Jew­ish Life in Small-Town Amer­i­ca: A History

Lee Shai Weissbach
  • Review
By – May 14, 2012

Dis­cus­sions of Amer­i­can Jew­ish life have tend­ed to focus on major cities. While such places are impor­tant, our under­stand­ing of the evo­lu­tion and the nature of Jew­ish life is great­ly hand­i­capped when we over­look life, cul­ture and insti­tu­tions in small­er towns like the triple dig­it Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties” Weiss­bach stud­ied, and in regions like the South, the sub­ject of McGraw’s book. Since Jew­ish life in the South was espe­cial­ly con­cen­trat­ed in small towns, the con­tent of the books over­laps even though their per­spec­tives and method­olo­gies differ. 

Our view of Jews as an urban peo­ple con­cen­trat­ed in a few large cities is rel­a­tive­ly recent. Many Euro­pean Jews lived in rur­al areas until the late 19th cen­tu­ry, and the num­ber of Jews in small towns in the U.S. less than 50 years ago was not incon­sid­er­able. A large num­ber of the Jew­ish stu­dents I encoun­tered 40 years ago as a grad­u­ate teach­ing assis­tant at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia came from small towns, and were attend­ing the University’s Whar­ton School of Busi­ness in prepa­ra­tion to work in fam­i­ly busi­ness­es, often dry goods or jew­el­ry stores. Indeed, a study con­duct­ed in the mid-20th cen­tu­ry of 168 Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties with pop­u­la­tions less than 1,000 peo­ple revealed that two thirds of employed Jews were own­ers and man­agers of busi­ness­es,” eight in ten of whom were in retail or whole­sale businesses. 

Weissbach’s Jew­ish Life in Small-Town Amer­i­ca does a fine job of draw­ing on volu­mi­nous his­tor­i­cal and demo­graph­ic data, includ­ing data from man­u­script cen­sus­es, to study life in 490 small towns. The book describes near­ly a dozen pat­terns’ in these com­mu­ni­ties, includ­ing pat­terns of cul­ture, orga­ni­za­tion­al life, fam­i­ly life, liveli­hood, class, sta­bil­i­ty and mobil­i­ty. Weiss­bach elab­o­rates on the com­plex and ambigu­ous posi­tion of Jews in these places: they were far more inte­grat­ed into the life of their towns than Jews in large cities were, but remained out­siders. Their posi­tion was espe­cial­ly dis­tinc­tive in the South, where Jews tend­ed to be more trust­ed than white gen­tiles. Some pat­terns were not so dif­fer­ent in small towns and cities: the sequence of orga­ni­za­tion­al devel­op­ment was the same and they all had syn­a­gogues, benev­o­lent soci­eties and bur­ial soci­eties. A major dif­fer­ence was the sense of gen­er­a­tional dis­con­ti­nu­ity. Where­as in Ger­many and oth­er parts of Europe fam­i­lies could trace back their ances­tors for hun­dreds of years in the small towns where they lived, there was much more tran­sience in the Unit­ed States. Eli Evans point­ed out in a doc­u­men­tary film called Delta Jews, quot­ed in McGraw’s book, that The sto­ry of Jews in the South is that of fathers who built busi­ness­es for the sons who did not want them.” This obser­va­tion has a broad­er sig­nif­i­cance: Weiss­bach points out that small-town Jew­ish life in Amer­i­ca was typ­i­cal­ly a one or two gen­er­a­tion affair. He points out that It was not only the con­tin­u­al arrival of peo­ple from else­where, how­ev­er, that kept the blend of indi­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies in America’s small Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties almost con­stant­ly in flux. Just as impor­tant for the dynam­ic demo­graph­ic his­to­ry of these set­tle­ments was the con­stant depar­ture of Jew­ish res­i­dents. In many cas­es, even indi­vid­u­als who were count­ed among the founders of their com­mu­ni­ties or among their most promi­nent mem­bers did not remain in their towns per­ma­nent­ly.” This result­ed in the dis­ap­pear­ance of about half of the com­mu­ni­ties he stud­ied and the inte­gra­tion or absorp­tion of oth­ers, like Engle­wood, New Jer­sey, into larg­er met­ro­pol­i­tan areas. 

These com­mu­ni­ties were set­tled in part by chain migra­tion’ where res­i­dents served as mag­nets, attract­ing rel­a­tives and close friends to an area. Oth­er peo­ple were sent by the Indus­tri­al Removal Office, in an effort to reduce pover­ty by reduc­ing the con­cen­tra­tion of Jews in large cities. In the first two decades of the 20th cen­tu­ry, the IRO placed 75,000 peo­ple; ful­ly half of the near­ly 500 towns dis­cussed in this book received res­i­dents through this program. 

McGraw’s Two Covenants draws on a dif­fer­ent type of evi­dence, lit­er­a­ture by and about South­ern Jews. Uti­liz­ing the con­cepts and tools of post­mod­ern lit­er­ary analy­sis, McGraw is inter­est­ed in the hybrid­i­ty of South­ern Jews, the sense of being an Oth­er’ in an area of the coun­try whose life and cul­ture was marked by so many com­plex­i­ties and con­tra­dic­tions, espe­cial­ly with regard to the sta­tus of African Amer­i­cans. Some of her exam­ples are inter­est­ing and impor­tant — the work of Alfred Uhry who wrote Dri­ving Miss Daisy, and Lil­lian Hell­man, as well as the less­er known but nonethe­less emblem­at­ic writer, David Cohn. Oth­er exam­ples, such as a chap­ter ana­lyz­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of the own­er­ship of Mon­ti­cel­lo by two South­ern Jews who spent most of their time in the North, are not as strong. 

Both books point to a need to fur­ther explore an impor­tant dimen­sion of Amer­i­can Jew­ish life. They raise impor­tant and provoca­tive ques­tions and map out issues that mer­it future study.

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

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