The Wandering You: Jewish & American Identity

Erin Faigin on Shari Rabin’s Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America 

Shari Rabin, Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America. NYU Press, 2017. pp 208. $40

It was the opinion of Edwards, that the millennium would commence in America. When I first encountered this opinion, I thought it chimerical; but all providential developments since, and all the existing signs of the times, lend corroboration to it… It is equally plain that the religious and political destiny of our nation is to be decided in the West.

Lyman Beecher, Plea for the West, 1835

Writing from his new position at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, Lyman Beecher sensed the struggle for Protestant hegemony that would take place in the newly acquired western territories. Associating Catholicism with monarchy and despotism, he believed in the promise of Protestant theology to advance American liberty westward. Like other early nineteenth century intellectuals and theologians, Beecher believed that it was America’s manifest destiny to spread westward, and in the course of its spread, bring Protestantism with it.

Beecher’s beliefs are manifestations of American Protestant mythology—one that claims that America has always been, and will continue to be, a Protestant nation. In Jews on the Frontier, Shari Rabin directly challenges this myth. She begins neither in a church nor a seminary, but with Edward Rosewater, a transient telegraph operator. Rosewater was born in Bohemia, but traveled through Cincinnati, Oberlin, St. Louis, Murfreesboro, Nashville, and Washington, D.C., before finally settling in Omaha. As a mobile Jew, he maintained a flexible religious life: on the one hand violating the Sabbath laws, eating non-kosher foods, and attending church semi-regularly, but on the other hand, attending synagogue when he found himself in larger cities and interacting with prominent rabbis throughout his journeys. It’s unclear whether Rosewater engaged Jewish texts in his wanderings, but, according to the author, he did create his own version of religious practice utilizing the world around him. On the road, Rabin writes that Rosewater created a religious world of his own “using sources that were Jewish, Christian, both, and neither.”

We might find Rosewater an atypical starting place for a study on American Jewish history, let alone American religious history. Yet, Rabin asks, why not start with him? While many scholars would categorize Rosewater as a marginal figure, a “none,” or a typical secular American, Rabin argues that “his case is not a peripheral one of religious deterioration through secularization, Protestantization, assimilation or apathy. Rather, he is an exemplar of American religion, albeit not as it is usually understood.” The typically studied routes of American Jewish history—congregations, institutions, movements, and ideology—are strategies of stability that coexist and compete within a nation of mobile strangers. By rerouting her study to focus on mobile strangers rather than stable institutions, Rabin unsettles the traditional structures of American religious history. Rabin suggests that the mobile Jew—not the settled Protestant—is the archetypal American, “selectively revealing, expressing, and creating religion as he goes.” Rabin argues that the United States is not home to “Methodists or Mormons, Pentecostals or Presbyterians, Buddhists or Baptists, Mennonites or Muslims,” but “totally unencumbered religious actors;” bodies that are gendered, classed, and racialized, making sense of the world with the tools at their disposal.

Rabin’s clarion call to reimagine the labels we use to describe ourselves, to embrace diasporism, and to resist centralized practices speaks to a generation that actively deconstructs patriarchal and heteronormative structures, thinks more globally, and operates outside the institutional framework. Looking at American Jews—a people that have always been a religious minority and often on the move—and decentering Protestants, Rabin invites those of us who do not attend church to imagine ourselves at the center of the American story. Inverting central American myths, we reconsider both our past and the tools available to us as we construct our future. Like Rosewater, we must be flexible as we navigate an unfamiliar and changing world. In this way, Jews on the Frontier is a valuable read not only for scholars of American Jewish and American religious history, but change-minded activists and citizens as well.

Situating her study on the frontier, Rabin utilizes marginality to understand central trends more clearly. Yet those who pick up this book expecting to encounter the frontier of Frederick Jackson Turner will be surprised, for Rabin’s frontier operates according to a different theoretical matrix. Rather than Turner’s unsettled frontier, Rabin builds her definition off of Sander Gilman’s formulation in Jewish Frontiers. Gilman’s frontier refers to the “conceptual and physical space where groups in motion meet, confront, alter, destroy, and build.” These interactions, both Gilman and Rabin argue, are shaped by political and social realities on the ground.

Readers hoping for regional study will instead find a geographically diverse, at times confused, smattering of stories. Focusing mainly on small towns and the individuals therein, Rabin does not limit the scope of her study to one region but casts a wide net. From Los Angeles to Jacksonville and as far north as Syracuse, the frontier of Rabin’s study is more condition than place, a reflection of relative rather than true space. Yet, in pushing the frontier into all the places where groups “meet, confront, alter, destroy and build,” Rabin is driven as often to the urban as to the rural: New York is mentioned more often than Los Angeles, Charleston, or Chicago combined. And perhaps, by this definition, New York itself is the archetypal frontier, the place where Jews first confronted American culture, where Yehoash translated The Song of Hiawatha into Yiddish, where immigrant Jews first felt at home in America.

Rosewater is the first of many such Jews on the Frontier. The Jews of Rabin’s study are broadly defined; she includes Jews who placed themselves within the Jewish community at any point in their life, no matter the substance, strength, or duration of their engagement. Rather than focusing on quantitative data—how many Jews, where, and when—Rabin highlights individual narratives in order to maintain the “lived complexity” and “ambivalence” of individual Jews. While Rabin strives to focus on the breadth, rather than depth, of the mobile Jewish experience, there are several key players. Rabbi Isaac Leeser, a leader of American Jewish Orthodoxy, and Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a leader of the American Jewish Reform movement, play recurring roles in the text. Yet, on the whole, Rabin’s method of using geographically scattered individuals reinforces her stance against the impact of centralized institutions and the remarkable power of the individual.

