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Jewish Communities on the Ohio River

Jewish Communities on the Ohio River: A History

Amy Hill Shevitz
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 288
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    Jewish Communities on the Ohio River
    Book Description:

    When westward expansion began in the early nineteenth century, the Jewish population of the United States was only 2,500. As Jewish immigration surged over the century between 1820 and 1920, Jews began to find homes in the Ohio River Valley. In Jewish Communities on the Ohio River, Amy Hill Shevitz chronicles the settlement and evolution of Jewish communities in small towns on both banks of the river -- towns such as East Liverpool and Portsmouth, Ohio, Wheeling, West Virginia, and Madison, Indiana. Though not large, these communities influenced American culture and history by helping to develop the Ohio River Valley while transforming Judaism into an American way of life. The Jewish experience and the regional experience reflected and reinforced each other. Jews shared regional consciousness and pride with their Gentile neighbors. The antebellum Ohio River Valley's identity as a cradle of bourgeois America fit very well with the middle-class aspirations and achievements of German Jewish immigrants in particular. In these small towns, Jewish citizens created networks of businesses and families that were part of a distinctive middle-class culture. As a minority group with a vital role in each community, Ohio Valley Jews fostered religious pluralism as their contributions to local culture, economy, and civic life countered the antisemitic sentiments of the period. Jewish Communities on the Ohio River offers enlightening case studies of the associations between Jewish communities in the big cities of the region, especially Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and the smaller river towns that shared an optimism about the Jewish future in America. Jews in these communities participated enthusiastically in ongoing dialogues concerning religious reform and unity, playing a crucial role in the development of American Judaism. The history of the Ohio River Valley includes the stories of German and East European Jewish immigrants in America, of the emergence of American Reform Judaism and the adaptation of tradition, and of small-town American Jewish culture. While relating specifically to the diversity of the Ohio River Valley, the stories of these towns illustrate themes that are central to the larger experience of Jews in America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7216-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Series Foreword
    (pp. vii-viii)

    The Ohio River Valley Series, conceived and published by the University Press of Kentucky, is an ongoing series of books that examine and illuminate the Ohio River and its tributaries, the lands drained by these streams, and the peoples who made this fertile and desirable area their place of residence, of refuge, of commerce and industry, of cultural development, and, ultimately, of engagement with American democracy. In doing this, the series builds upon an earlier project,Always a River: The Ohio River and the American Experience, a multifaceted project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the humanities...

  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xi)
  5. Map of the Ohio River Valley
    (pp. xii-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    This is a study of Jews in specific small-town communities in a specific place across time. Twenty-four communities, strung along the entire length of the Ohio River, from the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers to the junction with the Mississippi, constituted the area of my research: Ambridge and Aliquippa, Pennsylvania; East Liverpool, Steubenville, Bellaire, Marietta, Gallipolis, Ironton, Pomeroy, and Portsmouth, Ohio; Weirton, Wheeling, Parkersburg, and Huntington, West Virginia; Ashland, Newport, Covington, Owensboro, Henderson, and Paducah, Kentucky; Madison, Evansville, and Mount Vernon, Indiana; and Cairo, Illinois. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Louisville, while not subjects of this study in and of...

  7. CHAPTER 1 On the Frontier
    (pp. 7-27)

    On July 3, 1825, the small Jewish community of Cincinnati, Ohio, sent a fund-raising letter to the long-established congregation Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina. Appealing for financial assistance in “the erection of a House to worship the God of our forefathers,” the Cincinnatians emphasized both their spiritual closeness to other American Jews, who were all “children of the same family and faith,” and their physical distance, “separated as we are and scattered through the wilds of America.” “We are well assured,” they noted, “that many Jews are lost in this country from not being in the neighbourhood of a...

  8. CHAPTER 2 From Europe to the Ohio River Valley
    (pp. 28-46)

    Between 1750 and 1850, the political, social, and economic developments identified as modernization began to dramatically change the traditional life of European Jewry.¹ Soon, too, westward movement rearranged the demography of European Jewry, just as, beginning with the Northwest Territory, westward movement on the North American continent reshaped the United States. Together, these phenomena helped create new Jewish communities in the Ohio River Valley, for ultimately, the roots of the valley’s small-town Jewish communities can be found in the small towns of southern Germany and eastern France.

    The European Jews who chose migration to America in the nineteenth century were...

  9. CHAPTER 3 Finding and Founding Communities
    (pp. 47-64)

    During the first half of the nineteenth century, the Ohio River Valley experienced rapid population and economic growth. With Cincinnati at its hub, the area from Marietta, Ohio, downriver to Evansville, Indiana, grew especially rapidly. Between 1830 and 1860, the populations of river counties on this stretch of the Ohio, both north and south of the river, grew by tripledigit percentages—in some cases more than 300 percent.

