edited by: Ava F. Kahn, Adam D. Mendelsohn
Detroit, MI, Wayne State University Press, 2014, ISBN: 9780814338612; 328pp.; Price: £25.00
University of Delaware
Date accessed: 31 January, 2023
Scholars of modern Jewish life have largely focused on Jews’ position in the nation-states in which they live. This is especially true in the field of American Jewish history, which has produced a profusion of fruitful investigations on Jews’ pursuit of equality and inclusion, acculturation and assimilation, the perennial topic of Jews’ outsider status, as well as studies on the development of American Judaism and its westward spread. This emphasis, however, has elided the still-relevant diasporic dimensions of modern Jewish history. Ava F. Kahn and Adam D. Mendelsohn, editors of Transnational Traditions: New Perspectives on American Jewish History, argue that American Jewish history – indeed Jewish history in general -- can be better understood by examining interactions and connections across national boundaries and by comparing Jewish life in American with that of elsewhere.
The book presents an array of groundbreaking scholarship dealing with transnational dimensions of the American Jewish experience during the 19th and 20th centuries. As the authors of the chapters engage with religion, commerce and identity, they merge Jewish American history with the history of Jews on four other continents, highlight the multidirectional movement of people and ideas, and juxtapose aspects of the Jewish experience in diverse places. The book is divided into four thematic sections: the first deals with the Anglophone Jewish world; the second explores bi-directional flows between Europe and the United States; the third looks at immigrants’ transnational identities; and the fourth part presents comparative studies of Jewish immigrant communities. Together they show some of the ways in which migrations shaped lives and affected identities and, at the same time, they decenter the United States by extending their scope to include other places.
Adam D. Mendelsohn’s ‘The Sacrifices of the Isaacs: The Diffusion of New Models of Religious Leadership in the English-Speaking World’, is the first of three chapters dealing with interconnections among Jews in the Anglophone Jewish world. It highlights the emergence of a new model of congregational leadership that fanned out throughout the English-speaking Jewish communities. Rather than merely leading prayer and performing rituals such as circumcision and kosher slaughter as hazans (cantor-readers) in the Anglophone world did prior to 1840, a new type of hazan focused on preaching and education. Mendelsohn highlights Samuel, David, and Jacob Isaacs, three English brothers in the forefront of this movement who took up positions as hazans in New York, Liverpool, and Sydney, Australia respectively. Not only do the Isaacs brothers illustrate the roles these new erudite hazans played, including serving as public figures in the broader community, they also indicate the interconnectedness of far-flung Jewish communities. The Isaacs brothers were just three of many peripatetic hazans, Mendelsohn shows. Others European-born men who had sojourned in London carried with them innovations from Central Europe to communities in England, the Antipodes, the United States, South Africa and the Caribbean. Together with other Jewish intellectuals, these hazans made use of the Jewish press to reproduce their sermons and to extend their reach to the unaffiliated and to more remote communities throughout the English-speaking world.
Ava F. Kahn and Suzanne D. Rutland include California’s Jewish communities in their investigations of the Pacific Rim. They explore cultural and economic exchange among Jews in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and California and they highlight ways in which other Anglophone communities influenced developing American communities. Kahn’s ‘Roaming the rim: how rabbis, convicts, and fortune seekers shaped Pacific Coast Jewry’ focuses on several Jewish migrants who undertook a series of migrations in search of wealth and adventure in the Pacific Rim. She concentrates on businessmen Israel Solomons and Barnet Keesing, former convict John Jones, and several rabbis who served as functionaries in newly established Jewish communities while trying to capitalize on opportunities wrought by gold rushes. It was economic opportunities that propelled these men to migrate but they were nevertheless committed to Jewish observance, and they helped establish congregations, transplanting influences from their former communities.
