Ortho­dox Jews in America

Jef­frey S. Gurock
  • Review
By – August 26, 2011
InOrtho­dox Jews in Amer­i­ca, Jef­frey S. Gurock lov­ing­ly pro­vides a com­pre­hen­sive por­trait of pious Jews in Amer­i­ca, the Treif Land.” He begins with Ass­er and Miri­am Levy, the first Jew­ish set­tlers to seek their for­tunes in New Ams­ter­dam in 1655. His­tor­i­cal records appear to doc­u­ment that Ass­er Levy was quite con­cerned with his reli­gious obser­vance. He suc­cess­ful­ly peti­tioned the new British author­i­ties for the right to not have to slaugh­ter hogs as a butch­er. Upon the death of the Levys, an inven­to­ry of their pos­ses­sions includ­ed a par­cel of old books, pos­si­bly prayer books, and two sets of all their kitchen items — two chop­ping knives, two kitchen basins, and two sets of place set­tings for each of them. This sug­gests they might have been observ­ing the dietary laws.
Gurock sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly describes how the devout built the com­mu­nal infra­struc­ture and devel­oped a cadre of skilled func­tionar­ies to meet the require­ments of rit­u­al obser­vance includ­ing Jew­ish ceme­ter­ies, syn­a­gogues, kosher food, mikvehs, mat­zoh fac­to­ries, yeshiv­as, and civ­il rights law pro­tec­tion for being a Sab­bath observ­er. Gurock uses the metaphor of the big tent” to pro­vide a non­judg­men­tal pic­ture of the ear­ly and present day strug­gles to stay punc­til­ious” inob­ser­vance. He argues that to ful­ly under­stand the diver­si­ty of obser­vance among those who iden­ti­fy with Ortho­dox Judaism, one must place them with­in their own time and place. He ful­ly acknowl­edges there is great com­plex­i­ty involved in delin­eat­ing a spec­trum of Ortho­dox prac­tice.” For exam­ple, send­ing one’s chil­dren to an all-day Jew­ish school is expect­ed” of Ortho­dox Jews today, but pri­or to 1886 and the for­ma­tion of boys only yeshi­va Etz Chaim on the Low­er East Side of New York there were no all-day yeshiv­as avail­able. Even today, there are small Ortho­dox con­gre­ga­tions dis­persed across the nation, where some of the con­gre­gants send their chil­dren to the pub­lic schools and have them get reli­gious instruc­tion from the local Ortho­dox rab­bi; some of the fam­i­lies dri­ve to Sab­bath ser­vices and park their cars out of sight of the shul. Gurock also describes the lives of the strict­ly obser­vant com­mu­ni­ties thriv­ing in such places as Dal­las, Atlanta, Mia­mi, Mem­phis, Hous­ton, Philadel­phia, Boston and, of course, Boro Park, Mon­sey, and Lake­wood, New Jer­sey. 
Gurock tack­les sev­er­al issues that roil the Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty includ­ing Ortho­dox vs. Ortho­dox” bat­tles, Ortho­dox fem­i­nism, dis­sent­ing views on Zion­ism and Israel, and the very dif­fi­cult issue of the pub­lic role of the obser­vant com­mu­ni­ty toward its moral mis­cre­ants.” These are the peo­ple who osten­si­bly have com­mit­ted them­selves to devout obser­vance of the Torah’s teach­ings” but have com­mit­ted acts of uneth­i­cal and even ille­gal turpi­tude” such as skim­ming off mon­ey from fed­er­al funds or extort­ing mon­ey from their divorce-seek­ing wives, there­by leav­ing the wives chained” to a sor­ry future life.” Too often, these trans­gres­sors posi­tion them­selves with­in the cen­ter of the Ortho­dox tent” while their very acts den­i­grate piety. Ortho­dox Jews in Amer­i­ca is a must-read for schol­ars study­ing the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence in Amer­i­ca.
It is a fun read for all oth­ers, regard­less of one’s rit­u­al obser­vance. The schol­ar­ly and fas­ci­nat­ing end­notes enable the read­er to do even fur­ther read­ing on the sub­ject. Over­all, the book is a won­der­ful social his­to­ry of Amer­i­can life filled with detailed por­traits of Jew­ish life in Amer­i­ca and the social forces that sent these immi­grants to this lib­er­tine land.
Jef­frey S. Gurock is the Lib­by M. Klaper­man Pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish His­to­ry at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He is the author and edi­tor of four­teen books, most recent­ly Judaism’s Encoun­ters with Amer­i­can Sports (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2005). Index, notes.
Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions