page 90 I write about a man whose brother-in-law had been converted on Isaiah chapter 53, and was desperately seeking guidance from Isaac Leeser. I think some of the flexibility within congregational life, comes from the pragmatic realization that at least these people were willing to participate. I am also glad you picked up on the history of emotions that the book details. Jewish lives were shaped not only by economic factors or by religious principles, but by visceral feelings that united and commingled the two.

Along with Kate Rosenblatt, Kati Curts pushes me on the question of contemporary relevance. She points to the final line of the book, which in some drafts I deleted, but that ultimately, in a fit of bravery, I chose to keep. I think that the book shows that American religious life has always been eclectic and confusing and outside of as much as within religious congregations. The health of Judaism – or any religious community – is in the activities of those who claim that religious identity, not in the membership rolls of congregations or the proclamations of clergypeople.

The stakes, for me, are about dropping the normative valences in our studies of American religious life – or at the very least, disentangling our operative definitions and boundaries from those of religious elites and institutions. I also want to point to the complexity of religious identity in practice and its embeddedness in the operations of capitalism and the state. At the end of the day, it is not useful to reduce people to denominational identities. They are first and foremost situated subjects navigating everyday life by using a range of resources, religious and otherwise.

In terms of theorizing concepts like “progress” and civil religion, I think I would first point to their geographic valences. These kinds of political and religious projects are appealing in part because they are mobile and capable of continental pervasiveness. Two other notes: I think it is important to recognize that these concepts and terms can be used to many different ends and can have different entry points and meanings for people. It may say more about us than about our past or our subjects if we describe something like “progress” as only and exclusively Protestant. The case of minhag further points to constructedness of geographic identities: minhag America was preceded by and continued to coexist and overlap with other minhagim, which had varying geographic and historical origins.

I think part of what I am doing in this book is leaning on the American in American religious history. I read a lot of social history in writing it, because I wanted to think about the United States not only as a neutral backdrop to the religious histories taking place there, but as a distinctive (though not exceptional!) economic and political matrix within which religious formations emerge, and to which they respond. Jews offered one set of reactions based on their own set of traditions and concerns, but other groups certainly did too. I am curious to find out if people think that I’ve described, to paraphrase Kati Curts, a religious then that is recognizable for other groups. And does it describe the religious now that she invokes? I wanted to provocatively gesture to the present-day implications in the book, but ultimately I wrote a study of the nineteenth century, and my readers are as expert as I in diagnosing the religious now. For now, I will end by thanking these particular readers for their careful and enthusiastic engagement.

[1] “Women’s History is American Religious History,” in Thomas Tweed, Retelling U.S. Religious History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

[2] Sarah Barringer Gordon, “The African Supplement: Religion, Race and Corporate Law in Early National America,” William and Mary Quarterly 72, no. 3 (July, 2015): 385-422.

[3] See also

[4] Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860), 213.

[5] "What Can be Done," Occident 10, 1852, 371.

[6] On the Establishment of a Jewish Colony in the United States, Occident 1 (1843), 28.


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