- Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America by Shari Rabin
A historian of nineteenth-century American Jews faces two interesting challenges in writing an influential book. First, she has to make the nineteenth century matter to American Jewish history, which tends to overlook much of American Jewish life before the influx of East European immigrants that began around 1880. Second (and this reflects a general challenge in Jewish studies), she must make the story of nineteenth-century America's small Jewish population relevant to U.S. history or related subfields.
In Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America, Shari Rabin accomplishes both tasks, arguing that (white, male) Jewish immigrants' experiences of radical, unfettered mobility in the United States provided the base-level conditions from which American Judaism developed, and that the flexible, eclectic, and improvisatory religious practices of these mobile Jews actually typify the history of religion in the United States. For Rabin, "congregations, denominations, coherent ideologies, and singular identities are not obvious starting points, but rather are particular strategies of stability that coexist and compete with others within a nation overrun by mobile strangers" (p. 2).
Rabin organizes her book into three sections, each consisting of two chapters. The first section establishes the novel circumstances of Jewish life in the United States—characterized by unfettered mobility and religious voluntarism—and explores the challenges and opportunities that this new context provided. The second section takes up "distinct but intersecting spheres of religious life" to examine how individual Jews negotiated questions of belief, practice, and community in light of their recurrent migrations (p. 7). The third section considers how Jewish leaders (especially Isaac Mayer Wise and Isaac Leeser) responded to "the diversity and eclecticism of American Jews" with attempts to establish centralized institutions and formalized ideologies (p. 8). In these final chapters, Rabin asserts the long-term significance of nineteenth-century mobility as an "engine" of transformation that prompted American Jews (among others) to develop a "mobile infrastructure" and a "mobile imaginary" that could withstand constant movement (pp. 139, 104, 123). [End Page 161]
Rabin's thematic structure helps her maintain a focused and convincing argument even as she pulls examples from across the continent and the century. The text introduces readers to a telegraph operator in Nebraska, a peddler in Georgia, and a mohel (a performer of ritual circumcisions) in Mississippi. The breadth of archival sources enlivens the book, and the frequent jumps between distant locales reinforce the sense of a century defined by mobility. At times, the sheer quantity of examples pulls attention away from the specific conditions of Jewish life in a given place and the distinctions of region, community size, or age of a city. Likewise, the text might benefit from more comparative discussions of non-Jewish religious life in similar contexts. As Rabin notes, however, her Jewish frontier is not simply the American West but a dynamic space of motion, interaction, and change that existed at once in small towns and larger cities, and the experiences of nineteenth-century Jews provide as good a starting place for exploring the religious consequences of mass mobility as anywhere else.
Jews on the Frontier is a quick read with something to offer a variety of readers. As a classroom text, it will be accessible for advanced undergraduate students in related fields and will offer graduate students a model for expansive research, crisp writing, and clear argumentation. Scholars of American religion will find a compelling read that integrates Jewish experiences into a national story, and experts in Jewish American history will gain a fresh perspective on the nineteenth century. While Rabin does not dwell on the significance of regional difference, her overall analysis will prove valuable for southern (and southern Jewish) historians, and her thorough archival research will provide useful historical details while pointing to a rich variety of sources.