Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America (NYU Press, 2017)
Jews on the Frontier is a religious history of the United States that begins in an unexpected place: on the road with mobile Jews. It follows them out of eastern cities and into the American frontier, where they found unprecedented economic opportunity but also anonymity, loneliness, instability, mistrust, scarcity, and diversity, all of which complicated the many legal obligations of traditional Jewish life. Without government-supported communities or reliable authorities, where could you procure kosher meat? Alone in the American wilderness, how could you find nine co-religionists for a minyan (prayer quorum)? Without identity documents, how could you really know that someone was Jewish? Amidst this uncertainty, ordinary Jews created religious life from scratch, expanding and transforming Jewish thought and practice in and out of newly developed networks, markets, and institutions. The inconsistency and eclecticism of these efforts were a central concern of well-known leaders like Isaac Mayer Wise and Isaac Leeser. While they failed in their most ambitious projects, however, they succeeded in establishing the institutional and intellectual infrastructure of American Jewish life. Jews on the Frontier vividly recounts these stories of a neglected era in American Jewish history, taking the reader far from the well-trodden ground of New York City. In the process, it offers a new interpretation of American religions, rooted not in congregations or denominations, but in the politics and experiences of mobility. Today’s unafilliated Jews – and the much-heralded “nones” of all stripes – are not the first Americans to practice religion through family, social ties, print culture, and unauthorized forms of knowledge. Rather, American religions have long been created by diverse individuals and groups assembling resources for stability, certainty, and identity in a nation where there was little to be found.
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