Jews on the Frontier, a Roundtable: Rosenblatt

This week at RiAH, we're featuring a roundtable of reviews of Shari Rabin's Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America (NYU Press, 2017). The book has three sections, so each of the contributions will focus on one section. On Thursday we will publish a response from the author. These presentations were originally delivered at the AAR-Southeast annual meeting in March. We start with Kate Rosenblatt on Part I. Kate is Visiting Professor at the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University.

Kate Rosenblatt

Rabin begins her account by correcting the deep imbalance in American Jewish historiography that has focused much of our attention on the masses of Eastern European Jews who arrived beginning in the 1880s. Rabin highlights that the migrations of earlier Jews, largely but not exclusively from German lands, and, importantly, Jews outside of New York City. It is in this period, she argues, that many if not most American Jewish communities were created, and in which American Jews created the infrastructure of American Jewish life.

From the vantage point of the nineteenth century, away from the Lower East Side, Rabin sees the interactions – or, perhaps, the lack thereof – between Jews and the American state. Rabin notes that historians of race have long argued that American Jews became white only in the early twentieth century as the result of protracted social and cultural processes. And while Jews sometimes described themselves as a race, Rabin importantly argues that, from the vantage point of the American state, Jews were always white. Their racial categorization as white thus enabled what she calls “unfettered mobility.”

This was distinctly different from the history of Jews in Europe, which was marked by a “intense, if uneven, regulation.” Into the 19th century, European governments continued to regulate mobility and to make differentiations between Jews and others. Nationalism reinvigorated these processes, motiving states to “reinforce borders, monitor movement, and identify and surveil citizens, residents, and foreigners alike through internal passes, external passports, and a variety of other documents.” And even as many governments enacted emancipatory laws and gave Jews some rights of citizenship, they continued to classify them as Jews. In practice, this meant that Jews were tracked into certain occupations and forbidden from others; their religious lives were conducted through government-supported Jewish communities; and they faced severe limitations on landownership, residence, and travel.

The American context was radically different, given the American state’s deep disinterest in classifying Jews as Jews. The federal government had no religious affiliation, gathered no data about the religious affiliation of its citizens, and those individual states with religious establishments did away with them over the course of the 19th century. Race, rather than religion was the operative category: citizenship was open to “free white persons” who resided in the country for a number of years, declared their intention to be naturalized, and renounced foreign allegiances. And, indeed, from the vantage point of the American state, Jews were, from the beginning, white and as such had access to what Rabin terms “unfettered mobility”: the guarantee that free white men could move as they pleased.

And, indeed, in America, Jewish men had the ability to move freely across the continent, as the United States expanded both geographically and economically across the continent. In the absence of any visible difference from other white Americans (native born or immigrant), Jewish movement in the United States was neither monitored nor organized, as it was in Europe. As Rabin argues, “the mobile American was a white, individually pious male whose primary affiliation was with his fellow citizens on the move.” Indeed, as Jewish men moved into newly-acquired territories, the salient details were not their identity as Jews but rather their ability to perform “proper manners and middle-class gentility” in their interactions with strangers and customers.

It was in the context of their interactions with strangers, however, that some Jews experienced what Rabin calls the “re-fettering of mobility.” Unlike the federal government, which resisted any oversight of mobility or residence of citizens, states and local governments passed “countervailing legislation” to impose order in economic life. This was particularly onerous for the large number of Jewish peddlers. As Rabin notes, peddlers served an important function in bringing goods to far-flung places, but, at the same time, they were also “mysterious strangers whose goods promised instant self-transformation, eliciting consumer and even sexual seduction.” Thus, many cities and states sought to regulate and even limit peddling through licenses that varied in cost and requirements. Further, local authorities objected to Sabbath-breaking, passing laws that made working on Sunday illegal.

This re-fettering was amplified during the Civil War, when Jews, suspected of war profiteering, were subject to General Grant’s infamous General Order No. 11, which accused Jews as a class of violating trade regulations and expelled them from lands under his command (Mississippi and large parts of Western Tennessee and Kentucky). Jews successfully appealed to President Lincoln, who rescinded the order. In the Confederacy, General Lee refused a rabbi’s request to grant Jews a two-week furlough to travel during the fall holidays, arguing that he could not grant such permission to a class of citizens and that Jews would have to make their own individual application for travel. In other words: both the US and the Confederacy refused “to make Jewish mobility a matter of state interest,” either in service to economic regulation or religious observance.

