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Jewish Life in Small-Town America

Jewish Life in Small-Town America: A History

Lee Shai Weissbach
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 448
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  • Book Info
    Jewish Life in Small-Town America
    Book Description:

    In this book, Lee Shai Weissbach offers the first comprehensive portrait of small-town Jewish life in America. Exploring the history of communities of 100 to 1000 Jews, the book focuses on the years from the mid-nineteenth century to World War II. Weissbach examines the dynamics of 490 communities across the United States and reveals that smaller Jewish centers were not simply miniature versions of larger communities but were instead alternative kinds of communities in many respects.

    The book investigates topics ranging from migration patterns to occupational choices, from Jewish education and marriage strategies to congregational organization. The story of smaller Jewish communities attests to the richness and complexity of American Jewish history and also serves to remind us of the diversity of small-town society in times past.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12765-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Searching for Patterns
    (pp. 1-10)

    At the end of the 1920s, the Jewish population of the United States stood at about 4.25 million people, the vast majority of whom were immigrants who had come to America in a huge wave of migration from Eastern Europe during the previous half-century, or the children of those immigrants. The immense influx of Jews that had begun in 1881 was stimulated both by severe economic hardships in Eastern Europe and by an increase in discrimination and persecution there, following the assassination of the Russian czar Alexander II. East European Jewish migration to America had slowed to a trickle during...

  5. 1 Patterns of Evidence: Identifying Small Communities
    (pp. 11-31)

    Any account of the history of the hundreds of small Jewish communities that existed in the smaller cities and towns of the United States in the past must depend to a large extent on the availability of comprehensive data describing how America’s Jewish population has been distributed and organized over the years. Without such data, it would be impossible even to identify the country’s smaller Jewish settlements, let alone examine their characteristics and analyze their development over time. Unfortunately, detailed sources of information about the dispersal of America’s Jews from the middle of the nineteenth century onward are not abundant,...

  6. 2 Patterns of Settlement: The Early Years
    (pp. 32-50)

    The population information collected by the American Jewish Committee’s Bureau of Jewish Statistics in 1927 reveals that by the time the mass migration of East European Jews to America had come to an end, small communities were playing an extremely important role in defining the geography of American Jewish life. Cities and towns with Jewish populations of at least 100 but under 1,000 (the places on which our attention is focused) were widely distributed across the United States, and there were hundreds of other points of settlement with less significant concentrations of Jews as well. Except for Delaware and Oregon,...

  7. 3 Patterns of Settlement: The Era of Mass Migration
    (pp. 51-69)

    As we consider the experience of America’s smaller Jewish communities, it is perhaps natural to pay special attention to those with the longest history. Certainly in the past, the saga of those communities whose origins lay in the middle decades of the nineteenth century has been the story most often told. This was especially true in the period immediately after World War II, when American Jewry was intent upon promoting its status as an integral part of society with deep roots in the soil of the United States. With so much of the focus on the venerable communities of small...

  8. 4 Patterns of Stability and Mobility
    (pp. 70-93)

    Although most of the individuals who helped to create America’s various small Jewish communities had not been born in the United States, a great many of those who came from overseas and gravitated to America’s secondary urban centers sank firm roots in these places and identified closely with their adopted hometowns. In every small city where a fair number of Jews gathered, it was possible to encounter Jewish residents who spent many decades of their lives as active members of their communities. Finding the small-town environment welcoming, they set up successful businesses, engaged in civic activity, and often established families...

  9. 5 Patterns of Livelihood and Class
    (pp. 94-125)

    The quest for economic well-being that motivated most Jewish men who took up residence in small towns meant, more than anything else, a search for a place where they could go into business for themselves. This reality is what lay behind the creation of small-town Jewish centers that were very different from larger Jewish communities in their occupational and socioeconomic profiles. In large communities such as those of New York, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Chicago, the range of economic activities in which Jews were engaged was more diverse than it was in small towns, and the same was true in midsize...

  10. 6 Patterns of Family Life
    (pp. 126-155)

    The earliest Central European Jews to make their way to America’s small towns were often unmarried young men looking to establish themselves in a new land, and some of the pioneer East European Jews who fanned out across the country in later decades also migrated without wives or families. In Wichita, Kansas, for example, immigrants from the Russian Empire began to arrive in large numbers in the first decade of the twentieth century, and the 1910 census shows that of the 111 addresses at which East European Jews lived, thirty-three were the homes of single men, and several families boarded...

