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  • Feeling JewishNostalgia and American Jewish Religion
  • Rachel B. Gross (bio)
Keywords

nostalgia, memory, Judaism, American religion, material culture, material religion, genealogy, synagogues, children’s books, delis, foodways

The visitors to the Museum at Eldridge Street sat in the pews of the restored 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue. Looking upward, they admired the elaborate Moorish-style interior. A docent recounted the history of the grand synagogue, built by Eastern European Jewish immigrants. When she finished, as she led the group out of the sanctuary, the docent paused at the back of the room. “Step into the indentations in the floor-boards,” she said. Soon, people had arranged themselves into straight lines. Pointing to the pattern of indentations, she asked, “Why do you think these are here?” Slowly, the group realized that they stood in the footprints of former male congregants. The indentations had been made by men shuckling, rocking back and forth in front of their pew as they prayed in a traditional Jewish fashion. Over the years, they had left their mark in the soft pine floorboards. The docent demonstrated the movement, and others copied her. A few tourists were familiar with the rocking motion from their own synagogue services. Most shuffled more awkwardly, if enthusiastically.1 Standing in the footprints of former congregants provides an immediate, sensory connection to the past, one that engages visitors’ entire bodies. The experience is a highlight for many tourists. As one wrote on Yelp, “You literally feel the history at your feet.”2 The docent’s careful orchestration of this moment helps visitors to experience a connection to past congregants physically and emotionally.

What if we recognized this docent as a Jewish community leader—and, in fact, a religious leader—because of the way she directs Jews’ and others’ emotions about Jewish history through the particular use of space and materials? We tend to think about Jewish community leaders [End Page 19]


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Figure 1.

Eldridge Street Synagogue interior, view from the women’s balcony. Photo by Rhododendrites, October 14, 2018. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4. 0.

as congregational rabbis, as well as directors of Jewish Federations, American Zionist organizations, and certain other Jewish non-profits, but we would be better served to broaden our definition of Jewish leaders to include those who guide Jews’ practices, stories, and feelings. In my book, Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice, I examine materials and institutions through which American Jews engage, promote, and teach nostalgia for turn-of-the-century Jewish immigration from Central and Eastern Europe to the United States.3 I find that nostalgia—a sentimental longing for Jewish communal origins [End Page 20]


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Figure 2.

The Eldridge Street Synagogue’s worn wood floorboards.

Used with permission of the Museum at Eldridge Street.

that can’t be fulfilled—can be both an emotion and a practice. As a feeling and a practice, nostalgia has become a prominent part of American Jewish religion since the 1970s and into the present day. I look at case studies of the materials and institutions of Jewish genealogists, historic synagogues that are used as museums, children’s books and dolls, and artisanal delis and other Jewish food sites, and find that they are best understood as part of American Jewish religion. This requires us to expand our understanding of what counts as religious practice and who counts as a community leader. It demonstrates—against the arguments [End Page 21] of worried pundits—that American Judaism is not in decline, but evolving and flourishing.

looking for judaism in all the wrong places

Viewing nostalgic activities such as touring the Museum at Eldridge Street or buying a pastrami sandwich at a deli as religious practices helps us to refute the claims of sociologists and Jewish leaders who see Jewish religion on the decline in the United States. Since the mid-twentieth century, American Jewish communal leaders have worried loudly that American Jews’ religiosity is waning, something they often describe as “assimilation” into mainstream American culture. Congregational rabbis tend to have a prescriptive definition of religion, focused on synagogue attendance and the performance of holiday and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1939-3881
Print ISSN
0011-1953
Pages
pp. 19-33
Launched on MUSE
2021-04-20
Open Access
No
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