Jewish Life in Small-Town America: A History

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In this book, Lee Shai Weissbach offers the first comprehensive portrait of small-town Jewish life in America. Exploring the history of communities of 100 to 1000 Jews, the book focuses on the years from the mid-nineteenth century to World War II. Weissbach examines the dynamics of 490 communities across the United States and reveals that smaller Jewish centers were not simply miniature versions of larger communities but were instead alternative kinds of communities in many respects.

The book investigates topics ranging from migration patterns to occupational choices, from Jewish education and marriage strategies to congregational organization. The story of smaller Jewish communities attests to the richness and complexity of American Jewish history and also serves to remind us of the diversity of small-town society in times past.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Sarna
"Unquestionably the most thoroughly researched of all books on small Jewish communities, this volume will stand for many years as the definitive work on the subject."—Jonathan Sarna, author of American Judaism

From the Publisher

"Unquestionably the most thoroughly researched of all books on small Jewish communities, this volume will stand for many years as the definitive work on the subject.”—Jonathan Sarna, author of American Judaism
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300106718
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 3/11/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Lee Shai Weissbach is professor of history at the University of Louisville.
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Read an Excerpt

Jewish Life in Small-Town America

A History
By Lee Shai Weissbach

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2005 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10671-8

Chapter One

Patterns of Evidence: Identifying Small Communities

Any account of the history of the hundreds of small Jewish communities that existed in the smaller cities and towns of the United States in the past must depend to a large extent on the availability of comprehensive data describing how America's Jewish population has been distributed and organized over the years. Without such data, it would be impossible even to identify the country's smaller Jewish settlements, let alone examine their characteristics and analyze their development over time. Unfortunately, detailed sources of information about the dispersal of America's Jews from the middle of the nineteenth century onward are not abundant, and there are many questions to be raised about the reliability of the population figures and the data on communal structure that are available.

A rather complete picture of the size and distribution of America's limited Jewish population in the very early nineteenth century does exist. On the basis of a painstaking reading of manuscript census materials, the historian Ira Rosenwaike has concluded that America's total Jewish population was about 4,000 in the year 1830 and thatthe vast majority of Jews at that time were concentrated in just a few urban centers. Only seven cities in America had Jewish populations of over 100, and some 80 percent of the country's Jewish inhabitants were living in these places. The main centers of American Jewish life in 1830 were New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, Charleston, Cincinnati, and Richmond.

Soon after 1830, however, immigrants coming to the United States, mainly from Central Europe, began to expand the country's Jewish population into the tens of thousands. This development makes it essentially impossible to use Rosenwaike's method to reconstruct a similarly detailed picture of the distribution of America's Jews during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, and contemporary sources of information are not of much help, either. Because the government always considered it inappropriate to inquire into the faith of individual Americans, the U.S. Census never asked about religious affiliation, and even though the Census Bureau did begin to collect data about American Jewish congregations in 1850, the reports that it published concerning religious bodies do not reveal much about the exact size of the country's various Jewish settlements, chiefly because the bureau's definition of congregational membership was inconsistent and because it paid no attention to places without organized assemblies. Moreover, throughout most of the nineteenth century, American Jews themselves were not much concerned about gathering detailed population data, and only occasionally did individuals attempt to estimate even the total number of Jews in the United States.

The most complete guide to America's various Jewish communities at the midpoint of the nineteenth century was compiled by Jacques Lyons and Abraham de Sola on the basis of various firsthand reports and gleanings from the Jewish press. Lyons and de Sola published their guide in Montreal in 1854 as an appendix to their Jewish Calendar for Fifty Years. Along with eleven Canadian and Caribbean locales, the Lyons and de Sola inventory lists sixty-five places in the United States with organized Jewish communities, including such small towns as Cumberland, Maryland; Wilmington, North Carolina; Danville, Pennsylvania; Lafayette, Indiana; and Marysville, California. Nonetheless, although it records fairly detailed information about the number and nature of congregations and other communal organizations in the places it catalogues, the guide provides almost no information about the number of Jewish individuals in these places. In fact it was not until after the Civil War that the first serious efforts were made to collect comprehensive demographic data on American Jewry.

The earliest attempt at a systematic Jewish population survey in the United States was undertaken in 1873 by the Board of Delegates of American Israelites, an organization that had been founded in 1859 to create a stronger sense of unity among American Jews. This survey was apparently initiated at the urging of the Paris-based Alliance Israélite Universelle, but its findings were incomplete and its results disappointing. However, from 1876 to 1878 the Board of Delegates undertook another population study, this time working in conjunction with the newly established Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). This second survey, directed by William B. Hackenburg, president of the Board of Delegates and later chairman of the UAHC's Committee on Statistics, was far more comprehensive than the first and ultimately more successful.

