America’s Pioneer Jewish Congregations, by Julian H. Preisler, 2017

AMERICA’S PIONEER JEWISH CONGREGATIONS: Architecture, Community, and History, by Julian H. Preisler.  Fonthill Media Limited, 2017.  144 pp.  Illustrations.  Softbound, $22.99.

Arranged alphabetically by state and including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, this book takes the reader on a tour of pioneer synagogues with photographs mainly in color, and older pictures in a sepia tone.  Julian Preisler includes photos of earlier synagogues and their replacement by more modern buildings.  Anyone interested in religious architecture will find this book a valuable resource.

Preisler provides a brief history of the synagogues, almost all of which date no further back than the 1850s.  In this regard the book’s title is misleading, as congregations existed in numerous communities for years before enough funds were raised to construct a house of worship.  Preisler observes that a more immediate concern was to establish a Jewish cemetery and to organize benefit societies as an integral part of the Jewish community.  Surprisingly, Preisler omits Los Angeles’ arguably most famous synagogue, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and makes no mention of its earlier incarnations, nor the pioneer Jews who came to the town in the 1850s.  Another omission is the historic Breed Street Shul.  On the other hand, Stockton’s synagogues are included.  Thus, this survey of synagogues is selective rather than comprehensive.

As readers proceed through the pages of the book they may soon realize something is missing from the pictures: people.  There are many photos of synagogue interiors, with beautifully designed Ark, windows, etc., but the seats are empty.  This reviewer could spot only two people, and they were outside the buildings, incidental to the focus on the buildings as the main subject of the photographs.

Discussion of “community” is left to Preisler’s brief summaries that accompany each set of the states’ photographs.  Although the book isn’t hardbound, it is one of the sturdiest paperbacks I have ever encountered, with glossy pages and strong covers.

Abraham Hoffman teaches history at Los Angeles Valley College.

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