    Governments fostered this growth with public works development. In 1811, the federal government began construction of the National Road to connect the populous East Coast with the emerging trans-Appalachian West. The road...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Religious Conflicts and Congruity
    (pp. 65-81)

    For three months in early 1860, Rabbi Max Del Banco of Evansville, Indiana, had a running feud in the Jewish press with a congregant who detested the rabbi’s liberal religious ideas. TheOccident, a defender of traditional belief and practice, had reported on the Evansville community, touting its orthodoxy, based on the report of a local correspondent. Del Banco fired back in the pages of the moderately reformistIsraelite. The community was by no means “orthodox,” he wrote; “all [of the approximately forty members] follow and admire the principles of reform, except one or two.” It was one of those...

  11. CHAPTER 5 A Judaism for the Middle Class
    (pp. 82-97)

    In December 1858, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati attended the dedication of a temporary synagogue in Portsmouth, Ohio, set up in rented space in the Masonic building at Third and Washington streets. Wise gave several talks during his stay in Portsmouth, propounding to a receptive audience of Jews and Gentiles his developing vision of a new American Judaism. Writing in theIsraelitejust before his visit, Wise averred that it was in the small towns like Portsmouth, those unique repositories of American values, where Jews were not “too much absorbed in business and pleasure pursuits,” that American Judaism would...

  12. CHAPTER 6 The Community within a Community
    (pp. 98-117)

    On December 17, 1862, the following order came across the desk of Captain L. J. Wardell, provost marshal of the Union army forces in Paducah, Kentucky, a town of about five thousand on the Ohio River. The order was wired from the Holly Springs, Mississippi, headquarters of the Union’s Department of the Tennessee, which was under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant.

    The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department, and also [military] department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.

    Post Commanders...

  13. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  14. CHAPTER 7 Maintaining Community
    (pp. 118-133)

    The Civil War was a transitional time for the Ohio Valley as the importance of the river to the regional economy declined. Although it did not change fundamental local economic structures, the war exacerbated river communities’ prewar tendencies toward growth, stagnation, or decline. In Evansville, Indiana, for instance, industry was given a significant boost that enabled the city to move to the level of a regional center. Other towns experienced wartime booms only to run out of steam by the late nineteenth century. Cairo, Illinois, was unable to overcome its prewar handicaps of a limited industrial base, lack of a...

  15. CHAPTER 8 The East European Immigration and the Reconfiguration of Community
    (pp. 134-154)

    Between 1880 and 1924, some 2.25 million Jewish immigrants arrived in the United States, overwhelming the existing American Jewish population of 250,000. The wave started slowly. Between 1871 and 1880, there were about 1,500 Jewish immigrants per year, making up only about one-half of 1 percent of all immigrants to the United States. In the following four years, 1881 through 1884, Jewish immigration was almost 75,000 persons, an average of more than 18,000 per year, constituting 3 percent of all immigration. The wave continued to surge, cresting at 154,000—14 percent of all immigration—in 1906.¹

    The flood was precipitated...

  16. CHAPTER 9 Communities at Maturity
    (pp. 155-172)

    Though the occasional reinvigoration of the river economy might boost a town for a while, the importance of the Ohio River to Jewish settlement was strongest in the mid-nineteenth century and essentially ended at the end of the century. Over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, at various points, the Jewish populations in the small towns of the Ohio River Valley reached their peak. Some communities began to collapse; others shrank. Yet in the period before World War II, most towns continued to have viable Jewish institutions and active Jewish communal lives. Jews in the small...

  17. CHAPTER 10 The Demise of Community
    (pp. 173-189)

    In the first half of the twentieth century, most of the small Ohio River towns still provided relatively comfortable contexts for their Jewish residents’ social and economic lives and for a modest level of Jewish activity. From the 1950s through the end of the century, however, even this was increasingly unsustainable. By the 1990s, Jewish populations and activity declined irretrievably. Many congregations merged or closed, and those that remained faced further numerical decline and financial difficulties.

    For almost all the small Jewish communities of the Ohio River Valley, the 1950s were a decade of change and challenge. The United States...

  18. Conclusion
    (pp. 190-200)

    In many places on the Ohio River, a Jewish presence persists. In some of the larger towns, congregations are still viable, though smaller than in the past. In Evansville—which, with a 2000 population of over 120,000, is distinctly a city—Temple Adath B’nai Israel continued to experience decline in membership: from about 220 families in the late 1980s to under 200 in 1995 to about 130 in 2005. But it maintains a full-time rabbi and a full menu of activities. Likewise, the Huntington congregation, with about 125 families in 2005, has a full-time rabbi. In addition to a congregation,...

  19. Appendix: Population Tables
    (pp. 201-215)
  20. Notes
    (pp. 216-247)
  21. Bibliographical Essay
    (pp. 248-251)

    The most complete resource is the first four volumes of a five-volume set,The Jewish People in America, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1992. These volumes include Eli Faber,A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654–1820; Hasia Diner,A Time for Gathering: The Second Migration, 1820–1880; Gerald Sorin,A Time for Building: The Third Migration, 1880–1920; and Henry L. Feingold,A Time for Searching: Entering the Mainstream, 1920– 1945. A recent, comprehensive history is Hasia Diner,The Jews of the United States(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004). Jonathan Sarna’sAmerican Judaism: A History...

  22. Index
    (pp. 252-266)