URBAN ORIGINS OF AMERICAN JUDAISM

Book Review

by Deborah Dash Moore. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014. 187 pp. Illustrations, Notes, Bibliography, Index. Hardbound, $32.95.
Deborah Dash Moore, noted historian and author of books and articles on Jewish life in America, offers a thesis to which few American Jews can disagree—the urban roots of Judaism in the United States. After all, the historical record counts relatively few Jews as ranchers and farmers, but shows most Jews living in cities, especially large ones. However, the word “ghetto” rarely appears in this book. Arranged chronologically within three topics—Synagogues, Streets, and Snapshots—the book describes how generations of Jews, dating to colonial times and moving forward to the present day, have found cities a venue that aided them in replicating, adapting, and thriving in their religious faith.
In “Synagogues,” Moore traces the evolution of the synagogue as a house of worship to a center providing a variety of services to its membership. Synagogues were the second item on Jewish minds when establishing a community within a city, the first being a cemetery. Moore tells of prosperous founding members who financed the construction of buildings with distinctive architectural styles, as shown in photographs of synagogues in New York City, Cincinnati, Boston, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. More than just places of worship, synagogues also came to serve as recreational and social centers, often evolving into the “shul with a pool.”
In contrast to the celebratory tone in which Moore describes the opulence of synagogue buildings, she addresses how American Jews made the streets where they live a part of their community life. She observes that urban Jews could fully participate in civic activities but could also be separate from the dominant society. Most of this section of the book focuses on the adaptations made by the immigrant generation in political and economic activity, mainly in the Lower East Side of New York City.
The final chapter, “Snapshots,” deals with images of Jewish urban life in photographs taken by Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, and other photographers who depicted a century of Jewish urban evolution from tenements to an upper-middle class bat mitzvah party. In focusing on Snapshots, however, Moor omits any discussion on urban origins in novels such as Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep or Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money, or a later generation of writers such as Jerome Weidman, Belva Plain, and other novelists. Given that the book’s text runs 153 pages, there would have been room for a chapter on how Jewish fiction writers (not just Isaac Singer) have dealt with issues of assimilation and Jewish life in big cities.
Speaking of big cities, it’s obvious that Moor emphasizes New York above everywhere else, giving only minimal attention to Chicago and Los Angeles. The two photos in Snapshot of Los Angeles scenes (Muscle Beach, girls at a bat mitzvah party), along with a photo of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in the Synagogues section, hardly depict a history of Los Angeles Jewry that dates to the 1850s.
Moore’s book is based on a series of lectures she gave at Stetson University, so its structure may have restricted a deeper analysis of American Jewish roots. However, Moore offers a fine narrative and as

Abraham Hoffman teaches history at Los Angeles Valley College. He is book editor of Western States Jewish History.

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