  11. 7 Patterns of Congregational Organization
    (pp. 156-176)

    For those who constituted the smaller Jewish communities of the United States, a sense of communal cohesion depended in part on factors such as a shared history and family ties, but even more so on the establishment of congregations. In the larger communities of the country, Jews could interact with one another, as Jews, in a variety of settings. In fact in some big-city neighborhoods the street itself became a Jewish space. In smaller communities, however, it was extremely difficult to maintain any kind of consistent Jewish identity without synagogue affiliation. The mid-twentieth-century comedian and social critic Lenny Bruce certainly...

  12. 8 Patterns of Synagogue History
    (pp. 177-197)

    In the same way that congregations were the fundamental institutions of America’s small Jewish communities, synagogue buildings were the prime physical manifestations of a Jewish presence in small towns all over America. These structures provided both tangible evidence of a firmly established Jewish community and the physical facilities that local Jews needed in order to conduct their activities. Every small-town Jewish congregation aspired to acquire a home of its own, and, as the early development of small-town congregations suggests, these institutions generally followed similar paths in their search for the facilities they needed. Once within the walls of their synagogues,...

  13. 9 Patterns of Religious Leadership
    (pp. 198-219)

    In much the same way that small Jewish communities strove to construct synagogue buildings to house their communal activities, they also aspired to find rabbis who would guide their congregations. Despite the crucial role played by prominent lay leaders in small towns, and despite the fact that Jewish religious law does not require the participation of rabbis in worship services, small-town Jews tended to consider their communal infrastructure to be truly complete only when they had a spiritual leader in their midst. Nonetheless, smaller communities were not always able to find ordained clergymen to fill the pulpits of their temples...

  14. 10 Patterns of Culture: The German Jews
    (pp. 220-242)

    Among the primary goals of the families that founded those small Jewish communities whose history stretched back into the middle decades of the nineteenth century were rapid acculturation and swift entry into the ranks of the comfortable middle class. The occupational choices made by the heads of these pioneer families tended to facilitate their economic success, and to the extent that their businesses prospered, these individuals became widely recognized and centrally involved in the day-to-day life of their towns. To their gentile fellow citizens, these small-town Jewish storekeepers, livestock dealers, skilled artisans, and professionals, almost invariably of Central European background,...

  15. 11 Patterns of Culture: The East Europeans
    (pp. 243-270)

    In considering matters of culture, as in considering just about any other aspect of small-town Jewish life in the United States, we must keep in mind that most of the small Jewish communities that dotted the American landscape in the early decades of the twentieth century did not get their start as German-Jewish settlements in the middle decades of the nineteenth. Rather, the vast majority of the small communities of the interwar period came into being only with the arrival of East Europeans. Consequently, in most small-town Jewish centers, Jewish cultural norms in the decades just before World War II...

  16. 12 Patterns of Prejudice and of Transformation
    (pp. 271-294)

    A firm grounding in traditional Jewish practice, the creation of a multifaceted religious and organizational infrastructure, the persistence of certain residential and occupational patterns, and an abiding attachment to Yiddish culture were the main factors that helped create cohesive and distinctive East European Jewish communities or subcommunities in the small towns where immigrants settled during the era of mass migration. However, there is no doubt that the persistence of anti-Jewish sentiments also played a part in defining the East European Jews of small-town America as a group cut off from the social and cultural mainstream. Of course, by the early...

  17. Epilogue: Patterns of Endurance and Decline
    (pp. 295-314)

    In the years immediately following World War II, there was a palpable sense of optimism in America’s small-town Jewish communities. By the middle of the twentieth century, these communities had achieved a character all their own, and, as a class, they appeared to have a permanent place in the American Jewish landscape. Those families that constituted America’s smaller Jewish settlements had a sense that although the nature of their communities had evolved since the early 1900s, the equilibrium they had achieved would remain largely unaltered into the future. Developments during the latter part of the twentieth century would prove, however,...

  18. Reading the Manuscript Census
    (pp. 315-324)
  19. Bibliographic Essay
    (pp. 325-336)
  20. Appendix of Tables
    (pp. 337-358)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 359-424)
  22. Index
    (pp. 425-436)