The Tribe in Texas

History

By Julia Oestreich

Published June 12, 2007, issue of June 15, 2007.
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Lone Stars of David: The Jews of Texas
Compiled and edited by Hollace Ava Weiner and Kenneth D. Roseman
Brandeis University Press, 332 pages, $34.95.

New York City has long been the focus of American Jewish history. In recent years, however, acclaimed works by such scholars as Deborah Dash Moore and Eva Morawska have begun to shift focus onto Jewish populations in other geographic areas. Now, an anthology constituting the latest scholarship on Texas Jewry has been published. “Lone Stars of David: The Jews of Texas” contains an impressive array of thoroughly researched pieces that cover various individuals and aspects of Jewish communal life in Texas, from the period in which Jews first trickled into the state to the present day. This book is edited by Hollace Ava Weiner, author of “Jewish Stars in Texas: Rabbis and Their Work,” and by Kenneth D. Roseman, a rabbi in Corpus Christi.

The book’s first part, “The Formative Years,” which focuses on early Jewish settlement in Texas, includes Patrick Dearen’s biographical piece on entrepreneur Mayer Halff, who staked his fortune on cattle. The second part, “The Entrepreneurial Era,” demonstrates how various Jews in the state found changing economic niches, some of which were unique to the Texas environment. For instance, Jan Statman offers an intriguing article, “East Texas Oil Boom: From New Jersey Farm Boy to Scrap Metal King,” which discusses the attraction of Jews to Texas during the oil boom, and the founding of a scrap metal empire by Irving Falk and Sam Weldman. Finally, “Current Events,” the third part of the book, discusses how, in recent years, Texas has been impacted by such Jews as Hermine Tobolowsky, who is praised for fighting for women’s rights, in Gladys Leff’s article, “Opening Legal Doors for Women.”

Indeed, throughout the course of the book, the reader can trace the growth of various Jewish communities in Texas, as well as the growth of economic opportunities for those communities. On the whole, “Lone Stars of David” also provides a clear and detailed accounting of how many of the institutions of most Texas Jewish communities were established, and on how and why they either ceased or continued to function. From discussing women’s clubs to early Texas Zionism to the generosity of El Paso’s residents to Holocaust survivors, “Lone Stars of David” does an admirable job of attempting to capture the diversity of Texas’s Jews, while demonstrating their role in shaping the history of the state.

The book does have several shortcomings, though, one of which is the lack of a central theme to tie together its motley collection of articles. Many of the articles focus on individuals who participated heavily in one aspect of Texas life, such as business or politics. While such a focus often provides an engrossing read, it leaves the reader with little sense for the overall communities from which those individuals came. For instance, in her article “Neiman-Marcus: Al Neiman, a Princely Pauper,” Weiner fails to demonstrate that Neiman, who co-founded the department store Neiman Marcus, was representative of Dallas Jews or of Texas’s Jewish entrepreneurs.

This problem of representation plagues most of the articles in this anthology. It may be a result of the fact that many of the authors are rabbis, journalists and other professionals, some of whom are publishing their first scholarly pieces in this book. Throughout their articles, many of the writers discuss Texas Jews as if the subjects lived in a vacuum. Not only do a number of them fail to discuss how the people they write about are representative of Texas Jews, but they also gloss over major themes of American Jewish history, such as suburbanization, increasing affluence, and intra-religious conflict as if they were footnotes, missing opportunities to establish conclusions that may have helped to both tie the pieces in this book together and also demonstrate their larger significance.

Certainly, “Lone Stars of David” is a valuable contribution to the rewriting of American Jewish history that has been taking place over recent years. Yet while this work helps to continue shifting the geographic focus of American Jewish history, one hopes that it also will inspire scholarship that will more effectively communicate how Jewish Texans have lived over time. And hopefully, it will demonstrate how these people tie into, as well as expand, the narrative of American Jewish history.

Julia Oestreich is pursuing a doctorate in history at Temple University, and is the editorial and development assistant of the Jewish Publication Society.


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