Frontier Judaism

How the market revolution helped bring Judaism to the American frontier.

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Subscription lists printed in Jewish newspapers show that individual Jews, though not a sufficient number to form a community, also lived in more than 1,000 other American locations during this period, wherever rivers, roads, or railroad tracks took them. That these solitary Jews subscribed to a Jewish newspaper indicates that maintaining ties to their kin remained important to them.

Jews never distributed themselves evenly across the American landscape: Over a quarter of all the nation's Jews in 1860 still lived in New York City. Still, the fact that as a group they had dispersed throughout the country by the Civil War remains deeply significant, securing Judaism's position as a national American faith.

Adherents had voted with their feet (and their packs) neither to confine themselves to a few major port cities, as colonial Jews largely had done, nor to form Ararat-like enclaves [places reserved exclusively for Jews to live in], as proponents of Jewish colonies advocated and some other persecuted minority groups did. Instead, like the bulk of immigrants to America's shores, Jews pursued op­portunities wherever they found them. In so doing, simply by taking up residence in a prospective boomtown, they legitimated Judaism, winning it a place among the panoply of accepted local faiths.

Challenges of Dispersion

At the same time, however, dispersion also posed significant religious problems for Jews. Without a minyan [prayer quorum], communal worship could not take place. Nor could peddlers and frontier settlers, living apart from their fellow Jews, easily conform to the rhythm of Jewish life, with its weekly Sabbath on Saturday and its holidays that fell on American workdays.

"God of Israel," one such isolated peddler prayed into his diary in 1843, "Thou knowest my thoughts. Thou alone knowest my grief when, on the Sabbath's eve, I must retire [alone] to my lodging and on Saturday morning carry my pack on my back, profaning the holy day, God's gift to His people Israel. I can't live as a Jew." Another peddler kept careful track of his observances and calculated that over the course of three years he had been able to observe the Sabbath properly fewer than ten times.

Settling down in a remote corner of the frontier did not necessarily make life easier. Joseph Jonas, the first permanent Jewish settler west of the Alleghenies and the founder of the Jewish community of Cincinnati, recalled that he remained "solitary and alone.. . for more than two years, and at the solemn festivals of our religion, in solitude was he obliged to commune with his Maker."

Some frontier Jews, in the absence of any available Jewish worship, went so far as to attend Sunday church services, thereby reassuring Christian neighbors of their piety. But this was hardly a satisfactory solution. More commonly, isolated Jews looked forward to the arrival in town of other Jews, enough to establish a community.

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Jonathan Sarna

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.