Research

WORK IN PROGRESS: “Religion in Between: Spaces of Encounter and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America”

In the aftermath of industrialization, the work of American men was relocated outside of the home, leading to a pervasive middle class ideology of gendered separate spheres. In the process, scholars argue, a robust domestic religion was created alongside institutional forms of religious life, and both were increasingly dominated by women. In this account, religion in nineteenth century America took place in homes and in churches, omitting the ways in which religious life overflowed these spaces. This project of social, cultural, and intellectual history upends spatial understandings of religion by describing and theorizing spaces of religious encounter, thought, and self-fashioning in nineteenth century America, many of them fleeting. Train cars, boardinghouses, ballrooms, spas, taverns, stores, churches for Jews and synagogues for Christians and other spaces of transit, commerce, and leisure became important sites of religious formation and reformation. These spaces were raced, classed, and gendered in particular ways, variously including and excluding different kinds of Americans and shaping understandings of the self, social life, and the world around them. Drawing on spatial theories of religion and culture, this project contributes to new historiographies of religion’s interactions with secularism and with capitalism, showing the messiness and co-constitution of these categories as they were expressed within bounded American spaces.

WORK IN PROGRESS: “Gerstmann Gone: A Tale of Religion, Fraud, and Politics,” with Dr. Adam Domby

This microhistory tells the remarkable life story of Simon Gerstmann, a Jewish “rabbi” and con-man who immigrated from Poland to the United States as a young man in the early 1850s, and who died in New York City in 1894. In the years in between he served in the military, lived in every region of the country, and worked as a businessman, political operative, ritual circumciser, and religious functionary. He played a role in the founding of Reform Judaism and in the failures of Reconstruction, finding his way into elite political circles as well as into bankruptcy court. Though connected to multiple political, financial, and legal scandals of national significance, his story has been all but ignored by American historians and Jewish historians. Gerstmann’s many adventures, detailed in this exciting new book, shed new light on the remarkable – and interconnected – religious, economic, and political transformations of the second half of the nineteenth century.

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