Beyond the Syn­a­gogue: Jew­ish Nos­tal­gia as Reli­gious Practice

Rachel B. Gross

By – August 2, 2021

Assort­ed attempts to define Amer­i­can Jew­ish iden­ti­ty stem from the con­fu­sion as to what pre­cise­ly Jews are. Do they com­prise a reli­gion or an eth­nic­i­ty, or per­haps both? This ambi­gu­i­ty has not been present for oth­er Amer­i­can eth­nic groups, for whom reli­gion and eth­nic­i­ty are entire­ly sep­a­rate cat­e­gories. The Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, how­ev­er, is an amal­gam of reli­gion and eth­nic­i­ty. Save for con­ver­sion to anoth­er reli­gion, even the most extreme non-believ­er is a Jew in good stand­ing accord­ing to Jew­ish law and com­mon belief, and Jews have been proud of the athe­ists and agnos­tics with­in their midst.

The flu­id­i­ty of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in Amer­i­ca is the cen­tral con­cern of Rachel B. Gross’s inter­est­ing and provoca­tive book Beyond the Syn­a­gogue. Gross, the John and Mar­cia Gold­man Chair in Amer­i­can Jew­ish Stud­ies at San Fran­cis­co State Uni­ver­si­ty, is fas­ci­nat­ed by the var­i­ous forms of mod­ern Amer­i­can Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and nos­tal­gia. Despite the fact that many of these feel­ings take place out­side the syn­a­gogue, she insists they are actu­al­ly alter­na­tive means by which Jews express their reli­gious crav­ings. Attend­ing pub­lic reli­gious ser­vices was not where most Jews found exis­ten­tial mean­ing,” Gross argues. Rather, the sacred rela­tion­ships of Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty extend­ed beyond those con­ven­tion­al indi­ca­tors of reli­gion” such as atten­dance at syn­a­gogue services.

Beyond the Syn­a­gogue focus­es on four of these sup­pos­ed­ly new reli­gious forms: genealog­i­cal research, the ren­o­va­tion of his­toric urban syn­a­gogues, the pub­li­ca­tion of Jew­ish children’s books, and a renais­sance involv­ing Euro­pean Jew­ish cook­ing and the patron­iz­ing of Jew­ish-style restau­rants. In writ­ing about this culi­nary renais­sance, Gross asserts that it is is an exam­ple of lived reli­gion, activ­i­ties that prac­ti­tion­ers might not rec­og­nize as reli­gious but that pro­vide mean­ing­ful struc­tures to their lives.” But just because an activ­i­ty pro­vides mean­ing does not mean that this mean­ing has any­thing to do with reli­gion. In fact, her exam­ples of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty appeal to a pop­u­la­tion for whom Jew­ish­ness is more a mat­ter of sec­u­lar cul­ture than of reli­gion, and its mem­bers would undoubt­ed­ly be sur­prised if told that they are act­ing reli­gious­ly when con­sum­ing a corned beef sand­wich along with a kosher pick­le and a pota­to knish.

Gross’s approach to Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and Judaism is illus­trat­ed by her dis­cus­sion at the end of her book of the 2018 wed­ding at a dim sum restau­rant in Manhattan’s Chi­na­town of Court­ney Byrne-Mitchell, who had been raised Irish-Catholic, and Mat­tie Etten­heim, a Jew. The cou­ple had met while both work­ing at the muse­um of the his­toric Eldridge Street Syn­a­gogue in New York’s Low­er East Side, and the synagogue’s muse­um host­ed their post-wed­ding brunch. Gross claims that the wed­ding cer­e­mo­ny of these two women, which includ­ed an Irish bless­ing, the singing of the Chris­t­ian litur­gi­cal song Alleluia,” and a female folk­lorist who served as the rab­bi, reveals the pos­si­bil­i­ties — and some of the lim­its — of the insti­tu­tions of Jew­ish nos­tal­gia,” and that it was both fit­ting and praise­wor­thy — an Amer­i­can Jew­ish mitz­vah,” for the cou­ple to hold their cel­e­bra­to­ry brunch at the muse­um. This is one exam­ple of the extent to which the author has stretched the pos­si­bil­i­ties and lim­its of Judaism and Jew­ish identity.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

Discussion Questions

In Beyond the Syn­a­gogue, Rachel B. Gross pulls togeth­er an inci­sive argu­ment, an inno­v­a­tive schol­ar­ly approach, and a dash of wit to chal­lenge com­mon per­cep­tions of how Amer­i­can Jews prac­tice their reli­gion. This absorb­ing study points read­ers to uncon­ven­tion­al, rich, and often delight­ful sites of Jew­ish expres­sion as it encour­ages them to think expan­sive­ly about the con­tours of reli­gious engage­ment. Through ana­lyz­ing the Jew­ish-themed children’s books of the PJ Library, the food trucks serv­ing up con­tem­po­rary takes on Ashke­naz­ic cui­sine, the worn floor­boards of the Eldridge Street syn­a­gogue, and so much more, Gross makes a com­pelling case that the nos­tal­gic, emo­tion­al, and mate­r­i­al dimen­sions of Jew­ish life serve as cru­cial points of reli­gious con­nec­tion. In doing so, she offers an impor­tant cor­rec­tive to com­mu­nal sur­veys that tend to mea­sure Jew­ish reli­gious engage­ment accord­ing to a nor­ma­tive — and, Gross would argue, lim­it­ed — set of rit­u­als and affiliations.