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Jews on the Frontier: A Review

Updated: May 11, 2018



Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America

By Shari Rabin

192 pp. New York University Press. $34.

“Criteria for determining authentic Jewish practice and thought expanded well beyond the received canon of Jewish law and theology. Furthermore, this confluence of doing and thinking, of sanctifying diverse material and intellectual resources, fueled the creation of new Jewish ideologies—not the other way around” (80). Upon first glance, one may assume Shari Rabin is writing about today’s Jewish community. Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America, however, sheds light on the constructivist nature that Jews brought to Jewish practices and beliefs as they contributed to antebellum America’s westward expansion.


Since the publication of the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) in 1990, Jewish Americans have been contending with unparalleled shifts in Jewish attitudes, affiliation, and demographics. Rabin, who is assistant profession of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, reminds us that the grand challenges now facing the Jewish people are not ahistorical. Rather, our era’s flux is firmly grounded in historical precedent whose lessons have direct application to the Jewish people today.


In the 19th Century, pioneer Jews left their homes in Europe during a time of pronounced social and political upheaval. European kingdoms tightly controlled their overall economic, social, and legal status. In contrast, the United States’ offered a destination for unfettered immigration as well as a government that viewed Jews as white. This crucial distinction granted Jewish emigres access to a geographical frontier, which in turn forced mobile Jews to explore communal and spiritual frontiers. Rabin writes, “America’s language of Manifest Destiny seemed to provide an opening for Jewish participation in the great projects of the nation. This image, reinforced by European Jewish press coverage of the United States, lured thousands of migrants across the Atlantic” (30). This classification and image are, perhaps, America’s greatest gift to the Jewish people, a uniquely pluralist social experiment in which Jews could fully and finally take part.


The infrastructure supporting America’s growth include the telegraph, national publications, America’s rapidly developing railroad, and the small towns and cities that mushroomed in this ecosystem, providing the soil in which semi-settled Jewish communities took root across America’s expanding borders. Rabin writes: “Mobility was central to the possibilities and challenges of the United States for Jews, perpetual exiles with a newfound manifest destiny” (9). By pursuing economic success as envisioned in the American Dream, pioneer Jews amalgamated and manifested uniquely Jewish-American destinies and interpretations of religious liberty. Mobile Jews pushed beyond—literally and figuratively—the relatively established Jewish communities on the Eastern seaboard.


Rabin describes a dance between mobile Jews, semi-settled communities, and Jewish leaders. Without widely accepted halakhic authorities and an ability to enforce traditional Jewish behavioral, cultural, and religious norms, frontier Jews decided whether and how to keep Kosher; celebrate Shabbat and other holidays; whom to marry and how to rear Jewish families; where to affiliate; and, even, who is Jewish. For mobile Jews, this profound independence—physical, economic, religious—at the world’s edge elevated the importance of Jewish authenticity and personal connection. Frontier Jews experienced both freedom and fraught responsibility to choose how, as Jews, to navigate American society—much as we do today. In the 19th Century, each dance partner innovated while grafting newfound individual liberties onto traditional forms of Jewish community, a process that influenced and ultimately shaped emerging Jewish communal institutions.


How different are frontier Jews from 19th and 21st Centuries? Are the vicissitudes, uncertainty, and upheaval now characterizing American life so utterly dissimilar from the past, or can we learn from and apply history’s lessons to today?


Rabin herself makes the leap from past to present when she writes, “The United States—in the nineteenth century and today—is best described as lonely, isolating, suspicious, and above all, mobile…Since the nation’s earliest days, Americans have been creating religion on their own and on the road. Arguably, we are all mobile Jews, grappling religiously—in all kinds of configurations—with the uncertainties, possibilities, and limits of American life” (146).


Whereas others may observe contemporary trends across the Jewish community and draw worrisome conclusions about our shared future, I see an opportunity to engage—and maybe even create a true visionary response to—the epic, and often unsettling, questions of our era.


Rabin’s scholarship of how frontier Jews struggled to remake themselves in America’s singular environment is so important because it contextualizes where the Jewish community is in this moment. Frontier Jews all across the country are reimagining and reinterpreting Jewish education, engagement, activism, and religious practices. They are laying the foundation that future Jewish generations in the 21st Century and beyond will build on and adapt.


Rather than asking whether shifts in Jewish attitudes, affiliation, and demographics are good or bad for the Jewish people, a more exciting question, at least to me, is: Where are we going as the Jewish people, and how can we harness new historical perspectives to try and get there?

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