Eric L. Goldstein, Deborah R. Weiner
Baltimore, US, John Hopkins University Press, 2018, ISBN: 9781421424521; 400pp.; Price: £29.50
University of Delaware
Date accessed: 26 September, 2023
Much of the scholarship on American Jewry focuses on New York, the city that attracted the vast majority of Jewish immigrants. Yet a significant proportion of Jews settled in other cities, small towns, and even tiny outposts. Eric L. Goldstein and Deborah R. Weiner argue that a closer look at the Jewish experience in places other than New York can offer insight into the distinctive aspects of Jewish life and culture in each locale. Their book, On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore, pays close attention to Baltimore’s unique characteristics and the way they contributed to development of the Jewish community. Unlike other urban centers on the East Coast, Baltimore bridged the North and South; it “occupied a ‘middle ground’ between regions and cultures, a quality that has made it a place of contradictions and ambiguity” (p. 2). This study explores the contradictions and ambiguities and their impact on the Jewish community from the 1760s to the present.
Goldstein and Weiner detail every aspect of Jewish life, including day-to-day economic obstacles and opportunities, long-term political struggles, religious observance, and efforts to build communal and social institutions. In all of these spheres, Goldstein and Weiner highlight the influence of a succession of Jewish immigrants, from a variety of locales, with diverse religious and cultural practices. Waves of newcomers bolstered the existing community and enriched Jewish life in Baltimore, but often caused tension within the Jewish community as well. The book also explores the community’s role in the life of the city and interactions between Jews and non-Jewish fellow Baltimoreans, and it examines broader economic, political, social, and cultural events and trends that shaped Baltimore and its inhabitants. In sum, On Middle Ground provides a comprehensive biography of the city itself and all of its ethnic and religious communities.
The book is organized chronologically, with chapters covering standard periodization in Jewish American history: early settlement, the ‘German-Jewish’ wave of immigration, the Eastern European wave of immigration, the inter-war years, and the post-Second World War period. The first chapter details the community’s shaky beginnings during the late colonial, early national, and early Republican periods. Baltimore’s emergence as a port attracted young single Jewish men who sought economic opportunity. With the exception of a few who were brought to the colony as convicts and worked as indentured servants, the earliest Jews were shopkeepers, manufacturers, and pawnbrokers. While these men never dominated commerce, they did contribute to the city’s economic development and, like other Baltimoreans, suffered losses when the city’s economic development was precarious. The most successful among them actively engaged in the broader society and fought for full inclusion, a protracted battle that took until the so-called Jew Bill in 1826, a constitutional amendment that finally gave Jews the right to hold public office. Immediately afterwards, Baltimore’s most prominent Jews were elected to the First Branch of the Baltimore City Council. Goldstein and Weiner emphasize that the Jew Bill was the culmination of Jews’ long-term involvement in the civic life of the city, and an acknowledgement by non-Jewish Baltimoreans of Jews’ participation in the growth of the city. During this early period, small numbers and a lack of religious amenities such as a congregation and functionaries made religious adherence extremely difficult, and led to a high rate of intermarriage. But this trend changed as immigration bolstered the community in the first decades of the 19th century. In 1829, Baltimore’s Jews established their first formal congregation, a sign that the community had finally achieved some stability.
The style of religious organization and worship that Baltimore’s earliest Jews finally established would soon change dramatically. Chapter two examines the first wave of mass immigration, which swelled Baltimore’s Jewish population to about 10,000 people by 1880. Baltimore had strong trade connections with German states, and vessels coming from Bremen in particular brought shiploads of immigrants into the port of Baltimore. The city’s expanding economy convinced many of these newcomers—Jews and non-Jews—to stay. Jews from German states settled in Baltimore in even higher proportion than elsewhere in the United States, especially before 1850, making a distinctive mark on Baltimore’s Jewish community. Claiming a German Jewish identity enabled this cohort of Jews to interact with a broader population of Germans through Baltimore’s many German-language clubs and associations.
The city was developing into an important retail center, making it attractive to Jews, many of whom brought the necessary skills with them to participate in the commercial economy of the city. Expansive kinship and ethnic networks had long bound Jews together, and Jews in Baltimore took advantage of these traditional adaptations to exploit the retail market. Established retailers expanded their businesses by providing newly-arriving coreligionists with goods to sell. This gave newcomers a foothold. They fanned out through the city and far beyond, especially in the South. In establishing networks of retailers, Jews could tap opportunities, especially during the Civil War when Baltimore became a major supply center to the South. Following the war’s end, having learned the benefits of ready-made clothing, Baltimoreans began to manufacture clothing on a larger scale. Commercial success and the growing manufacturing industry continued to attract Jews to Baltimore.
