Research Projects

“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. This narrative, however, remains bound to private homes, public churches, and the largely middle class Americans who had access to them. This project will focus on unexpected living spaces (focusing on boardinghouses and institutional homes), leisure spaces (in the contexts of travel and or urban life), and worship spaces (exploring Jewish church-going and Christian synagogue-going), demonstrating how religion was expressed through and shaped by a range of spaces in the nineteenth 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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