Rutland’s ‘Creating transnational connections: Australia and California’ highlights Jewish economic networks in the Pacific Rim. She first presents a few 19th-century emancipists (people brought to Australia as convicts but who had been given a pardon) who established successful businesses in the Antipodes and then played a role in developing California markets during the gold rushes. She then shifts to the 20th century, focusing on Fred Lowy, a shopping center developer who first gleaned his ideas from American models and later expanded his business to California. Rutland points to common Jewish values that Lowy shared with Richard Green, a California businessman. It was their commonalities, Rutland argues, that led Lowy to employ Green. Through her subjects Rutland shows that it was connections to other Jews that facilitated the business initiatives.
Rutland and Kahn present compelling arguments that Jews from the Antipodes were involved in establishing Jewish communities in California but their sample sizes are small. Furthermore, they do not show that the ‘cultural baggage’ that Jews from the Antipodes brought to California was any different from that of other Jewish immigrants, and their conclusions about the significance of their contributions to the culture of these communities are not entirely backed up. According to Kahn, San Francisco’s Jewish population reached 3000 by the mid-1850s. How many of these Jews migrated from the Antipodes? Was their contribution more than fleeting? The strength of these two chapters, however, is that they show important and understudied connections between Jews in the Antipodes and California, and, more importantly, challenge the notion that Jews in the United States always migrated from East to West.
The two chapters in the second section also challenge the dominant narrative that people – and ideas they carried with them – flowed from Europe to the United States. But Rebecca Kobrin and Eric L. Goldstein, who deal with the more familiar topic of European immigration, demonstrate that American influences made their way to Europe. This occurred as a result of transnational networks that immigrants created via connections to family and friends in their former homes. Kobrin’s ‘Currents and currency: Jewish immigrant ‘bankers’ and the transnational business of mass migration, 1873–1914’ looks at commercial practices that were intricately tied up with mass immigration. Brokers like Max Kobre and Sender Jarmulowsky, immigrants themselves, saw migrants as a lucrative commodity, and they built their fortunes by catering to immigrants’ needs. Their businesses – immigrant banks – did not only accept deposits, they also sold prepaid ship tickets for which immigrants could pay in installments, granted loans, offered letter-writing services, and processed money transfers to Europe. Immigrants who spoke no English could communicate with clerks in their own language. Rather than looking at immigrants after their arrival, Kobrin sheds light on the mechanisms that facilitated immigration.
In ‘A taste of freedom: American Yiddish publications in Imperial Russia,’ Eric L. Goldstein shows that America was not merely a passive recipient of Yiddish culture. Rather, the Yiddish popular literature, which made its way to Europe, was a phenomenon born in America and it represented economic and political conditions in the United States. Yiddish newspapers, dime novels, and popular science departed from the accustomed themes of Jewish history and folklore, romance and match making that dominated European Yiddish literature and instead told modern stories of urban life, crime, and the immigrant experience. These publications were more simply written and appealed to less educated consumers. In Eastern Europe where censorship and traditional authority structures hampered the development of a mass-market Yiddish press at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, these American publications filled a niche. They went before censors in Russia in the late 1890s but often the ones that were not approved were simply illegally imported, and they influenced the emergent Yiddish mass culture as censorship eased.
Goldstein focuses on specific individuals who exported American Yiddish books and newspapers to Europe and circulated them by utilizing his overseas connections. New York bookseller Judah Meir Katzenelenbogen, for example, had family in Eastern Europe in the business of publishing. Katzenelenbogen and his brother Mordechai created an exchange with Mordechai sending religious texts to Judah and Judah sending American novels and other popular works.
