- Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America by Shari Rabin
Seventeen-year-old telegraph worker Edward Rosewater struggled to hold down a job, roaming throughout the Midwest in search of reliable [End Page 377] employment. Although a Jew, Rosewater attended a smattering of Christian churches, including a Tennessee revival. Characters with shifting religious identities like Rosewater serve as a vehicle for Shari Rabin’s ambitious argument that the religious lives of nineteenth-century Americans demonstrate continuity with the much-discussed “nones” of the twenty-first century.1 Rabin argues that the fluid religious identity that characterized Jews like Rosewater prior to the Gilded Age was not exceptional, but rather the “default” setting for religiosity in America (3). Heartily embracing “mobilities” theory, which examines the influences of various phenomena on people’s movements, Rabin interprets the religious lives of her subjects who self-identify as “Israelites” in a subliminal recognition of their status as physical and spiritual wanderers (7). Challenging and insightful, Rabin’s work helps address a glaring hole in American religious history prior to the Gilded Age: the religious lives of Jewish Americans.
Rabin’s opening chapter explains her concept of “unfettered mobility” which she argues distinguishes the Jewish experience in America (21). One of her key arguments is that the framework of European state regulation dictated the physical mobility of Jews in fundamentally different ways than in America, where such regulation was almost nonexistent. For example, while European governments classified Jews as a distinct race, American customs and census forms contained no such category. Functionally, Jews were “white” in America, and consequently, Jewish males were mobile out of choice in contrast to the forced mobility that characterized Jewish life in Europe. Rabin admits this mobility had its limitations, as many states and municipalities passed laws restricting mobile Jewish professions like peddling. Likewise, the proliferation of Sabbatarian laws in the nineteenth century forced Jews to work on their Sabbath day, while eschewing market activity on Sundays.
The regulatory context of the American state and unfettered mobility hindered young Jewish migrants’ attempts to form families and follow halakhic rituals (those based on the totality of Jewish law, encompassing both the oral and written Torah). Instead, nineteenth-century Jewish migrants “embraced ideals like romantic love, the nurture of children, and sentimentalized death” in ways that could fulfill Jewish tradition, but [End Page 378] just as often competed with and refashioned halakhic norms regulating marriage, sex, divorce, circumcision, education, and death (59). For example, while halakhic law and European governments legislated against Jewish intermarriage, lack of such bureaucratic constraints and few Jewish women in America meant that intermarriage was more prevalent. An expectation of romantic love further complicated adherence to the older marriage norms.
More ambitiously, Rabin argues that the situation of Jews on America’s frontier “fueled” the formation of Reform Judaism in response to a scarcity of traditional Jewish material culture: kosher foods, Torah scrolls, prayer books, and other tools of ritual such as shofar trumpets (80). Capitalism was slow to provide the goods necessarily to reliably practice Judaism. Defective Torah scrolls and inauthentic kosher were just two challenges faced by those who sought to live as “authentic” Jews. Consequently, reformers like Isaac Mayer Wise advocated for a pragmatic Judaism that accounted for the constraints of the American market and geography.
If capitalism failed to support Jewish orthopraxy, Rabin argues instead that a combination of government and private innovation fostered a “mobile infrastructure” that forged bonds between erstwhile Jewish “strangers” (103–104). Railroads, the postal service, Jewish newspapers, Jewish fraternal organizations, itinerant rabbis, statistical data collection, and personal correspondence fostered bonds amid young, mobile American Jews. However, Rabin contends these innovations could also undermine this “imagined community” since the very nature of a mobile infrastructure worked against the unification of the Jewish community under a unified minhagim (Jewish rites and custom, including prayers and liturgy), particularly across the nation’s western regions. It was this attempt to form an imagined community of Judaism that...