The narratives of the characters who feature in this study are collected from a variety of sources—the Jewish press, personal memoirs and diaries, congregational minutes and institutional press reports, sermons and published essays—an array of sources that reflects the messy lives that mobile Jews lived. Letters feature as both source and discourse; Rabin argues that “correspondence played a central role in the preservation and performance of Jewish families.” Letters maintained family bonds over increasing and variable distances. The correspondence between Leeser and Wise is particularly important; as leaders they traveled prodigiously and maintained correspondence with one another. Their archive is both historically and methodologically significant; their correspondence itself a manifestation of mobile strategies for maintaining Jewish community. More than diaries, records, or the Jewish press, correspondence represents the material of mobility.

While Rabin’s use of correspondence both as source and as discourse is innovative, her selection of mostly English language primary sources does not fully express the range of Jewish expression in the nineteenth century. Few Jewish immigrants spoke English upon arrival and the bilingual worlds which they created, maintained, and struggled with offer powerful lenses into the effects of movement on identity and practice. Although the Yiddish press did not take off until the late nineteenth century, the German language Jewish press has its origins in antebellum America, well within Rabin’s “short nineteenth century.” Furthermore, while Rabin uses correspondence both as a source and discourse, the monolingualism of her selections betrays the world she investigates. For a book about mobile Jews, Rabin uses only a couple of non-English sources. As Jonathan Sarna has pointed out in his discussion of the foreign-language Jewish press in America, foreign-language sources are more likely to be critical of American ideology and practices. So, of course Rabin’s mobile Jews are the archetypal Americans: constructing Anglophile worlds, they embrace the productive dimensions of assimilation.

By placing mobility at the center of American (and therefore American Jewish) mentalité, Rabin emphasizes dispersion over cohesion, providing us with a bold alternative to the ethnicity school that has dominated the study of American Jewish history. Mobility is central to Rabin’s work, both as a “shared milieu” and as a “mentalité of the frontier.” Scholars of Jewish history have debated over the contours of Jewish mentalité, using it as a framework to understand a shared sense of Jewish purpose and community in spite of geographic dispersion. Moses Rischin argued that ethnicity functioned as a sort of mentalité for American Jews, reflecting all that was both patent, latent, and generative in American Jewish identity. Deborah Dash Moore’s At Home in America firmly placed ethnicity, shaped by the contours of the Jewish neighborhood, at the heart of American Jewish mentalité. Yet, scholars such as Eli Lederhendler have questioned the impact of dispersion on the maintenance of ethnic identification. In dialogue with Moore, Lederhendler asks, “did ethnicity [work] so long as the ecology of Jewish residential clustering was maintained? Or did the associational web of community constitute a long-range projection of social—not spatial—clustering that persists even in conditions of dispersion?”

Using mobility in this way allows Rabin to argue that mobile Jews were not “lonely Jews” but rather “imperial pioneers and biblical wanderers;” they did not engage in “imperfect religious practice” but they brought “Jewish community to an empty ‘wilderness.’” Validating the intellectual labors of lone settlers and prominent rabbis in one breath, Rabin points to an emergent mobile imaginary within American Judaism. This mobile imaginary provided stability and strength to American Judaism when it was at its most vulnerable by flexibly engaging with the varied ideologies and practices of manifest destiny. The Jewish pastoral ideal interpreted Jewish mobility not only as the result of territorial expansion, but divine providence, fusing manifest destiny and chosenness. Using the heart and the empire as symbols made Judaism “more expansive, more vague, and less dependent on environmental conditions,” Rabin argues, and imminently more portable. Finally, Jewish leaders sought to organize change through progress in order to move “religion into line with the physical and conceptual speed of American life.” The tools of the mobile imaginary asserted the compatibility of American movement and the Jewish faith through theological, symbolic, and rhetorical innovations. Rabin argues that unfettered mobility, and its political and religious discourses, was the “engine of transformation” that came to shape American identity as we know it.

While the tools and contexts of mobility have changed, Rabin argues that the necessity of movement and the encouragement of individualism have held strong. The postmodern religious trends of the 21stst century—neopaganism, eclectic agnosticism, atheism—demonstrate this point. Postmodern religion, Rabin argues, is a gut reaction to the conditions of American life, especially the demand of mobility. Rather than seeing these trends as an anomaly, Rabin argues that they are the stuff of American religiosity. Starting with Jews, Rabin hopes that readers will come to see that “coherent institutions, identities, and ideologies are neither inevitable nor permanent.” Rather, Rabin argues, that which we hold to be stable and true have been “strategic fictions” that enable us to cope with “a particular politics of mobility.”

Making meaning out of the tension between displacement and place seems central to being both American and Jewish, and so many of those who I know don’t find meaning in centralized institutions or coherent ideologies. Rather, it is the messiness, the movement, and the interplay between the two that seem to shape our lives and the way we relate to the world and our cohabitants in it. Contrary to what Hyman Beecher would have us believe, we are more similar to Edward Rosewater than we think.

Erin Faigin is a PhD student in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in Yiddish literature in Los Angeles and Chicago, frontier mythology, and Jewish borderlands.