The third and fourth sections of the book examine the complexity of transnational identities. Starting with Tobias Brinkmann’s ‘’German Jews?’ Reassessing the history of nineteenth-century Jewish immigrants in the United States’, the essays in the third section demonstrate that both former environments and new homes shaped immigrant identities. Brinkmann deals with the term used to categorize Jews in the first wave of mass immigration between the 1820s and the 1880s – ‘German Jews’, showing that it is oversimplified and misleading. This group was much more diverse than the term suggests. Many so-called German Jews did not even originate in Germany as we know it today, but, rather, ‘in regions along the undefined border between Eastern and Central Europe’ (p. 145). Brinkmann looks at the multiple factors that contributed to ‘German’ Jews’ identities in both their European setting and in America. Diverse political, linguistic, and cultural factors shaped the way they saw themselves and others saw them on both contexts. In Europe, many Jews grew up in rural areas, large numbers attended German-language elementary schools and, along with their Christian contemporaries, they were exposed to the concept of Bildung – the process of self-improvement and openness to new ideas. So-called German Jews, then, shared some aspects of their identity with non-Jewish Germans both in German lands and in the United States, where Jews established communities in cities where ‘German’ immigrants settled and frequently fraternized in secular associations. The main feature of a shared ‘German’ identity in America was language. Germans, including ‘German Jews’, were otherwise culturally and economically diverse. In Europe and in America, religion or class was more important than any national-cultural affiliation.
Jut as Brinkmann explores German Jews’ complex identities, Lara Rabinovitch shows that Jewish ethnicity did not delimit identity, and that other features of immigrants’ former environments contributed to the way they saw themselves. ‘The gypsy in them: imagined transnationalism amid New York City’s Little Rumania’ looks closely at three Romanian Jewish immigrants who presented themselves as hybrid Gypsy-Jews. Ottoman and Gypsy influences in Romania shaped the immigrant identities of Restaurateur Romany Marie, restaurateur and musician Joseph Moskowitz, and writer Konrad Bercovici. All three lived and worked in Little Rumania, an ethnic enclave within the larger Lower East Side. More information on this environment would help to get a sense of whether Marie, Moskowitz, and Bercovici were representative of other Romanian Jews, or whether they were a spectacle or a form of entertainment. In other words, can we draw conclusions about Romanian Jews whose lives and careers did not revolve around Romanian nostalgia?
Jonathan Goldstein’s ‘No American Goldene Medina: Harbin Jews between Russia, China, and Israel, 1899–2014’ deals with Jews from the Russian community in Harbin, China. This city, situated 240 miles south of the Russian border, was a territorial concession that tsarist Russia leased from Imperial Chinese with the aim of building a railway across Manchuria. To attract immigrants, the Russian government granted economic and political freedom that was otherwise unavailable to minorities in Russia, and a significant number of Jews took advantage. The Russian Revolution rendered the Russian inhabitants of Harbin’s tsarist passports void. Nevertheless, then and in other conflicts and governmental changes in the region this railway zone retained a special status that allowed residents a good deal of economic freedom and gave them access to higher education in Russia proper, in Harbin itself, and abroad. The Jewish community of Harbin was largely Zionist, Goldstein shows, and most members immigrated to Israel after the Second World War. In Israel, ‘Kharbintsy’ retained their sense of connection to Harbin and to one another and many reestablished ties to China. The chapter includes a case study of the family of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who Goldstein uses to explore the multilayered transnational identity that mixed national, cultural, linguistic, political, and religious elements from China, Russia, and Israel.
This chapter highlights an interesting and little-known Jewish community but it is an outlier. The title evokes America and the essay touches on a few members of the community who chose to immigrate to places other than Israel, including the United States. For the most part, however, immigration restrictions ruled out the United States and the Harbin community relocated to Israel en masse in 1949. The chapter’s relevance to American Jewish history, the theme of the book, is negligible.
