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Jewish Life in the Industrial Promised Land 1855-2005 (review)

From: American Jewish History
Volume 92, Number 3, September 2004
pp. 363-364 | 10.1353/ajh.2006.0025

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American Jewish History 92.3 (2004) 363-364

Jewish Life in the Industrial Promised Land 1855–2005. By Nora Faires and Nancy Hanflik. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2005.

As Michael Moore made evident in his 1989 documentary Roger and Me, Flint, Michigan, is a scarred city. Battered and bullied by General Motors, the city's industrial giant, who, in an attempt to remain competitive, laid off thousands of employees, Flint transformed from a city of prosperity into a ghost town. Jewish Life in the Industrial Promised Land 1855–2005 by Nora Faires and Nancy Hanflik moves beyond the ubiquitous images of abandoned buildings and closed department stores to provide a unique glimpse of Flint's often invisible Jewish community. In a remarkable book that relies on oral histories, scholarship, and photographic evidence, Faires and Hanflik illuminate the scope and breadth of Jewish life in the area.

The authors' fine study of Midwestern Jewry analyzes "the evolution of Flint's Jewish community," producing a rich, complex portrait of a group that contributed to the city's infrastructure, and who, like the other residents of Flint, suffered the inevitable consequences of its ultimate demise, including the spread of antisemitism (11). Flint's early history is a microcosm of Jewish America, and many of Flint's original Jewish settlers were immigrants who made their living in what is colloquially known as the shmata trade, working in the retail clothing industry, manufacturing and peddling ready-made apparel. Few of Flint's Jews took industrial jobs, and, as the nineteenth century came to a close, Flint's Jewish population expanded to other entrepreneurial commercial occupations, including the opening of produce stands, a coal mining company, and a scrap metal business, as well as other ventures.

Jewish Life in the Industrial Promised Land 1855–2005 is a careful study of Midwest Jewish culture, and the book assembles the trajectory of Jewish life from early immigration to economic decay. The authors' painstakingly researched oral histories, combining "insider" perspectives with secondary research, allow for a unique narrative that gives voice to this community.

The strength of this study, however, is its extensive collection of photographs, which provide strong visual documentation of Flint's days of industrial glory. Taken in large part from Flint's Sloan Museum, but also gleaned from personal collections, the photographs offer an astonishing array of images that detail the nuanced existence of this population. Several document the presence of Jewish-owned businesses: the Taystee Bread Girls (1933), the Beecher Department Store (1943), Vogue clothing store's window display featuring work clothes for women in factory jobs (1944), and a picture of one of Flint's first Jewish-run businesses—a fruit cart which reads New Orleans Fruit House (n.d.). The book's photos also attest to the social climate of Flint: sorority sisters (1920) and daughters of turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants, images of "The Campaign Cabinet" of the Flint Jewish Community Council (1950), and a Pro-Palestinian demonstration in downtown Flint (1988).

Faires and Hanflik manage to capture through their thorough research and visual presentation the cultural ethos of Flint's Jewish community. This is a valuable, distinguished work of scholarship that greatly contributes to Jewish Studies.

Andrea Greenbaum

Barry University
Andrea Greenbaum is Associate Professor and Director of Professional Writing at Barry University. Her most recent book is Jews of South Florida (2005), and she is currently co-editing Jewish Rhetoric in Composition Studies.


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