Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America.
In her new book, which won a National Jewish Book Award, Shari Rabin poses the question of how the frontier affected American Jewish life. She analyzes frontier conditions from several perspectives: mobility, scarcity, self-confidence, and a desire to remake Judaism into something suited for frontier life. It is difficult to overstate the influence of the frontier experience upon American history, and Rabin explains how that experience also influenced American Jewish history. She begins by identifying exactly what it was that made America a frontier for nineteenth-century Jewish immigrants. Frontiers were areas where Jews could find few, if any, of the resources with which to construct a Jewish life: no minyan, Torah scroll, school, mohel, kosher butcher, matzah, cemetery, or community from which to draw friends, companions, and, often, brides (most of the individuals on the frontier were men). It was a difficult life, and those who lived it moved frequently in search of better opportunities for both success and companionship.
Rabin points out that America's vaunted religious freedom had a much larger impact upon Jews' lives than simply allowing them to organize congregations, charities, schools, and cemeteries at will. By refusing to craft laws that separated Jews from the general Christian public, legislatures created an American Jewry that wore no special identifying clothing; that engaged in any labor, craft, or career it chose; that married according to its members' desires; and that built homes unconfined to any particular locale and therefore paid no special tax or fee to move beyond government-designated parameters. In the U.S., Jews became mobile because no laws confined them.
After setting that groundwork, Rabin examines how Jews responded to the isolation of frontier life and how they sought out other Jews for "companionship, sociability, and economic assistance" (34). In part this was due to difficulty in discerning an American's "true intention and character" (35). Jews, like many other Americans, looked to clubs and associations for trustworthy associates, and several historians have explained the nineteenth century's boom in fraternities by pointing to the era's social mobility that created a world of strangers. Jewish men also turned to boardinghouses, especially those run by Jewish women, to achieve similar goals, and looked to the few Jewish newspapers in order to learn about compatriots around the country.
Frontier conditions also necessarily complicated the creation of Jewish families. If a man were lucky enough to find a bride, the next question became how to legalize their union. Rabin explains that "U.S. law and the exigencies of mobility elevated" the importance of congregations because congregations could legalize marriages (63). But so also could a justice of the peace. Thus, both marriage and divorce provoked decisions "made by individual couples" but which had ramifications for their relationships to congregations (64).
Rabin adds to our understanding of the rise of Reform Judaism in her discussion of how the life of scarcity and mobility generated an understanding of God that was "increasingly expansive and universal." Frontier Jews "responded to scarcity and uncertainty by transforming their understandings of Jewish objects and of the Jewish God" (95). Intention became more important than ritual acts. Her argument is certainly persuasive, but this reader expected the author to also discuss the pervasive influence of Protestant Christianity, which dominated American culture in the nineteenth century even more than it did in the twentieth century. Key elements of Protestantism, particularly in the forms that thrived on the American frontier, also valued spirit over form, and for Protestants, too, scarcity played a role in shaping their religious perspective. American Jews did not develop a language of spirit over form by themselves; rather, this language should be understood as part of their general acculturation to American life. Rabin notes that Rebecca Gratz, an urban, wealthy Jew, was also adept at the language of spirituality and emotion in describing her approach to Jewish practice. Here, too, Rabin could have deepened her argument by pointing out that the discourse on spirit versus form also drew upon the language of emotions and pious spirituality that was common in women's magazines, in sermons addressed to women, and in women's religious organizations.
Nonetheless, Rabin does help us understand that once Jews had adopted that perspective, Isaac Mayer Wise's pragmatic approach to building Jewish institutions in America made the rise of Reform Judaism likely. Rabin argues that Wise's goal of unifying American Jews guided his flexibility. Other rabbis similarly told congregants how to make do with items that were available when specific ritual goods could not be found. It was out of the clash between this accommodationist attitude and resistance to it that the boundaries between American Reform, Orthodoxy, and a centrist position arose. Other Jews saw divine providence in Jewish settlements--however rustic and slapdash--emerging across the American continent and asserted a "Jewish heart" sustained and defined far-flung individuals. The language of progress, Rabin explains, absorbed the challenges to traditional life into a reassuring narrative that promised a better future. Wise explained changes to Jewish practice as progress, while traditionalist Isaac Leeser saw progress wherever the traditions of Jewish life appeared in a new locale. Rabin explains that frontier conditions generated both definitions.
Rabin concludes with a reassertion of her main thesis, that the sort of Jewish life that emerged in nineteenth-century America needs to be understood as a frontier religion rather than as an accommodation to Protestantism. Protestantism, too, like other religions, underwent searing changes on America's frontier. Moreover, mobility remained a factor of American life. Thus, Rabin asserts in her conclusion, American religion should be understood as "a mobile assemblage of resources for living, collected in and out of secular and multireligious networks and markets, institutions, and ideologies." (145). This is an extremely useful perspective.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
|Previous Article:||The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America.|
|Next Article:||Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy.|