Deborah Dash Moore has provided important insights on the American Jewish experience in a number of important books and in her role as the coeditor of the Encyclopedia of American Jewish Women. Urban Origins of American Judaism is based on a series of lectures that were presented at Stetson University in 2012. It is an impressive synthesis on urban influences on the evolution of American Jewish practice.
The book consists of three long chapters: “Synagogues,” “Streets,” and “Snapshots.” Moore recognizes the fact that many homes (like my mother’s) were not the center of Jewish life as they traditionally had been for centuries but rather, that it was synagogues, streets, and snapshots that nurtured Jewish identity.
The three chapters weave an interesting historical tapestry. The chapter on synagogues points out that fairly quickly, Jews established synagogues to provide both religious and social functions. Over time, additional organizations were established — orphanages, Sunday schools, women’s and men’s organizations — and these additional groups sometimes took a hybrid form combining past traditions and modifying them in ways that were inspired by Christian neighbors. The chapter on Streets points to the myriad ways that public spaces were used not only for religious events and to build social capital, but to mark major civic events beyond the funerals of famous rabbis, like Jacob Joseph and Menachem Schneerson, but the famed writer Sholom Aleichem and even well-known gangsters.
For most of American-Jewish history, several cities contained huge concentrations of Jews— New York and Chicago were the largest — but in the post-World War II period, Miami and Los Angeles also became major centers of Jewish life and Jews moved out of central cities to the suburbs. For a growing number, the ecology of Jewish life shifted and “Snapshots” served to shape our collective identity and sense of our history. Photographs and other images contributed to our understanding of ourselves as a people and, as Moore observes, “Viewing these photographs allows us to glimpse in tangible detail the urban origins of American Judaism, its heterogeneity, multiplicity, and complexity.”
More an essay than a chronological history, Moore’s book provides a scholarly but also lively overview of the evolution of American Jewish culture. Not only diverse and complex, but also a bricolage of forms derived from diverse traditions, American Jewish culture is varied, a cultural hybrid that has promoted a strong collective identity and a powerful collective memory.