Rabin’s account of the vast new opportunities for ambitious Jewish immigrants on the move in unfettered ways is an important intervention into the literature, one that takes seriously the legal structures of the American state with relation to 19th century American Jews. And she compelling recounts the trials and travails that come along with such opportunity for the many Jewish men who sought new opportunities in the context of America’s growing market economy and territorial expansion. But it also raises questions about the possibilities of movement for Jewish women, whose mobility was tied to family rather than to economic or geographical opportunity. Is there a Jewish female “unfettered mobility,” divorced from a woman’s relationship to a man recognized by the American state as white? Do you have any archival sources that speak to women’s mobility outside of the context of family relocation? In this respect, are Jewish women’s patterns of mobility more akin to those of Christian women, rather than to their male Jewish counterparts?

Further, Rabin interprets attempts to restrict mobility – such as peddling licenses and Sunday closing laws – as efforts to curtail mobility on the basis of time or occupation. Yet some of her own evidence suggests that Jews are being or behaving in ways that are problematic beyond their occupational or temporal patterns. As white persons, Jews had access to mobility from which African Americans and Native Americans were barred, but they remained Jewish migrants “awash in a sea of Christian faith,” to use Jon Butler’s phrase, which marked them as different even if racial categories granted them access to the spaces and privileges of white America. In other words, to what extent can or should we see this regulation as an attempt to regulate Jews as Jews whose practices and patterns run up against a deeply engrained Christian moral establishment and its concomitant anti-Jewish politics (even if the latter was mild compared to that of Europe)? And while it certainly benefitted Jews to be understood as white by the state, did this really mean that other Americans were unable to differentiate among white ethnics in day to day interactions?

In her second chapter, Rabin connects the issue of regulation – or lack thereof – to the emerging patterns of American Jewish institutional life. Monitored and regulated mobility for Jews in Europe brought with it official Jewish institutions and communities; in America, in the absence of regulated mobility, there were no such official bodies to provide access to the necessities of Jewish life and worship. Over time, Jews built ties to other coreligionists on the move – through family and hometown ties, kosher boardinghouses, the Jewish press, and informal worship gatherings – and created institutions including benevolent, mutual aid, literary and debate societies; fraternal lodges such as the Independent Order of B’nai Brith, and congregations. Indeed, in the historiography of nineteenth-century American Jews, historians have carefully tracked the emergence of institutions – most frequently synagogues – that appear, at least outwardly, as stable and coherent. Further, historians have assumed that congregational membership is a good indicator of religious commitment.

Importantly, however, Rabin reorients our approach to these institutions. Congregational membership, she argues, was “far from a decisive measure of religious commitment,” and indeed, these congregations created as many conflicts as they solve. Indeed, she notes, though rarely noted in institutional studies, “evidence of outsiders, conflicts, and misbehavior is abundant” within the archival record. Drawing on the “lived religion” history/ethnography methodologies of religious scholars such as Robert Orsi, Rabin thus provides a dramatically different account of American religion in this period by beginning not with “congregations or sectarianism, but with the many lonely migrants seeking community, identity, and stability on the road.”

On the road, these migrant Jews faced not only a sense of impermanence but the realities of religious scarcity in far-flung places with few family members, coreligionists, or institutions. Upon arriving in a new place, a migrant would often first seek out friends or relatives who had preceded them; these networks provided not only companionship and sociability but also economic assistance, including credit, capital, work, and recommendations. In the absence of such opportunities to create ties to other Jews, migrants made Christian friends and joined fraternal orders and non-Jewish voluntary associations; some Jews even attended church.

Yet such ties did not preclude Jewish associations. Importantly, as Rabin notes, while other Americans might only see white immigrants, Jews on the move often had the ability to recognize fellow Jewish bodies, names, languages, practices, and stories, and once Jews recognized each other, they could create more stable ties. Jews might, for example, choose boardinghouses overseen by Jewish women, or forge connections through the circulation of Jewish newspapers, sabbath meals, or observance of the autumnal high holidays.