All three chapters in the final section are comparative case studies that explore immigrant experiences in the United State and abroad and show the effect of different contexts in shaping identity. Ellen Eisenberg’s ‘Cultivating Jewish farmers in the United States and Argentina’ investigates immigrants in agricultural colonies in the western hemisphere, a topic probably less familiar to most readers than the agricultural communities known as kibbutzim in Palestine. Eisenberg argues that historians who have focused on the failure of these colonies have assumed that all migrants’ backgrounds were similar and that they were ill equipped for their new agricultural lives. According to Eisenberg, many of those who went to agricultural colonies were actually from the southern Pale where many Jews were farmers or merchants who dealt in agricultural goods. She attributes the colonies’ failure to poor site selection, inhospitable climates, and internal policies rather than colonists’ shortcomings. Those who were from the southern Pale were, in fact, most likely to persist. Like Brinkmann and Rabinovitch, Eisenberg, then, demonstrates that immigrants had diverse backgrounds, which affected their later experience. Eisenberg also shows that although immigrants in these colonies in both the United States and Argentina were predominantly from the southern Pale, the outcomes in both places were tied to ‘the expectations of their hosts and the surrounding physical and cultural contexts’ (p. 209). In the United States, settlements did not last long and they were quickly forgotten as immigrants acculturated in their new homes. In contrast, it is because of the creation of agricultural settlements that Argentina became a destination for Jews, and the agricultural experiment shaped the Argentinian community.
Eisenberg’s chapter sheds light on another transnational element. The initiative to send Jews to agricultural colonies brought together English, French, German and American sponsors who feared that immigrants would inundate their urban communities and sought to avoid potential problems by sending victims of pogroms and prejudice to rural regions in the United States and Argentina.
Joan G. Roland’s ‘Transforming identities: Bene Israel immigrants in Israel and the United States’ compares the reception of Jewish immigrants from India and the ways they negotiated their identities in Israel and the United States. Those from urban areas in India and who were better educated and had skills were more likely to immigrate to the United States, while those from villages went to Israel. The community in Israel was far larger than in the United States and more concentrated, numbering approximately 80, 000 people. This boosted their sense of community. They were seen as outsiders in India because they were Jews, and in Israel they found themselves in a similar position as the Rabbinate questioned their Orthodoxy, closely examining the female lineage and often insisting on ritual conversion when Bene Israel sought to marry partners from outside the community. In the United States, they also faced the challenge of rejection from the broader Jewish community and they were more likely to be seen as Indian.
In an interesting twist on the theme, the final chapter in the book looks at American emigrants in Israel. ‘Transnational aspirations: the founding of American kibbutzim, 1940s, 1970s,’ the second chapter by co-editor Ava F. Kahn, examines two groups who went to Israel in two different decades and the influence of American values on the social structure of the kibbutzim they founded. Different political, economic, and social conditions in each place motivated their immigration and in turn affected the nature of their experience. In both periods, however, these American immigrants fused values from both places as they shaped the kibbutzim. For example, the 1940s immigrants saw themselves pioneers and their project as promoting equality, but gender roles still prevailed, whereas the 1970s groups were more educated, and sought to introduce feminism and pluralism. Their prior experiences and the influences that they brought with them differentiated them from European immigrants during both periods.
Kahn and Mendelsohn’s book covers a considerable chronological, topical and methodological range and not all chapters will necessarily interest everyone. While the editors highlight some salient themes in their introduction, most notably linkages across boundaries and migration, other themes emerge, and it would have been interesting to have more commentary on them. For example, three chapters deal with Israel. Jews’ connection to the Holy Land became more substantial with the creation of the Jewish state. How does the establishment of Israel complicate Jews’ view of America and American Jewish identity in general? The dominant stream of Jewish immigration until 1924 was eastern European but several chapters deal with immigration later in the 20th century, highlighting Jews from India and Harbin. How did American Jewry shift in the 20th century as a result of immigration from elsewhere? What about connections among more stable communities – where there migration is not an issue? The book as a whole reorients our thinking about American Jewish history in particular, and Jewish history in general. Its value is that it reexamines the immigrant experience, paying close attention to the significance of former homes and the multiple strands that connected Jews, including personal relationships, business connections, international organization, and a common religious and ethnic identity.
Adam D. Mendelsohn and Ava F. Kahn thank Toni Pitock for her careful comprehensive review and raising questions for future discussion.