Naamani Lecture looks at Small-Town Jewish communities
[by Cynthia Canada]
The University of Louisville’s 2013 Naamani Lecture, delivered by Professor Lee Shai Weissbach on April 9, focused on the topic of his new book, Jewish Life in Small-Town America: A History. In his talk, Prof. Weissbach explored contrasts between small Jewish communities and those in larger cities in the early 20th century, as well as the contributions those small communities made to the towns where they were located.
From 1899 to 1922, the Industrial Removal Office – an organization funded by the Baron de Hirsch Fund and the Jewish Colonization Association, among others – encouraged new Jewish immigrants to the U.S. to leave large coastal population centers and resettle in smaller towns and cities throughout the nation. In these places, Jewish settlers took on the roles of merchants, service providers, and grocers and were influential in establishing a solid middle class.
Unlike their counterparts in large cities, Jewish residents of small towns did not usually go into manufacturing or the professions. Instead, they established businesses that became the anchors of their new hometowns, serving a broad cross-section of the population. Retail inventories supplied the needs of everyday life – clothing, shoes, housewares and hardware, generally marketed as high quality goods at affordable prices. Clothing retailers in particular offered a link to east-coast centers of culture, placing themselves as the source for current styles, and they often named their businesses to enhance that image – for example, The Manhattan Clothing Company in Sandusky, OH, and Bon Marché, a department store in Asheville, NC.
Prof. Weissbach’s research encompasses small-town Jewish communities of between 100 and 499 individuals. Of the communities included, he found that 69 percent had only one Jewish congregation, and about 20 percent had two congregations – usually one Reform and one Orthodox. In such cases, the Reform congregation was usually the older of the two, established by German Jewish immigrants in the early years of settlement. Orthodox congregations were more often established by Eastern Europeans who came later.
In many cases, the small size of congregations encouraged a degree of cooperation almost unheard of in larger population centers, with members reaching agreement on ordinarily contentious issues such as seating arrangements and instrumental music so they could worship together. On the other hand, some communities supported multiple congregations in spite of their small size, for reasons ranging from purely theological to simply geographical – such as in North Adams, MA, where a second congregation formed in the years before World War II so the residents of that part of town would not have to drive on the Sabbath.
Prof. Weissbach’s study comprises a close look at an aspect of American Jewish life that is often overlooked, but one that offers insight into the geography, sociology, and theology of Jewish culture in America.
The Naamani Memorial Lecture Series is supported by donations to the Naamani Memorial Lecture Fund. The series was established in 1979 to honor the memory of Professor Israel T. Naamani, long a beloved member of both the University of Louisville community and the Louisville Jewish community.