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Reviewed by:
  • Insecure Prosperity: Small-Town Jews in Industrial America, 1890–1940
  • Lee Shai Weissbach
Insecure Prosperity: Small-Town Jews in Industrial America, 1890–1940. By Ewa Morawska. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. pp. xxv, 370.

Ewa Morawska’s superb study of the Jewish community of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in the half century before World War II represents social history at its best, for while it tells a very interesting story of specific people in a specific place, it is always careful to consider that story in a larger context. In many cases, for example, the book introduces statistical analyses to help clarify how the experiences of various individuals fit into a more general pattern, and the study repeatedly discusses the nature of Johnstown’s Jewish history in terms of significant trends in American Jewish life more generally, especially as they were manifested in major urban areas. One of the principal points made in the book is that, just like their counterparts in big cities, early twentieth-century Jews in Johnstown were engaged in creating a new way of life that borrowed both from Old World Jewish values and traditions, and from modern American mores and lifestyles, but that in Johnstown this process proceeded less rapidly than it did in metropolitan areas. Older patterns of employment and education were more slowly altered in Johnstown, for example, as were older patterns of religious observance and family relations.

Morawska’s book covers a wide range of interesting and important topics, often in great detail. It discusses the European origins of Johnstown’s Jews; the migration patterns that led them to the city; their residence patterns within the city; their economic life; the structure and function of their families; the role of women within the household and within the community; the place of the synagogue in local Jewish affairs; and the participation of Jews in the larger social and political arena. Fundamentally, this book is the story of how first- and second-generation Johnstown Jews, constituting their own ethnic entrepreneurial niche in a town dominated by steel production and coal mining, attempted to achieve the twin goals of securing a certain material comfort, and of creating a satisfactory communal existence in which their ethno-religious identity as Jews figured prominently. The title of Morawska’s book refers both to the precarious nature of the economic success achieved by Johnstown’s early twentieth-century Jews, and to their sociocultural marginality within their small-town milieu.

Morawska is apologetic about leaving out of her story some matters that she might have investigated more fully (conflicts between congregational [End Page 274] factions, for example, or between larger and smaller merchants), and she laments that as an inquiry into the role of gender, at least, her analysis remains “unsatisfactory.” But Morawska’s contrition is quite unnecessary, for her book is so chocked full of well-presented information and insightful analysis that problems such as the ones she mentions are hardly noticed. The success of her book is strengthened by the inclusion of thirty-one photographs and various maps, and it is generally very well written, although historians may find disconcerting Morawska’s decision to follow a practice common in sociology and refer to her subjects only by their first name and the initial of their last.

Insecure Prosperity is based on an extraordinary amount of research. The author spent nearly a decade and a half on her project and has brought to bear on her subject a truly prodigious amount of secondary reading on a wide array of related topics; her bibliography would have run to sixty-five pages had there been room to publish it. Morawska’s research on the Jewish community of Johnstown itself involved the mining of just about every resource that can be imagined, from East European memorial books to U.S. census materials, from synagogue minutes to court and tax documents, from Dun and Bradstreet credit reports to college records. In addition, Morawska conducted hundreds of interviews, and, indeed, certain sections of her volume, such as the chapter on the worldviews of Johnstown’s Jews, rely more heavily on what she was told by her informants than on any other material...

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