Research Projects

“Inmates of the Home: Family, Aging, and American Judaism, 1880-1957”

This study will use the remarkable records of the Yonkers Home for Aged and Infirm Hebrews as the launching pad for exploring how American Jews understood and experienced home and family around the turn of the twentieth century. It will complicate simplistic accounts of immigrant success and familial cohesion while also engaging scholars of Judaism and religion who have underlined the connection between religious belonging and relationship networks formed across time, generation, and space. Rather than understanding the Home as evidence of acculturation by its funders, this study will focus on the elderly themselves, most of them German-born, who literally failed to became “at home in America,” unlike the German Jewish economic elites who dominate the literature.The Home’s records further demonstrate how Jews, operating within specific bodies and spaces, have situated themselves relative to many different ancestors, relatives, and progeny, real and imagined. This is not to glorify the Jewish family or home, but precisely to raise them as sites of contestation for Jewish individuals and communities, especially those navigating the trials of immigration, the tribulations of American capitalism, and the biological inevitability of time’s passagearound the turn of the twentieth century.

Jewish Memory in the New South: Creating Heritage at the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience”

In the 1970s and 1980s, southern Jews became increasingly interested in their own history and identity. Eli Evans’ popular The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South was published in 1973, the Southern Jewish Historical Society was formed in 1976, and in 1986, at a summer camp in Utica, Mississippi, director Macy Hart formed the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience to gather abandoned synagogue objects. This project will trace the history and politics of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience – and its successor, the Institute for Southern Jewish Life – in the context of the New South, ascendent identity politics, and concurrent transformations in the American Jewish community. Formed as small-town Jewish communities throughout the South were declining, Jewish heritage initiatives offered a form of Jewish solidarity and spirituality as well as a nostalgic vision of the South as a place of diversity and tolerance.

 

“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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