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  • Cincinnati's Best CitizensJewish Community in an American City
  • Karla Goldman (bio)

The two hundredth anniversary of organized Jewish presence in the city of Cincinnati calls for more than just a celebration of communal duration. A historical accounting of the city's Jewish community invites reflection on its outsized contribution to both American Judaism and the city of Cincinnati. The tale of Cincinnati Jews' role in the creation of American Reform Judaism, while certainly deserving of further and deeper examination, is an oft-told one. Less noted has been this same community's outsized contribution in shaping the vision for the city of Cincinnati in the twentieth century.1

It is not surprising, perhaps, that the notions of Jewish and American identity that led to the creation in Cincinnati of the first significant and successful institutions of national Jewish life also infused Jewish residents' understanding of themselves as citizens and builders of Cincinnati. An examination of the outsized Jewish leadership that shaped Progressive Era municipal reform in Cincinnati in the 1920s must be built on an understanding of the creative leadership in American Jewish life that shaped the Cincinnati Jewish community's sense of belonging, ability, and influence. This article then will first revisit the origin of the vision and institutions that shaped Cincinnati's Jewry's reimagination of possibilities for a new American Israel before delving into the community's foundational role in reimagining the polity of Cincinnati in the mid–1920s.

"Bold Plans" and "Grand Schemes"

Early-nineteenth-century Cincinnatians knew themselves to be at the center of American possibility. Exploding with mercantile and cultural energy, theirs was the most dynamic, most prosperous, most populous city off the eastern seaboard. With Ohio's investment in a canal system that leveraged the connections provided by the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, Cincinnati stood at the seamless intersection of East and West, North, and South—portal not just to the West and South but to the future.2 There was little reason to think their city's commercial centrality would fade.

In the 1840s, the city's Jewish population grew from about one thousand to three thousand individuals. Most of the Jewish men who arrived during this period had a lot in common. They had been born in Central Europe, the majority in Bavaria; had been introduced to American ways through their experience as peddlers; and had gained capital and credit in dry goods stores in small towns and [End Page 19] settlements throughout the region. Once settled in Cincinnati, many became suppliers through trade or manufacture for others still peddling or running stores in Cincinnati's hinterland. They also played an important role in the city's expansion from an indispensable exchange hub to a vital manufacturing center.3

Of course, even as the 1840s and 1850s saw a core cadre of newly minted Cincinnati Jews creating families, ascending to prosperity, embracing the business and civic engagement offered them in this developing city, not all their stories were of material and moral progress. This was an era of roller-coaster ups and downs in the business cycle—creating many losers along with winners. The credit reports generated by the New York–based R. G. Dun & Company credit agency through this period document why family and intrareligious ties became so important. Dun agents continually reminded lenders and wholesalers that as much as Jewish businessmen may be hard-working and competent, they were also shrewd, devious, and liable to fraud—and thus poor credit risks. The anti-Jewish assumptions baked into these reports meant that for initial access to contacts, goods, and capital, aspiring Jewish merchants could rely only on each other.4

Finally, as attractive a destination as Cincinnati may have seemed to those emerging from the restrictions and exclusions that shaped Jewish life in Central Europe, violence and instability lay just beneath the surface of the growing metropolis standing across the river from Kentucky. Members of the city's relatively large antebellum free Black community were terrorized by periodic race riots that sought to constrain their ambition and chase them from the city. The violent riot that took place in 1841, for instance, culminated with a cannon on Sixth...