Bright Lights, Little Village: Jews in Small-town America

By Glenn C. Altschuler

Published May 13, 2005, issue of May 13, 2005.
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‘A baker who can make kimmel bread and German rolls (bagels, too, I suppose) can do well in Kalamazoo,” a field agent for the Industrial Removal Office of the Baron de Hirsch Fund reported in 1907. A junk dealer in Ashland, Ky., he added three years later, would gladly replace the Negro who worked in his yard with a Jew.

Jews, it is well known, have been a highly urbanized minority, but they managed to make their way to the small towns of the United States with and without the help of the IRO. In 1927, 490 cities and towns had populations of 100 to 1000 Jews. In his meticulously researched book, “Jewish Life in Small-Town America,” Lee Shai Weissbach tells their long, overlooked story.

According to Weissbach, a professor of history at the University of Louisville who has written extensively on Jewish immigration in the South and Jewish poverty in France, the experiences of small-town and big-city Jews were often similar. In each place, immigrants were part of a chain migration, preceded by a relative, acquaintance or landsmann, who held out the promise of prosperity. In towns and cities, German Jews, who arrived in the mid-19th century, sought integration into civic and political institutions and gravitated toward Reform Judaism or secularism. Between the 1890s and the 1920s, they often clashed with Eastern Europeans, who tended toward ethnic solidarity and religious orthodoxy. Finally, throughout the United States, second- and third-generation Jews drifted away from cultural and religious traditions.

But place mattered. For example, while cities contained tens of thousands of “Jews without money,” small towns were enclaves for middle-class Jews, with virtually no rich families and a tiny working class. One study of communities that have fewer than 1,000 Jews found that 66% owned or managed businesses. Constituting on average 2% of the population of their towns, Jews dominated the retail trades. With stores downtown, often bearing the names of their owners, Jews were visible, inviting expressions of pride and prejudice. As an historian of Marion, Ind., concluded, after World War I, “a trip around the courthouse square would have convinced any newcomer that the Jewish community was closer to a majority of the population than to the small but successful minority it really was.”

Maintaining Jewish identity was difficult in small towns. For merchants, who could not make a living by catering exclusively to Jews, closing on Saturday meant committing economic suicide. However, the biggest challenge revolved around religious practice. Resources were often insufficient to construct one synagogue, let alone an edifice for Reform and another for Orthodox Jews — even if money was raised from Christians and Jews in neighboring communities. So Jews often worshipped in vacant churches or, on at least one occasion, in an old movie theater. While many towns could not attract a rabbi, those that could would settle for a beginner who was soon able (and eager) to move on. Itinerants often led services on the High Holy Days, with laymen filling in during the rest of the year. Making a minyan was no mean feat — and staffing a Jewish school, kindergarten through 12th grade, was a minor miracle.

That small-town Jews preserved cultural cohesion for as long as they did, Weissbach suggests, is a tribute to their iron wills and their ingenuity. In hundreds of communities, as in Englewood, N.J., “my problem was your problem.” Jews established self-help institutions such as free-loan societies, and affiliated with national and international organizations from Hillel to Hadassah. Some synagogues held Reform and Orthodox services. Troubled by the perennial paucity of unattached adults and the prospect of marriage outside the faith, parents scrambled to arrange visits by Jewish youngsters, from near and far, and sent their kids on sojourns to relatives and friends, where matches might be struck. When they could not persuade a circuit-riding butcher to supply them with kosher meat, the Jews of Kalamazoo, Mich., made a deal with Maxim, the gentile butcher: “half his shop had kosher meat with a moo and the other side was trafeh meat with a grunt.” To keep Yiddish alive, residents of Jackson, Miss.; Benton Harbor, Mich., and Modesto, Calif., subscribed to the Jewish Daily Forward.

As they fought assimilation, secularization and urbanization, small-town Jews were swimming upstream. Although a majority of them were content with their lives, at the end of World War II their ranks had thinned considerably. The end of the classic small-town era and “the disappearance of a singular aspect” of the Jewish-American experience, Weissbach implies, were inevitable. By 1991, 304 of the 490 “triple-digit” Jewish towns had disappeared from the listings of the American Jewish Year Book. Only cemeteries, Weissbach writes, provided evidence of once-thriving “congregations of grocers.” At the same time, communities in metropolitan areas, in the Sunbelt and in college towns were adding to their Jewish populations. And the men and women in them, as well as in those in big cities, were writing new chapters in the still-evolving story of the Jewish encounter with America.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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Jewish Life in Small-Town America: A History

By Lee Shai Weissbach

Yale University Press, 432 pages, $45.

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