The ProsenPeople

The First Egalitarian Minyan?

Tuesday, March 27, 2018 | Permalink
Shari Rabin is the author of  Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America, winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award for American Jewish Studies. She is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.


One day, while reading in the “Domestic Record” section of the American Israelite newspaper, I stumbled upon a local report that shocked me. It was an 1860 travel report written by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (founder of the American Israelite) from Lafayette, Indiana:

I am sorry to say, that the Hazan frequently finds no minyan (ten male adults) in the Synagogue on Sabbath, I, therefore, instructed him to count the ladies to a minyan, not to suspend the divine service, as the act of confirming girls puts an end to the idea that females are not members of the Synagogue as well as males.

In 1860, women were being counted in a minyan, a practice that was only affirmed in progressive Jewish movements over a century later! It did not surprise me that women were active in a congregation. Jewish women throughout the United States raised money and attended worship in larger numbers than did men. Jewish men exuberantly praised women in the Jewish press for their dedication and service; Wise himself later argued in the Western Journal that “ladies uphold Judaism.”And yet, as a whole, American Jewish congregations in the nineteenth century were far from inclusive. Women could not be members, nor serve on boards, and they often sat in cramped balconies. Although widows sometimes enjoyed their own congregational status, for most women, access to seats, education for their children, and burial plots were granted through their husbands or fathers. So how did women come to be counted in a minyan? And what can it tell us about in the dynamics of women in American Judaism?

According to Wise, counting women in a minyan was his idea, an obvious outgrowth of the egalitarian principles represented in the Confirmation ceremony. And yet, Wise was visiting town briefly, so he likely got his information—and possibly the suggestion—from local congregants themselves. Wise apparently made the final call, but this opinion was not one he repeated particularly loudly. I found almost no other references in his newspaper to counting women in a minyan, except for one, from Keokuk, Iowa, in November 1875. That year, correspondent “F.B.” wrote to the American Israelite:

[T]he ladies, both old and young…attend the divine service very regularly on Friday evening, as well as on Sabbath morning, on holidays and on all other special occasions. They feel well pleased because we adopted the rule to open divine service if ten ladies are present, as well as if ten men are present. Many a time we could not open at all if we had to wait for our men, who always make the well-known excuse: 'We like to come, but we can not lose the best business day in the week, so we can not leave the store.'

There is little detail in this account about who initiated this innovation—did the women make the case or did the men unilaterally bestow the privilege upon them? Though they wrote to his paper, they did not ask Wise for his opinion, nor does it seem that they were aware of his earlier move in Lafayette.

The Jews of Lafayette and Keokuk faced a common problem for synagogues in the nineteenth century. Work was discouraged, if not legally forbidden, on Sundays in many American communities; and most Jews, who were not wealthy enough to allow for two days of rest, felt compelled to work on Saturdays. For these small midwestern congregations, counting women in a minyan was a pragmatic solution. Although this was very uncommon and seemed to have had little broader impact, these examples are instructive. They teach us that Jews in the past were more diverse and flexible than contemporary interpreters of “tradition” would have it. And they show that for those seeking religious rights and responsibilities within their communities, showing up is half the battle.

Shari Rabin is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture at the College of Charleston. She is a historian of American religions and modern Judaism, specializing in the nineteenth century.

Image via Tal King/Flickr

Fact-Checking The Frisco Kid: A Historian’s Take on a Jewish Classic

Thursday, December 21, 2017 | Permalink

Shari Rabin is the author of Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America (NYU Press). She is blogging here this week as part of JBC's Visiting Scribe series.

While writing my book about Jews in the era of westward expansion, I found myself getting asked (a lot) about the Gene Wilder comedic western The Frisco Kid. Although there are countless cinematic depictions—and historical accounts—of Jewish life on the Lower East Side, apparently the rest of the country has to resign itself to this 1979 box office flop, which tells the story of a Polish rabbi traveling westward to San Francisco in 1850. Recently, some twenty years after I last saw it, I sat down to confront my subject’s most famous treatment.

Let me begin by saying that I do not recommend watching The Frisco Kid if you’re looking for good entertainment. Best known as the Gene Wilder western that is not Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, it boasts a Rotten Tomatoes score of 53% and a story that is light on plot development and heavy on gimmicky ethnic stereotypes. At one point Wilder’s migrant rabbi, Avram Belinsky, mistakes the Amish for fellow Jews (he addresses them in Yiddish), and at another he teaches a group of Native Americans the horah. I have found no documentary evidence of such occurrences, and, indeed, The Frisco Kid does not make for great history either, although it does touch on a number of important themes.

There was no congregation in San Francisco in 1850, although there had been Jewish worship organized in the city the year before. The majority of Jewish immigrants in this period were from German-speaking lands, but there was also a Polish, Yiddish-speaking contingent. The first two congregations in San Francisco were founded at the same time, in 1851, to accommodate both communities. Emanuel was the “German” synagogue and Sherith Israel the “Polish”—nowhere in the city, however, was there a Beis Yisroel, the name of Belinsky’s congregation in the movie.

It was, in fact, very challenging for frontier congregations to procure rabbis. The first rabbi didn’t come to America until 1840 and for much of the nineteenth century the vast majority of congregations were served by hazanim, non-rabbinic functionaries who could lead worship and provide other Jewish services. It was not unheard of for congregations to bring these men from Europe, as Belinsky is summoned from his yeshiva in the film, but more often they would advertise in the American Jewish press and hire someone who was already in the United States. The first rabbi in San Francisco was Julius Eckman, a Polish immigrant who had previously served congregations in Mobile, New Orleans, and Charleston before coming to town in 1854.

