Jews on the Frontier

Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America

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Shari Rabin
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , December
     2017.
     208 pages.
     $37.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781479830473.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

While the title and subject of Shari Rabin’s book focus on Jews in 19th-century America, the purpose of her project is far grander and more provocative than a simple retelling of the history of Jewish communities in the American West.  Students and scholars of American religion and history have long recognized the prevalence and influence of Christian beliefs, practices, and institutions in the fabric of American society and culture.  While not necessarily disputing this historical reality, Rabin suggests that a different perspective and a new paradigm might enliven the narratives of lived American religion, especially those of minority religions and religious communities.  She contends that such narratives often overemphasize the figures, movements, and ideologies of Protestant Christianity and other central institutional structures, which consequently overdetermines their roles in shaping American religion. The stories of minority religions and religious communities are therefore typically set in relation to the centers of power and influence, usually in terms of assimilation or resistance thereto.  Consequently, minority religions are depicted as only reacting or responding to the American context as opposed to actively shaping and participating in it.  For Rabin, Jews in and on the American frontier work as a case study not only for American Judaism but for American religion more broadly as it relates to the lived experience of individuals in uncharted territories, both geographic and religious.

The new paradigm that Rabin uses to describe American religion centers around the concept of free or unfettered mobility.  Building off the work done through the studies of lived religion and borderlands, Rabin contends that the primary defining qualities of American religion are creativity and practicality, which result from such mobility.  This is especially the case when individuals are confronted with legally, economically, and religiously uncertain circumstances. The three parts of this book, each composed of two chapters, present the manifold ways in which Jewish individuals and communities have navigated and negotiated their personal identities and religious commitments in the context of unfamiliar mobility and ambiguity.  The first part discusses the legal and economic mobility Jewish immigrants experienced in the United States in comparison with the mobility they experienced within the the societal structures of their European homelands, highlighting how Jewish immigrants constructed their individual Jewish identities and found belonging in transient communities.  The second part of the book largely addresses the lived religion of these individuals and how they creatively adapted their religious communities, rituals, theologies, and sensibilities to their mobile lifestyles.  These first two parts set the scene of geographic, legal, and economic mobility and its consequent individualistic religious mobility, principally as the consequence of practical considerations.  The third and final part of the book then shows how such mobility developed into a workable mobile infrastructure and mobile imaginary wherein Jewish religious adaptations were codified and organized within institutional structures and ideologies.  In this way, Rabin demonstrates how Jewish religious adaptations were the practical, necessary result of the environment of mobility on the margins of society, in many ways distinct from the overwhelming Protestant Christian culture and established institutions on the east coast.

Thus, the national organizations and institutions that arose to connect and represent the Jewish communities in the 19th century were not the sole origins and determiners of American Judaism, as they are often depicted in other historical narratives.  Instead, they were more the result of practical religious adaptations made by individuals on the frontier, who were the true pioneers and developers of American Judaism. In the same way, American Judaism developed predominantly from practical considerations in a mobile environment rather than as assimilatory adaptations to Protestant ideologies, even if similar ideologies existed in parallel between the two.  For instance, Rabin discusses in her sixth chapter how Jews reformed Jewish identity through the incorporation and permutation of concepts such as Manifest Destiny, Jewish messianism, and diasporic ideologies.  But Jews were not primarily responding to and appropriating Christian ideologies of Manifest Destiny, significant as they were—rather they were creatively and practically constructing and adapting their understandings of American Judaism in their own way for their own purposes. The common denominator for American religion, then, is neither the Protestant secular, nor the dominant institutional structures, as is frequently assumed in the study of American religion. Rather, the concept of mobility provides a much more robust and flexible paradigm with which religion in American can and should be considered.  Rabin further connects this concept of mobility to the modern-day “spiritual but not religious” or “nones” in her introduction and conclusion.  In much the same way that Jews on the frontier were adapting their religious identities, commitments, and sensibilities in the context of unprecedented mobility, religious nones are also adapting their own religious identities, commitments, and sensibilities in a practical manner to meet their needs amid the incredible mobility created by the modern technological age of the internet and social media.       

As such, Jews on the Frontier stands as a significant historiographical intervention in de-centering established institutions and denominations and the Protestant secular from the narratives of minority religions and religious communities.  Moreover, it persuasively argues for the foundational role of mobility in the development of American Judaism.  However, since Rabin primarily situates the mobility paradigm in the context of 19th-century Judaism with only a cursory mention of the religious nones in her introduction and conclusion, the functionality of the mobility paradigm for American religious history more broadly remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Jews on the Frontier encourages students and scholars to question the veritable sources and shapers of American religion, to consider how individuals on the margins influence the development of institutions and ideologies, and to contemplate by what means or for what reasons religious change takes place.  In so doing, Rabin bridges the study of Judaism and American religious history in unique and interesting ways.  Therefore, Jews on the Frontier will be an enjoyable and beneficial read for those interested in a wide variety of academic fields and disciplines, especially relating to religion, American history, immigration, and borderlands.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jesse J. Lee is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shari Rabin is assistant professor of Jewish Studies and associate director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture at the College of Charleston. She is a historian of American religions and modern Judaism, specializing in the nineteenth century.

Keywords: 

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