At home, indeed: Deborah Dash Moore and the religious modernity of New York City's second generation Jews.

Author:Butler, Jon
Position:Critical essay
 
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Deborah Dash Moore's At Home in America, published in 1981 as the first entry in the "Columbia History of Urban Life" series, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson, offered a startling look at a subject that might have seemed out of place. It focused on religion in a notoriously secular city during the decades when religious leaders almost ubiquitously worried about religion's future. It centered not on the original Eastern European Jewish immigrants, whose arrival transformed American and New York City Jewish life, but on their children, who often were described as more spiritually marginal than their parents. Finally, in a time when social histories were booming and institutional histories declining, At Home in America stressed the importance of institutions in the second generation's reconstruction of modern Jewish life. At Home in America thus implicitly--if not explicitly--confronted Max Weber's argument that institutions, plus bureaucratization and rationalization, had been prime movers in the "disenchantment of the world" and the modern decay of religion. (1)

Coming back to At Home in America after 3 5 years may not be quite like attending one's fiftieth high school reunion, but it conveys a similar sense of familiarity jarred by distance. It is familiar because At Home in America was widely read and appreciated, and it still is. Its facts are now comfortably familiar, at least to historians of American Judaism. But At Home in America also was quite different from most American religious histories. American Protestant histories typically treated the twentieth century as one of decline. Twentieth-century Protestantism, and New York City Protestantism in particular, nourished remarkable theologians--most notably, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. But Protestantism's loss of cultural influence and its modern urban and suburban failures loomed over its histories. American Catholic and Jewish histories superficially shared stresses on immigrant and minority statuses, but they walked different routes in America. Even before Eastern European Jews began arriving in the 1880s, Catholicism had already emerged as the nation's largest single religious denomination. But Catholic population growth made Protestants all the more wary, and it took decades for Catholics to move from being regarded as pariahs, as evidenced in the 19Z8 presidential election, to being accepted, if not always embraced, as measured by President John F. Kennedy's election in 1960. In addition, Catholicism's powerful hierarchical structure contrasted sharply with the essential independence of American synagogues, which cautioned authority inside the nation's slowly evolving Jewish denominations. (2)

At Home In America also took its place within American Jewish history as much as it defined new ground for American religious history. It exemplified the proliferation of scholarship in American Jewish history after World War II, especially histories focusing on the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. This was remarkable in itself, and it contrasted noticeably with American Protestant and Catholic history. Granted that quantitative measures would be difficult to obtain, books and articles in American Jewish history seem particularly abundant, considering the nation's small Jewish population, and notably focused on the decades after 1880, in contrast to Catholic and, especially, American Protestant histories. Still, the heaps of history matter less than its character, and this is where At Home In America was distinctive in 1981 and remains so in 2016.

Most importantly, At Home in America took the twentieth-century city seriously as a place of real religious creativity and achievement. Its attention to urban religion was noteworthy, given the reputation of cities generally and of New York City specifically in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. "The City as Peril" was the title a Protestant clergyman gave to his talk at a Protestant conference on urban religion in New York City in 1887. The unending influx of European Catholic immigrants jolted the Catholic hierarchy, and their national and ethnic religious differences challenged the very idea of the Church Universal. When immigrant rabbi Moses Weinberger disparaged America and its prospects for Judaism in a small book cautioning Hungarian Jews about New World emigration, his judgment might have been quirky--"People walk on their heads in Columbus's land," he wrote, "not on their feet." But Moses Rischin's The Promised City, with its account of immigrants abandoning Judaism for socialism, atheism, and sheer indifference, suggests that Weinberger also might have been prescient in worrying about religious disaffection, if not about its sources. In fact, too many American religious leaders allowed their prejudices to hide the lived religious practices that swirled around them, preferring to weep for an Orthodox past that was never so ubiquitous that it could accept and shape a complex spiritual present. (3)

At Home in America creatively embraced the early-twentieth-century city as a historical laboratory for Jewish culture and religion. Of course, it could be said that Moore had no choice. Unlike America's earlier nineteenth-century German Jewish immigrants, who dispersed over so much of the nation, Eastern Europe's post-1880 Jewish immigrants overwhelmingly settled in New York City and stayed there. But therein lay Moore's opportunity. She began At Home in America in the very cauldron of trouble that vexed other religious groups, but treated the circumstances as axiomatic--as normal, as what they were. In defiance of the pronouncements of elite religious leaders of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and of more than a few historians, At Home in America didn't bemoan the impossibility of religion in the modern city. It opened, instead, with a contrary assertion:

As early as 1900, Jewish observers characterized New York City as the heart of American Jewry. By 1914 there was no doubt that the pulse of New York Jewish life decisively influenced all American Jews. Even today, the heartbeat of the New York Jewish experience can be felt in Miami and Los Angeles. (4) No history of any other modern American religious group had ever begun with such a blunt assessment of a city's foundational role in shaping its twentieth- or twenty-first century identity.

At Home in America's focus on second-generation rather than first-generation immigrants separated it further from most immigrant histories. Aside from examining the differences that separated second- and third-generation Puritans from their first-generation immigrant parents, American historians seldom have pursued similar themes elsewhere. Indeed, for what might be an otherwise obvious generational study--that of America's Japanese Nisei--their incarceration during World War II has long precluded a meaningful generational comparison with their parents; no other immigrant group had gone through such an experience. Moreover, most migrations to the United States stretched over long periods of time and dispersed widely across the nation, such as Irish Catholic and German Protestant and Catholic immigrations before the American Civil War or even late-nineteenth-century Italian Catholic immigration to the United States, which also extended from 1880 to 1910 but concentrated far less exclusively in New York City. (5)

The principal analytical difficulty posed by At Home in America stemmed not merely from its focus on the second generation but on the very idea of a generation. Its commonsensical meaning aside, how should a historian studying large emigrating groups define a generation rather than a genealogist...

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