Jews who had settled created a range of voluntary institutions where Jews could “more reliably and regularly locate one another,” a feat helped along by incorporation. This relatively new legal technology not only granted such institutions tax exemptions but also the ability to hold property and capital, enter into courts, and outlive individual members. Through the American state, therefore, American Jews could thus transform their institutions into “visible forms of social life that offered recognition and some promise of stability.” Thus they formed mutual aid, literary, debate, and benevolent societies; fraternal lodges; and, ultimately, congregations.

Congregations were formed once “there was a critical mass of local Jews who were geographically and financially stable,” and usually progressed from assemblages of local Jews to formal congregations in order to gather resources and routinize Jewish life. Importantly, however, Rabin argues, their success was not inevitable, and these congregations struggled to survive amidst the poverty and mobility of their constituencies. And, importantly, unlike in Europe, these congregations relied entirely on voluntary membership that presumably consisted of “sovereign individuals who shared beliefs, commitments, and religious support.” On the ground, however, it was much messier business. The stresses of mobility made it difficult for congregations to police questionable religious behavior or to entice payment of membership dues. For example, some congregations attempted to levy fines for delinquent members; others struggled with how to deal with increasing numbers of Jewish men who married non-Jewish women but wished to remain a part of Jewish communities; still more developed careful policies governing mourning and seating rites, resulting in some cases in ticket systems for high holiday worship attendance. Congregations were not along; fraternal organizations and newspapers similarly faced “wavering commitment and support.” In all, Rabin argues, membership may have been an alluring path to stability, but it was “not as supple or mobile as Jewish identity.”

Further, American congregations had to negotiate the nature of Jewish practice, particularly with respect to plans for reform and minhagim (geographically distinct rites that governed customs of pronunciation, prayer, and practice). What, in other words, would worship, ritual, and other interactions look like? Given the wide range of places of origin and practice of congregants, this was not always an easy question to work out. Would a congregation use a Polish minhag? An Ashkenazi minhag? Would services be conducted in Hebrew, and if so, could sermons or lectures be delivered in English and/or German? Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise’s program and prayer book, “Minhag America,” published in 1856, sought to achieve some uniformity of practice, but diversity persisted not only in the same places but even within individual congregations.

All together, Rabin argues, congregational affiliation would remain “a haphazard and temporary mode of religious identification, one that was secondary to informal ties, newspapers, societies, charity, fraternal orders, and family life,” not as a reflection of apathy but instead because these forms of belonging “simply worked better in their mobile and sometimes lonely, American lives.”

As a historian of American capitalism, I’m intrigued by Rabin’s move to understand Jewish congregations not only as an emergent model of American Jewish institutional life but also as corporations. American Jews used the relatively new legal technology of incorporation to build stable institutions charted under state laws. How did such incorporation change the relationship between congregations, its members, and the American state? Does the turn to incorporation change the practices and behaviors of American Jews within the spaces of these congregations? I’m particularly interested in which mechanisms of the state enter the spaces of Jewish affiliation, if at all, and how individual Jews understand those mechanisms.

And finally, if indeed congregational and/or institutional affiliation was a poor indicator of religious commitment, it begs questions about the parallels between the lives of 19th century American Jews and their late 20th and 21st century coreligionists. The story she is telling here – of emerging and unstable institutions, expansion in understandings of Jewish authenticity, and a realignment of Jewish beliefs, behaviors, and senses of belonging – very much parallels the efforts of Jews to expand, broaden, and reform the contours of post-World War II American life. Scholars have often followed the lament of rabbinical authorities and others who have insisted that such changes is tantamount to decline. Indeed, part of what is so powerful about her account is the ways in which it avoids the oft-retold narratives of anxiety of assimilation. How, then, can the history presented enrich our understandings of contemporary American Judaism? Can the eclecticism, the do-it-yourself sensibilities, the decline in institutional affiliation be seen as signs and symptoms of generative and creative reformations and expansions rather than as assimilatory and problematic?


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