This cohort, predominantly German-speaking Jewish immigrants and their acculturated children, strove for full acceptance. They participated in the secular cultural, social, and intellectual life of the city, asserting their dedication to American values. Their efforts to Americanize changed their religious practices and institutions. Rabbis began delivering English sermons, synagogues abridged services, and eliminated a separation of men and women. Nevertheless, like their coreligionists elsewhere in the United States, Baltimore’s Jews tried to balance acculturation and acceptance with tradition and communal cohesiveness, which hampered their access to non-Jewish social circles.
In every urban center populated by Jews, including Baltimore, a new wave of immigration disrupted the relative stability ‘German Jews’ achieved. Chapter three deals with the challenges that arose when throngs of Eastern European Jews arrived in the city, and the ways they influenced the character of Jewish Baltimore. The vast majority of newcomers left poverty and prejudice only to find similar obstacles. As an expanding, industrializing economy, Baltimore offered opportunities. In particular, the garment industry, which was dominated by Jews, provided jobs in sweatshops, paying low wages and involving long working hours. Their ethnic enclave in crowded East Baltimore offered residents the consolation of an almost-exclusively Jewish immigrant environ.
While Jews who had long been settled provided jobs to newcomers, relations between the two communities were tense. Old-timers worried that the newcomers would destabilize their position and invite hostility, and they sought to transform immigrants through a range of social service agencies designed to Americanize them. Many newcomers were compelled to moderate their own religious practice. Some were forced to sacrifice observance when made to work on the Sabbath, for example, while others confronted the pull of secular life. Yet, the wave of immigration from Eastern Europe brought many Jews who were determined to uphold Orthodox Judaism, among them rabbis and lay leaders who disapproved of acculturated Jews’ religious laxity. They established congregations and other institutions to support their goals. Indeed, Orthodoxy remained stronger in Baltimore than in other cities. Other newcomers brought with them new ideologies and new forms of political activity that discomfited the ‘German Jewish’ community, including Zionism and Jewish socialism. Contrary to German Jews’ fears that the Eastern Europeans would drain community resources, the newcomers organized Landsmanshaften—hometown societies—and mutual aid societies that provided housing to newcomers, help with finding employment, loans, death benefits, and sick benefits. Due to these adaptations—together with the fact that many members of this cohort found employment in Jewish businesses, and arrived with skills well suited to urban life—Jews fared better that other immigrant ethnic groups and were better able to overcome economic hardship.
The fourth and fifth chapters deal with the inter-war period and the post-Second World War eras, respectively. Immigration restrictions greatly reduced the number of newcomers from the 1920s, mitigating the challenges associated with a constant flow of new arrivals, and paving the way for the Americanization of the Jewish community. Their acculturation notwithstanding, an increase in antisemitism suppressed Jewish integration into the dominant culture, as discriminatory real estate and hiring practices kept Jews out of non-Jewish neighborhoods and limited the number of Jews in universities, hospitals, and other professional workplaces. In Baltimore, Jewish segregation was even more pronounced than elsewhere. The society was more conservative than other cities that were home to large Jewish communities. Every ethnic and religious community was more traditional and more secluded. Communal institutions therefore remained relatively strong and secularization proceeded more slowly. This exclusion and isolation reinforced the Jewish community’s cohesion, and promoted a strong Jewish identity. Elsewhere in the United States, Judaism was in decline, as Jews aspired to integrate into the dominant culture and synagogue affiliation dipped to an all-time low. Baltimore, however, had much higher rates of membership, with modern Orthodox synagogues showing far greater strength than elsewhere.
The garment industry, a mainstay of Jewish economic life for decades, declined during the period, but Jews carved out new entrepreneurial and occupational niches. Jewish-owned department stores entered their heyday, and the real-estate market and entertainment industry provided opportunities, too, while a growing number of Jews entered the professions; medicine and law in particular. As in other parts of the country, the younger generation of Jewish Baltimoreans benefited greatly from a post-Second World War economic boom. And as details of the destruction of European Jewry came to light, antisemitism declined just as government policies dismantled discriminatory practices in housing, education, and jobs. Yet, even as opportunities opened up and even as Jews left their urban ethnic neighborhoods for the suburbs, they retained the pattern of living in tight-knit communities, a pattern bolstered by the ethnic segregation that persisted in Baltimore. Jewish homebuilders marketed subdivisions to coreligionists. Synagogues followed congregants and Baltimore’s rate of synagogue affiliation remained higher than in other centers. Still, unaffiliated Jews did not actually need to belong to a synagogue in order to experience community and a strong Jewish identity because of the tight-knit nature of Baltimore Jewry.
