Book Review: Jews On The Frontier

Jews On The Frontier:  Religion And Mobility In Nineteenth Century America, by Shari Rabin

Sometimes when I pick books to read at the same time there are some inspired similarities.  For example, this particular book talks about union and disunion and points out the fears of assimilation and the ways that this fate was avoided by many Jews, and there are some significant parallels between this approach and that of a more comprehensive book I am reading right now on American Judaism by noted Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna [1].  I find it deeply intriguing how commonly the same sorts of expressions can be in the work of multiple people, and it is pretty clear that Sarna used this book as a resource, as they even site some of the same people and incidents in nineteenth century history.  As a reader, it gives some picture as to the value of syntopical reading, where one can see the same subject through multiple eyes and examine how it is that different writers are influenced by each other’s work when they are forming their own theses and making their own efforts at scholarship.  As a relatively short book about an interesting subject, this is definitely a worthwhile one to read if the nineteenth century history of American Judaism is interesting to you.

This particular volume, other than the notes, takes up about 150 pages or so.  The author introduces the subject of Judaism, America, and mobility as an organizing theme of the work after his acknowledgments.  After that there three parts.  The first part, movement and belonging (I), discusses Europe, America, and the politics of Jewish mobility in both places (1) as well as the way that voluntarism and social life helped isolated and not necessarily religious Jews maintain their Jewish identity (2).  After that there is a discussion of the lived religion of America’s Jews (II), including the relationship between family and the state (3) and the relationship between material culture and popular theology (4).  The third part of the book then discusses the creation of an American Judaism (III) through the mobile infrastructure of stranger relationships (5) and the mobile imaginary of an empire of Jewry (6), followed by a conclusion that looks at two incidents in 1877 that were important in pointing to both the achievements as well as the continued struggle of Jews to achieve a position of security and legitimacy within the United States.

Admittedly, my own relationships with Jewry are somewhat complicated.  As a (generally) Sabbath-observant believer who was circumcised on the eighth day with at least some ancestry among the subjects of this book, I could be considered Jewish in at least some sense, but the fact that my sympathies are with the karaites and others like them rather than the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform traditions makes me a marginal member at least of the community.  Nevertheless, even if my visits to the local Hillel houses where I have lived are rare, I generally do try to keep up with what is going on in the Jewish community, and in that I found the author’s discussion of the complex nature of Jewish identity in a place where the density of Jews was small and congregations and synagogues few and far between to be something that I could relate to very strongly.  The author’s suggestion as to the complicated ways in which people maintained identity and struggled to build trust with other members of a far-flung and marginal population were aspects I could relate to from my own life, and my own mobility in life is not so different from the people here.  Even after so many generations, there remains some aspect of the habits and ways of our ancestors.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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