The organizers of the inquiry of the late 1870s conducted their research by sending standardized questionnaires to individuals in every place in the United States where Jews were known to reside. In many cases, the forms went to the heads of Jewish institutions, and where no such institutions were known to exist, they went to "influential citizens." Those who received the questionnaires were asked to provide information both about the number of Jews in the local population and about whatever local Jewish organizations existed. In 1880, after the Board of Delegates and the UAHC had merged, the results of the study the two groups had conducted were published as Statistics of the Jews of the United States.

Unfortunately, the 1880 report is not without its problems, many of them stemming from the way Hackenburg and his staff collected data. It seems, for example, that questionnaires never even reached some places where Jews were living by the late 1870s and that quite a few of the people who received forms did not respond, "notwithstanding urgent solicitation." As a result, the information published in Statistics of the Jews is somewhat spotty. The report contains almost no data on Massachusetts Jewry outside Boston, for instance; and even though its section on Delaware reports "Jewish population outside of Wilmington, about 500," it accounts for only 85 Jews living in Wilmington and 47 living in five other towns. So, too, without any explanation, Statistics of the Jews provides two separate population figures for Mobile, Alabama, and for Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and it lists at least a dozen cities (including Schenectady, Hartford, and Los Angeles) without providing any population data. Even where the Statistics is less confusing, it appears that many of the population figures it provides are no more than rough approximations. The Jewish population of New York City is simply "estimated at 60,000" and that of Philadelphia at "about 12,000." So, too, the original manuscript ledger on which the published Statistics of the Jews is based reveals that population numbers for over a dozen towns in Florida were estimated by a single individual living in Jacksonville.

The work of researchers who have explored the history of some of America's individual Jewish communities provides further evidence that the Board of Delegates-UAHC survey produced results that were far less than perfect. Judith Endelman's study of Indianapolis Jewry suggests that there were already 500 Jews in that city by 1870, for example, while Statistics of the Jews reports only 400 Jews there several years later. Benjamin Band's research into the history of the Jewish community of Portland, Maine, reveals that the first congregations there were not founded until 1884, but the Statistics reports the existence of a congregation in Portland in the late 1870s. Perhaps this explains why, when Hackenburg's office sent a questionnaire to the purported Portland congregation, it received in response "no returns." Despite its various shortcomings, however, Statistics of the Jews remains an extremely valuable document. It contains the first systematic compilation of population data on the Jews of the United States, and it also provides some basic information about American Jewry's various communal institutions. Thus, it is an essential guide to the general pattern of Jewish settlement in the United States just as the mass migration of East European Jews to America was about to begin. The importance of the census published in 1880 is further enhanced by the fact that there would be no further attempts to enumerate the Jewish population of America's various cities and towns throughout the rest of the nineteenth century.

The first twentieth-century attempts to survey the Jewish population of the United States were undertaken within two years of each other, in 1905 and 1907. Both were conducted largely by Henrietta Szold while she was editor of the American Jewish Year Book, an annual that was then still in its infancy but would become a staple in American Jewish publishing. The results of the 1905 survey overseen by Szold appeared as part of the entry entitled "United States" in The Jewish Encyclopedia, the first major reference work on Jewish subjects published in English. The results of the 1907 survey appeared in the American Jewish Year Book itself, in conjunction with a directory of all national and local Jewish organizations in the United States. The Year Book had provided a similar directory of organizations in its second annual volume, published in 1900, but the earlier compilation had not included any information on the size of America's various Jewish settlements. Both of the population surveys conducted during the first decade of the twentieth century aimed for broad coverage and accuracy, but neither had a foolproof method for achieving these goals. These studies, like that undertaken by the Board of Delegates and the UAHC three decades earlier, suffer from some serious deficiencies. For one thing, neither the tabulation of 1905 nor that of 1907 tried to discover population figures for all points of Jewish settlement in the United States. The Jewish Encyclopedia reported figures only for what it called the "chief towns in each state," while the Year Book included population data only for those places that supported some sort of Jewish institutional life. Indeed, the Encyclopedia conceded not only that its figures were "estimates ... likely to be somewhat above the reality" but also that the figures were "incomplete." Likewise, Henrietta Szold explained that in conducting research for the survey of 1907, her office dispatched circular letters, employed canvassing agents, solicited the intervention of local dignitaries, and sent out "a mass of personal correspondence," but that "in spite of these various efforts to obtain guaranteed reports ... it proved impossible to secure official data in all instances." Szold also reported that in some cases her office received conflicting population estimates from different individuals in the same locale. When this happened, Szold made decisions about which data to use based on "the position of the correspondents in their communities."

