Urban Ori­gins of Amer­i­can Judaism

  • Review
By – February 6, 2015

Deb­o­rah Dash Moore has pro­vid­ed im­portant insights on the Amer­i­can Jew­ish expe­ri­ence in a num­ber of impor­tant books and in her role as the coed­i­tor of the Ency­clopedia of Amer­i­can Jew­ish Women. Urban Ori­gins of Amer­i­can Judaism is based on a series of lec­tures that were pre­sent­ed at Stet­son Uni­ver­si­ty in 2012. It is an impres­sive syn­the­sis on urban influ­ences on the evo­lu­tion of Amer­i­can Jew­ish practice. 

The book con­sists of three long chap­ters: Syn­a­gogues,” Streets,” and Snap­shots.” Moore rec­og­nizes the fact that many homes (like my mother’s) were not the cen­ter of Jew­ish life as they tra­di­tion­al­ly had been for cen­turies but rather, that it was syn­a­gogues, streets, and snap­shots that nur­tured Jew­ish identity. 

The three chap­ters weave an inter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal tapes­try. The chap­ter on syn­a­gogues points out that fair­ly quick­ly, Jews estab­lished syn­a­gogues to pro­vide both reli­gious and social func­tions. Over time, addi­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions were estab­lished — orphan­ages, Sun­day schools, women’s and men’s orga­ni­za­tions — and these addi­tion­al groups some­times took a hybrid form com­bin­ing past tra­di­tions and mod­i­fy­ing them in ways that were inspired by Chris­t­ian neigh­bors. The chap­ter on Streets points to the myr­i­ad ways that pub­lic spaces were used not only for reli­gious events and to build social cap­i­tal, but to mark major civic events beyond the funer­als of famous rab­bis, like Jacob Joseph and Men­achem Schneer­son, but the famed writer Sholom Ale­ichem and even well-known gangsters. 

For most of Amer­i­can-Jew­ish his­to­ry, sev­er­al cities con­tained huge con­cen­tra­tions of Jews— New York and Chica­go were the largest — but in the post-World War II peri­od, Mia­mi and Los Ange­les also became major cen­ters of Jew­ish life and Jews moved out of cen­tral cities to the sub­urbs. For a grow­ing num­ber, the ecol­o­gy of Jew­ish life shift­ed and Snap­shots” served to shape our col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty and sense of our his­to­ry. Pho­tographs and oth­er images con­tributed to our under­stand­ing of our­selves as a peo­ple and, as Moore observes, View­ing these pho­tographs allows us to glimpse in tan­gi­ble detail the urban ori­gins of Amer­i­can Judaism, its het­ero­gene­ity, mul­ti­plic­i­ty, and complexity.” 

More an essay than a chrono­log­i­cal his­to­ry, Moore’s book pro­vides a schol­ar­ly but also live­ly overview of the evo­lu­tion of Amer­i­can Jew­ish cul­ture. Not only diverse and com­plex, but also a brico­lage of forms derived from diverse tra­di­tions, Amer­i­can Jew­ish cul­ture is var­ied, a cul­tur­al hybrid that has pro­mot­ed a strong col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty and a pow­er­ful col­lec­tive memory.

Relat­ed content:

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.

Discussion Questions