- Jewish Life in Small-Town America: A History
Patterns of Jewish life in small American towns took shape from the middle years of the nineteenth century until the end of World War II. That period began with the settlement of German and Central European Jews throughout the United States, followed by the settlement of eastern European Jews in the four decades after 1881. By the mid-twentieth century, Jewish communal life in small towns had reached a high point, but an array of social, economic, and demographic forces pointed toward the inevitable decline of those communities.
Small Jewish communities emerged in small American towns, although most of the latter lacked any Jewish population at all. American cities by contrast consistently attracted large Jewish concentrations, and indeed our understanding of the American Jewish experience is conditioned by the predominantly urban character of Jewish life. By the mid-1920s, nearly 200 American cities had Jewish populations of at least a thousand people. At the same time that most Jews were gravitating toward large and midsize urban locales, others were establishing themselves in towns of modest size, many of which counted their Jewish population in the hundreds. Understanding the organization and dynamics of these "triple-digit" communities—those places with a Jewish population of more than a hundred but less than a thousand—is the worthy task that Lee Shai Weissbach has set for himself.
In 1927, 490 triple digit Jewish communities dotted the country, yet until the publication of this important volume we have had very little analytical understanding of how Jews made their way in these locales. Instead, we have had to rely on amateur local histories, synagogue commemorative volumes, and the like. But this is not a dry, academic account. It is instead a lively, well written, and accessible book, rich in illustrative cases, about a segment of American Jewish life long neglected by historians and social scientists. It is sure to interest a lay readership as well.
Ranging widely across the 490 communities, Weissbach singles out a dozen representative towns for closer scrutiny. He relies on demographic data from the federal census as well as population figures from various Jewish [End Page 204] sources. City directories, local community and synagogue histories, newspaper and magazine stories, and archival papers, including those of the Industrial Removal Office, also provided very useful material for the author's painstaking research.
In chapters on settlement patterns, population stability and mobility, livelihood and class, family life, congregational organization, synagogue history, religious leadership, cultural patterns among both German and eastern European Jews, and prejudice, Weissbach argues that "place matters." "Place" is indeed the leitmotif of the book. Small Jewish communities and their larger urban counterparts of course shared many common features, including the estrangements and affinities between German and eastern European Jews and Jewish efforts in general to remain distinct while still seeking acceptance by non-Jewish neighbors. Large and small communities alike also struggled with their desire to insure Jewish cultural and/or religious continuity between generations at the same time that those efforts were undermined by cultural assimilation and other blandishments of a society gradually removing its barriers against Jews, if not Americans of African descent.
Yet because place matters, triple-digit communities were not simply projections onto a smaller screen of Jewish life in cities. Rather, Jewish institutions and conduct in small towns were adaptations in their own right to the distinctive local environment, including its social, economic, geographical, and demographic features. Triple-digit communities were, for example, more economically monolithic—almost completely middle class—than either large or midsize Jewish communities, where a Jewish working class and Jewish poverty were apparent. Middle-class status in small communities was established predominantly through retail trade as Jews became merchants or entrepreneurs in such businesses as junk collecting. Challenges of small town living such as providing a Jewish education for their children, promoting endogamous marriage by expanding their children's Jewish contacts beyond the community, organizing synagogues, procuring the services of a rabbi, arranging for a kosher meat supply...