The shortcomings of the reports published in The Jewish Encyclopedia and in the 1907 American Jewish Year Book are reflected in the fact that for several cities and towns, population figures are provided in one source but not in the other. For example, although the Encyclopedia indicates the existence of Jewish communities in Mobile, Alabama, and in Bridgeport, Connecticut, it gives no population data for either of these places. The Year Book, on the other hand, reports that Mobile had 1,000 Jews in 1907 and that Bridgeport had 3,500. Moreover, several places that probably should have been included among the "chief towns" surveyed for the census published in The Jewish Encyclopedia are not mentioned in that study at all. These include Stamford, Connecticut, which had 500 Jews according to the Year Book of 1907; Greenville, Mississippi, also with 500 Jews; Harrison, New Jersey, with 659 Jews; and Portsmouth, Virginia, with 700 Jews.

Nor is it clear that the Year Book is always the more comprehensive source. Even though the 1907 census was supposed to represent Szold's expansion of the survey she had conducted in 1905, sometimes it is the earlier study that furnishes more information. For example, while the Encyclopedia provides population figures for Canton, Ohio (600 Jews); Alexandria, Louisiana (600 Jews); and Reading, Pennsylvania (800 Jews), the Year Book does not. There are also certain places for which neither The Jewish Encyclopedia nor the Year Book provides population data, even though the Year Book makes it clear that Jewish communities were functioning there. These places include Gloucester, Massachusetts; Covington, Kentucky; Jackson, Michigan; and Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Yet another indication of problems with the data reported in The Jewish Encyclopedia and in the 1907 American Jewish Year Book is that sometimes these two sources give wildly divergent population figures for the same place. For example, the Encyclopedia indicates that Sheffield, Alabama, was home to 3,000 Jews, whereas the 1907 Year Book states that it was home to only 34. According to the two sources, Springfield, Massachusetts, had 300 Jews in 1905 but 1,500 in 1907. Des Moines, Iowa, was reported to have 500 Jews in 1905 but 3,000 in 1907; and Savannah, Georgia, was reported to have 1,500 Jews in 1905 but 3,500 in 1907. It is true that Jewish immigration to America was proceeding at a very brisk pace during the two years that elapsed between the publication of The Jewish Encyclopedia's figures and those that appear in the 1907 Year Book. In fact, the peak year for Jewish immigration in the early twentieth century was 1906, during which some 154,000 Jews entered the United States. Nonetheless, the pace of population change indicated by some of the figures published in 1905 and 1907 must raise suspicion. It is likely that at least some of the huge discrepancies between the figures reported were due to inaccuracies in one or both of the studies overseen by Szold, rather than to truly enormous changes in population. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the collection of population data on American Jewry was on a firmer footing because the American Jewish Committee, created in 1906 primarily to defend Jewish rights, had by then established a Bureau of Jewish Statistics. In the years that followed, that office was known variously as the Bureau of Jewish Statistics and Research or the Statistical Department of the American Jewish Committee, and the office eventually came under the auspices of the Synagogue Council of America. At times the Bureau of Jewish Statistics cooperated with U.S. Census authorities in collecting data on American Jewish congregations, and throughout the period of its existence, the bureau published reports of its findings in the American Jewish Year Book, itself a joint venture of the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Publication Society of America. Indeed, the Year Book soon became the single most important source of information on the size and distribution of America's Jewish population. Early evidence of the work of the Bureau of Jewish Statistics appeared in the American Jewish Year Book issued in 1914. In that volume the bureau's Joseph Jacobs provided a listing of all towns in the United States "in which Jews were known to exist in 1912," together with a compilation of the population data available for those places. Jacobs included figures for 1877 taken from Statistics of the Jews, figures for 1905 taken from The Jewish Encyclopedia, and figures for 1907 based on the survey that had appeared in the American Jewish Year Book at that time. To all this information, Jacobs added population estimates for 1912 furnished by the Industrial Removal Office, an agency that played a significant role in the dispersal of Jews throughout the United States and whose work we shall consider later.


Excerpted from Jewish Life in Small-Town America by Lee Shai Weissbach Copyright © 2005 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : searching for patterns 1
1 Patterns of evidence : identifying small communities 11
2 Patterns of settlement : the early years 32
3 Patterns of settlement : the era of mass migration 51
4 Patterns of stability and mobility 70
5 Patterns of livelihood and class 94
6 Patterns of family life 126
7 Patterns of congregational organization 156
8 Patterns of synagogue history 177
9 Patterns of religious leadership 198
10 Patterns of culture : the German Jews 220
11 Patterns of culture : the East Europeans 243
12 Patterns of prejudice and of transformation 271
Epilogue : patterns of endurance and decline 295
Reading the manuscript census 315
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