The surrounding culture was, nevertheless, a significant factor for Jews who simultaneously sought to sustain Judaism and some aspects of Jewish culture on the one hand, and to acculturate and gain acceptance on the other. The book’s title—On Middle Ground—refers to Baltimore’s geographic position between the North and South, and between east and west. But it also points to Jews’ position in Baltimore’s complex social environment—between the white dominant culture that Jews aspired to access and the African-American community, which was marginalized to a much greater degree than were Jews. Baltimore’s was the first major Jewish community to come into contact with a large free black community. Their interactions were sometimes shaped by common cause and sometimes by conflicting or competing goals. As early as the 1820s, as Jewish leaders worked to push through the Jew Bill, they ‘steer[ed] clear of the explosive issue of civic equality for black freemen’ (p. 13). As the Jewish community grew, retailers and peddlers interacted extensively with black customers, which necessitated courtesy. The two communities lived in close proximity for much of Baltimore’s history, both in the urban center and in the neighborhoods that developed as the city expanded. African Americans looking to escape crowded urban areas looked to the Jewish neighborhoods where Jews were less likely to participate in campaigns to exclude blacks. Jews in Baltimore felt much freer than those living in the South to join the fight for equality for black people during the inter-war years and during the Civil Rights Movement’s peak. Yet, until after the Second World War, Jews’ social position was tenuous. In their efforts to achieve acceptance, they highlighted their whiteness, which often meant distancing themselves from the stigma of associations with the black community. This included some sectors of the community who shared the outlook of white southerners, and those who participated in ‘white flight’ when black people moved into their neighborhoods.
The book also examines the relationships between the Jewish community and other immigrant groups, comparing their respective adaptations and highlighting the contributions of community leaders and groups. In doing so it presents a history of Baltimore’s developing patchwork of neighborhoods. It is, in fact, an in-depth examination of every aspect of Baltimore’s history, providing specific details about neighborhoods, individuals, and groups. It explores local, regional, and national economic, political, and social developments that affected not only the Jewish community but other sectors as well. For example, it discusses reactions to and consequences of the Civil War and both World Wars, and multiple boom and bust cycles. Since the authors' focus is so broad, it would be interesting to know who they see as their primary audience. Even in its treatment of Jewish Baltimore, each chapter deals with the growing and diversifying Jewish community and discusses, in intricate detail, the conflicts that arose within the community, the ways in which factions came together when threatened, and the significant figures who emerged in business, political, intellectual, and religious realms, as well as throngs of ordinary people who exemplified the many trends that ebbed and flowed.
The authors explore the relationships between Baltimore’s diverse communities, but they barely cover the ties that bound together Baltimore’s Jewish community with other Jewish communities. For example, they touch on the kinship and ethnic networks that facilitated commerce during the colonial and early national periods. Goldstein and Weiner mention that it was these kinds of ties that enabled the first Jews to settle in Baltimore. But these webs of connection were far more significant and influential than the authors show; they wove together Jews living in multiple locations who cooperated extensively in trade. These patterns continued, Goldstein and Weiner indicate, as businessmen in Baltimore sent out peddlers and other salesmen to points further afield. But this theme disappears in later chapters. It would be interesting to know more about these patterns, whether Jews in smaller Southern communities had ties to coreligionists in Baltimore, and the extent to which Baltimoreans cooperated with Jews in Northern cities.
Connections, especially with Jews to the North, would have exerted an influence. The authors argue that Baltimore’s Jewish community was different from other Jewish communities, and they provide plenty of evidence relevant to specifically local conditions. Yet the broad strokes in the narrative demonstrate that the Jewish community experienced the same ups and downs as other Jewish communities. For example, they outline periods of fracture and periods of unity, depending on external events. In the final analysis, then, was Baltimore’s Jewish development sufficiently distinctive to warrant a claim of distinctiveness? Or is the history of Baltimore’s Jewish community the same as that of other communities, with minor particularities?
These questions notwithstanding, the authors account for the shape Baltimore’s Jewish community has taken. The Orthodox movement retained adherents to a far greater degree than other centers, where American-born Jews sought to form a model that catered to American life. Even among less observant Jewish Baltimoreans, the authors show, religious and cultural life remains vibrant and the community remains more cohesive that in other centers, even as Jews have continued to integrate into the local social, political, and cultural scene.