Heimat and Home: Mobility Among Jews in Quincy, Illinois.

Author:Gensheimer, Cynthia Francis

The study of Jewish migration is often marked by an artificial barrier: historians of Europe have typically followed Jews to their ports of departure and their scholarly counterparts in America have only focused on their lives after disembarkation. Both groups of historians have tended to present the nineteenth-century Atlantic Ocean as a one-way passage, rather than as a pathway traversed in both directions. This view, however, is at odds with more recent research that points to how Jews maintained ties on both continents and returned to Europe more often than hitherto thought. Far from presenting the picture of Jewish migration as merely channeling people from one continent to another, this work illustrates the rise and rapid intensification of contact between Europe and the countries in which Jews found new homes. (2) Rather than limit their investigations to the United States or Europe, the authors rightfully place America's Jewish communities into their transnational context. Thus, migration should be viewed as an ongoing process transcending national boundaries.

This article demonstrates the extent to which there was interconnectivity among American and European communities during the nineteenth century. This nexus stemmed from reverence for German culture and science as well as ties connecting individuals in communities from across the United States to Central Europe. The interior community Quincy, Illinois, serves as its case study. The authors compiled a census of Jews who lived in Quincy during the nineteenth century. Evaluating their comings and goings, the authors discovered that though Quincy's Jewish population was extremely transient--including travel back to Europe--the rate of permanent return migration was very low. The richness of Quincy's source material provides context for much of the movement--internal and transnational--including that of the least affluent. This article distills statistics summarizing the migrations of Quincy's Jews and provides illustrative examples of their European connections throughout the nineteenth century. Quincy was neither the first nor the last American home of most of its Jewish residents. Immigrants often settled temporarily in the port city of first arrival, be it New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or New Orleans. It was not unusual for a young, newly arrived Jew to be a peddler for several years, without leaving any trace, and then live in several cities before marrying. (3) Most settled down after marriage, but those who reached Quincy usually moved on eventually. Rather than leave for a European destination, they went elsewhere within the US. These departures speak to a level of discontent with Quincy as a place to live but not with America as a whole. The low rate at which Quincy's immigrants left America permanently did not reflect disdain for Europe; many retained strong ties to the continent. This micro history of Quincy immigrants' migration patterns--permanent and temporary--demonstrates the complex dynamism of Jewish migration, revealing high levels of transience, travel back to the Heimat (homeland), and other communication with relatives and friends from home.

The story of Quincy's Jews is but a small part of a much larger story. Jewish migration increased exponentially in the mid-nineteenth century when improvements in transportation opened new options. The introduction of steamship travel around 1850 sparked the century's mass migration from Europe to America. The annual European migration to the US jumped from about 78,000 in the decade of 1836-1845 to some 315,000 the following decade (1846-1854). (4) Similarly, Jewish migration surged between 1840 and 1860, with the estimated Jewish population in the United States increasing from 15,000 to 150,000. (5)

Far from simply transporting Jewish immigrants from Europe to America, steamers interconnected Jewish communities within the two continents in a variety of new ways. Inland waterways and eventually railroad networks linked large cities to smaller ones, drawing together Jews from one continent's hinterland to another. Whatever the size, Jewish communities on both sides of the Atlantic formed a two-way European-American nexus through which flowed information, ideas, commodities, financial capital, and, of course, people. (6) Quincy, Illinois, was but one community among many within this nexus.

Quincy, Illinois

Situated on the Mississippi River on the western frontier of Illinois, 140 miles north of St. Louis, Quincy enjoyed its heyday during the decade following the Civil War when it was the second largest city in Illinois. Jews arrived to trade in furs and hides, clothing, tobacco, whiskey, and dry goods. An important port on the Mississippi River, Quincy became a cosmopolitan city poised to continue rapid expansion. Surrounded by fertile agricultural land, the city flourished, shipping farm products and manufacturing stoves and wagons. In 1868, a railroad bridge spanning the Mississippi River was completed at Quincy. For nearly a decade, the city was home to two synagogues: the traditional Congregation B'nai Abraham, founded in 1856, and the break-away Reform Congregation B'nai Sholom, founded in 1864 by those from southern Germany. (7) In 1870, 457 Jews lived there, including 207 immigrants.

