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.

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 the author of Jews on the Fron­tier: Reli­gion and Mobil­i­ty in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca (NYU Press, 2017). She 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.