The frontier could be a difficult place for anyone, including, if not especially, for Jews. Avram is conned, robbed, and threatened at various points in the film, and while his experiences were extreme, many Jews did worry about the uncertainty and danger of American life. Upon his emigration to America, Jewish migrant Solomon Roth’s father wrote him a letter filled with advice, including “Do not trust a stranger; and certainly, do not confide in him, particularly if he flatters you.” Although they were protected from the worst by their whiteness, Jews nevertheless got in fistfights, encountered con-men and, in at least one case, died by falling off of a horse. The frontier was not for the faint of heart. It was also, for the most part, not for the Sabbath observant. Avram’s commitment to the Sabbath is a major plot device in The Frisco Kid—he won’t ride on Shabbes—and while that seems to have been the norm among rabbis and hazanim, most ordinary Jews bowed to economic pressures to work on Saturdays.

About 49 minutes into the film Avram, accompanied by his new friend, Harrison Ford’s non-Jewish bank robber Tommy, beholds a scenic vista and a frontier town in rapid succession. He exclaims, “I think we found the Garden of Eden!...What a wonderful place America is!” Dangerous though it could be, American Jews did interact and forge friendships with a wide range of Americans on the road and they regularly expressed their awe of and appreciation for their new country. In 1852 the president of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El wrote, “How thankful ought we to be to the God of our forefathers who has watched over and guarded our people through the wanderings of eighteen hundred years and has made us the humble instruments of planting the cherished faith of our fathers upon the shores of the Pacific.” The Frisco Kid may not do a great job of entertaining or of documenting the historical past, but it does succeed in capturing this sense of wonder and optimism, a strain of popular American Jewish thought which was as alluring in 1979 as it had been in 1852.

Shari Rabin is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture at the College of Charleston. She is a historian of American religions and modern Judaism, specializing in the nineteenth century.

Five Historic Jewish Communities You've (Probably) Never Heard Of

Tuesday, December 19, 2017 | Permalink

Shari Rabin is the author of Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America (NYU Press). She is blogging here this week as part of JBC's Visiting Scribe series.

Masthead of the newspaper The Jewish Messenger

When most people think about American Jewish history, they think about New York City and the Lower East Side, where Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants created a vibrant neighborhood life. And yet, American Jews have lived in a bewildering array of American towns, cities, and villages, many far afield from the island of Manhattan. This was especially true in the nineteenth century, when young Jewish migrants from German-speaking lands fanned out into the American hinterland working as peddlers and small-town merchants. Many of these tiny communities petered out as their members moved on to opportunity elsewhere, and yet evidence of their existence lingers in the historical record.

In particular, members of these communities wrote to new Jewish newspapers—The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, out of Philadelphia, The Israelite, printed in Cincinnati, and New York’s Jewish Messenger—to let their fellow Jews know that they existed and to place themselves on the emerging map of Jewish America. Typical was the sentiment of one correspondent, who wrote to The Israelite in 1869, “Although having been a regular reader of yours since your journal made its first appearance, I never yet undertook to address you until now, hoping you will not refuse to hear even from this little place.” One historian estimates that Jews lived in over one thousand American towns on the eve of the Civil War, and hundreds of them hosted Jewish communities of varying sizes, durations, and levels of organization. Here are five examples:

Claiborne, Alabama 

In 1846 “the young Israelites scattered in the neighborhood of Claiborne” wrote to Isaac Leeser, editor of The Occident, requesting a Torah scroll, shofar, and other worship necessities. By 1853 the congregation had dwindled, but fifteen local Jews organized again and hired a religious functionary to lead services, slaughter kosher meat, and perform circumcisions. Today Claiborne, located on the Alabama River in the southwest portion of the state, is a ghost town.

Downieville, California

In this Gold Rush town, fourteen local Jews observed Yom Kippur in 1855, creating a makeshift service of worship, meditation, and prayers that they divided among themselves. Correspondent “A.S.H.” complained in The Israelite about the remaining six Jews in town: “Those who were not disposed to join us in our devotions…mocked us for upholding the faith of our fathers here in this country.”

Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana

Milliken’s Bend, the site of a minor Civil War battle, no longer exists, but it was located on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River, fifteen miles north of Vicksburg, Mississippi, which hosted its own thriving Jewish community. Nonetheless a local Jew wrote to the editor of The Jewish Messenger in 1859 to announce that “the Day of Atonement was observed in this town where only six Jewish families reside.”

Helena, Arkansas

By 1869 this Mississippi River town boasted fifteen Jewish families and a congregation. That year correspondent “H.” described to Israelite readers the recent celebration of a bris, which had been attended by local Jews and “the most select of the Christians.” It featured “a very fine table spread with all the luxuries of the season, and an abundance of wines, to which we all did full justice.” Attendees at the event took up a collection for “the orphans,” raising $21.

Keokuk, Iowa

When Israelite editor Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise visited this Mississippi River town in 1856, he wrote, “I have not the least doubt, Keokuk will be a considerable congregation in but a few years.” The town did boast a flourishing and progressive Jewish community in the nineteenth century. In 1875 correspondent F.B. reported that “we adopted the rule to open divine service if ten ladies are present, as well as if ten men are present,” not out of egalitarian principles, but because of pragmatism—most men felt compelled to work on Saturdays. Two years later, the congregation built a synagogue, the first in the state of Iowa.

Shari Rabin is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture at the College of Charleston. She is a historian of American religions and modern Judaism, specializing in the nineteenth century.