As railroads supplanted waterways and Chicago became the nation's largest rail hub, surpassing St. Louis as a major metropolis, Quincy's future dimmed. (8) Its Jewish population peaked at around 500 in the early 1870s. (9) A large exodus of Orthodox Jews occurred around the time that Quincy's traditional synagogue closed in 1872. But with close ties to Jews elsewhere, Quincy continued to hold an important place in Jewish circles for several decades. In 1873, for instance, B'nai Sholom became the fourth congregation to join the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) and it was served by prominent Reform rabbis. (10) Nonetheless, by 1900, only 100 Jews lived in Quincy out of a population of 36,000. (11)

Quincy was one of many small cities in which Jews settled. In 1878, a UAHC poll found that fourteen percent of American Jews--32,000--lived in cities with a Jewish population between 100 and 999. (12) Yet far more than 32,000 Jews lived part of their lives in small cities. At least 1,100 Jews lived in Quincy at some point during the second half of the nineteenth century, even though Quincy's Jewish population never topped 500. Indeed, cities in the nineteenth century resembled "busy railroad stations, into which many travelers poured but in which few stopped for long." (13) In-depth studies of American Jewish communities confirm this constant movement. (14) For instance, one-fifth of the identifiable Jews of Georgia in 1860 had found new homes outside the South by 1880. (15)

The Origins of Quincy's Jews

In general, Jews who emigrated from Central Europe in the nineteenth century retained some degree of connection to their European families and friends as well as to German culture. The first Jews of Quincy, the Jonas family from England, arrived around 1840, but most who followed over the next decades spoke German and came from Central Europe. (16)

The authors compiled a census of Jews who lived in Quincy during the nineteenth century. Of the 434 Jewish immigrants who settled temporarily and permanently in the city, eighty-seven percent were born in Central Europe, and four percent were from Western Europe. Following a typical pattern of chain migration, many were members of large families. The largest concentrations came from southern Germany--Baden-Wurttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate, and Bavaria--although another large German-speaking contingent came from northwestern Poland. Most of the eight percent who came from Eastern Europe, speaking Yiddish, arrived near the end of the century. (17)

Mobility Among Quincy's Jews

For many who settled in Quincy, the town was but a waystation in a continuing pattern of movement. In general, the decision to leave town permanently reflected an assessment that on balance life would be better in a new home, one offering an improved financial future; religious, cultural, or social environment; or closer proximity to family and friends. The search for better living conditions was most often at the root of migration. (21) Kinship networks facilitated these moves, with one family member moving to a new city and others following in a pattern of chain migration. Ultimately most Jews settled in large American cities where they found employment. As they moved to urban centers with healthy economies, they created vibrant Jewish institutions that further increased the appeal of those cities. As shown in more detail in the appendix, more than half of the immigrant Jews who lived in Quincy during the nineteenth century stayed fewer than ten years, with many remaining only one or two years. Some moved to small towns, where they established thriving dry goods stores, but most eventually settled in urban centers, reflecting the broad demographic movements of their time. (22) In fact, more of Quincy's immigrant Jews died in Chicago than in Quincy. (23) More than half of the immigrants died in large cities, and about two-thirds of them died in the Midwest. (24) Of the 662 Americanborn Jews who lived in Quincy during the nineteenth century, nearly sixty percent died in large cities.

Rates of Return Migration

Given this high level of mobility, it is natural to wonder how many chose to return to live in Europe permanently. By 1900, the return trip had dropped in risk, cost, and duration, and, in general, travel eastward from America to Europe made up a much larger share of transatlantic travel than just a few decades earlier. (25) However, the subject of Jewish return migration--leaving the chosen new home in the US and returning to the country of origin--has been poorly understood.

Published studies of return migration are useful to provide general context for this...

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