Beyond the Synagogue

Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice

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Rachel B. Gross
North American Religions
  • New York: 
    New York University Press
    , January
     2021.
     272 pages.
     $39.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781479803385.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In her interesting and often witty Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia and Religious Practice, Rachel B. Gross offers a guided tour of late 20th- to 21st-century Jewish nostalgia, focusing on four case studies —Jewish genealogy, historic synagogue heritage sites, Jewish children’s books and dolls, and the Jewish deli “culinary revival”—all of which involve material culture, institutional organization, and “a wishful affection or sentimental longing for an irrevocable past” (4–5). For each case, Gross provides detailed descriptions, drawing on interviews, “short-term ethnographic research” (14), and analyses of digital and material culture. Gross describes standardized nostalgic narratives as both pervasive and reductive; as the Eastern European immigrant story is understood to represent Jewishness, it denies the diverse histories of Jews.

Gross offers an initial chapter that describes nostalgia as providing a counter to “declension narrative[s] of assimilation and secularism” (22); instead, nostalgia offers stories of progress and success that pair enthusiasm for an European-immigrant American past with hopes for continuing prosperity. Gross professes that “nostalgia is not merely reductive; it can also be productive. It reduces complicated histories to an accessible narrative, . . . but it also produces personal and communal meaning” (28). While Jewish nostalgia is not new, it is now standardized, institutionalized, and central to Jewish identity. Gross also provides a chapter on each of her case studies and a concluding chapter.

Among many gems in this book are Gross’s discussion of how Jewish genealogists employ “the language of mitzvot” (46) to describe their practices and how the biological conceptualizations of Jewishness they promote “often serve to support traditional . . . understandings of who is a Jew” (75); analysis of “the eternal grandparent” device common in nostalgic Jewish American children’s books that encourage contemporary youth to view themselves as “grandchildren of immigrants” (125), despite being several generations removed; and insights on nostalgic and “post-nostalgic camp” (182) in Jewish delis.

The “ostensibly nonreligious” activities examined in this book, Gross asserts, should be considered as not simply cultural but religious. Drawing from the lived religion approach, Gross explains that people put into practice their religious identities every day through normal activities. To this she adds the Jewish concept of mitzvah (commandment). Gross contends that Jewish Americans have broadened the biblical exhortation to honor parents to an exhortation to revere ancestors, and they have expanded the command to remember select biblical stories to one of recalling Jewish history more generally.

Thus, Gross reasons, to engage in Jewish nostalgia is to perform a mitzvah; and to enact a mitzvah is to engage with Judaism. Because for many American Jews, belief in God is not primary to their Jewishness, Gross suggests that religion should be defined, not by belief, but as “meaningful relationships and the practices, narratives, and emotions that create and support these relationships” (6). These relationships, the author continues, include those “among the living, between the living and the dead, or between humans and the divine” (6).

Understanding religion in this way permits inclusion into the religious realm, institutions and practices that assist in meaning-making and forging relationships. For example, Gross writes, Holocaust remembrance and Zionism preceded nostalgia as principal organizers of American Jewish feeling and identity. Because they “created and upheld guiding sacred narratives for American Jews,” they should be understood to be as religious as “attending a Passover seder” (11). By connecting Jews to Jewish communities and stories about their ancestors, Gross contends, institutions that support Israel and encourage Holocaust remembrance are performing the functions of religion. By the same logic, the nostalgia produced by consuming a deli sandwich is an American Jewish religious experience. Similarly, creating Jewish stories for children, may be considered a mitzvah, and thus in the religious realm. Instead of separating the cultural from the religious, Gross proposes, we should expand religion to encompass aspects of culture that serve “religious” functions; the sacred is best recognized by its use value to people, regardless of whether or not the valuers understand it as such.

Gross asserts that understanding Jewish nostalgia as involving religious acts, complicates “notions of a divide between Judaism, the religion, and Jewishness, the culture” (5). In addition, she suggests that such a shift in understanding speaks to worries over Jewish continuity. Along with many social-scientific scholars of religion, Gross maintains that those concerned about Jewish survival –due to (perceived) declines of Jewish religiosity and rising Jewish exogamy— define Judaism too narrowly. Yet she distinguishes herself from many by redefining what is commonly considered ethnic as (potentially) religious, including the consumption of kosher-style knishes, or buying for one’s babe the Rebecca doll —“described as a child of Russian immigrants living on Lower East Side in 1914” (142)—along with its accompanying books and accessories.

Missing from this book are considerations of the consequences of defining religion by its function, and conflating religion and consumption. Also missing is a reconciliation with the popular sociological concepts of “cultural religion” and “cultural Jewishness.” N.J. Demerath III (“The Rise of ‘Cultural Religion’ in European Christianity: Learning from Poland, Northern Ireland, and Sweden,” Social Compass 47, 2000, p. 127) described the former as when “religion affords a sense of personal identity and continuity with the past even after participation in ritual and belief have passed.” Both concepts are widely employed by contemporary scholars, and are accepted by many everyday Jewish Americans—so much so that Demerath introduces the concept of cultural religion in Europe using Jews as a self-evident example. Gross sidesteps this scholarly discussion, while advancing to it a bold challenge.

About the Reviewer(s): 

C. Lynn Carr is professor of sociology at Seton Hall University.

Date of Review: 
September 1, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rachel B. Gross is assistant professor and John and Marcia Goldman Chair in American Jewish Studies in the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University.

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