When I arrived in the United States from Poland in the late 1970s, I was basically unfamiliar with current American sociology and historiography. This included American Jewish studies, a field of particular interest to me. During the first decade of my stay in the United States, I read widely in all of these fields, especially in the area in which I wanted to pursue my own research: a historical sociology of immigration to the United States from the late-nineteenth century to the present, with special attention to East European settlers. Together with classics such as Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers (1976) and Moses Rischin's The Promised City (1962), Deborah Dash Moore's At Home in America provided me with a basic education in the history of East European Jews in New York City or, as I originally thought, in America in general. Informative and engagingly written, At Home in America was a great pleasure to read, and I returned to it several times during the process of my American Jewish scholarly education to recheck specific details, the author's interpretations, and the sources upon which she relied.
At Home in America most tangibly influenced the location and agenda of my own research. The book concentrated on a large urban center with a large Jewish population, and with a good reason: By 1915, almost 50 percent of all Jews in the United States lived in New York City. Still, no less than one-quarter of East European arrivals made their homes in smaller towns--the type of location that attracted little attention from American Jewish historians. Even more important or challenging from my perspective was that Moore called the mode of Jews' economic and sociocultural adaptation in New York "the master pattern," or "the grammar of American Jewish life": a spectacular, collective climb up the mainstream educational and occupational ladder; a rapid "modernization" of the forms of social participation and religious life; and an active engagement with mainstream civic-political life on the part of the children of immigrants. Other socio-historical studies of New York Jews--for example, those written by Thomas Kessner (1977) and Suzanne Model (1988)--have similarly portrayed New York City as the basis for essential American Jewish patterns.
A comparatist by professional training and research practice, I was interested in testing this master pattern in a different configuration of socioeconomic, cultural, and political circumstances. I thought that setting a study of small-town Jews against a comparative framework of the experience of their New York City co-religionists, who had come to the United States from the same part of the world at the same time, but who had subsequently lived in a quite different environment, would be fascinating and sociologically elegant. I also hoped to rebalance American Jewish historical knowledge about the adaptation processes of immigrants and their children outside of New York City and other big cities by providing comparative information from a different setting. Limited in number, existing studies of Jews in smaller locations--e.g., Reznikoff and Engelman (1950) and Trachtenberg (1944), among the early ones, and, contemporaneous to the designing of my project, Sarna (1978), Toll (198Z), Endleman (1984), and Smith (1985)--simply reported on their findings rather than treating them as a "tester" of the master pattern (1), so my project appeared exciting.
Because of its focus on the multitrack transformation of Jews' lives during the first decades of the twentieth century, At Home in America was, I thought, a perfect template for my study's research agenda. But first I had to find the appropriate location. I had in mind a compare-and-contrast type of investigation with my case study set against the existing comparative material--in this case, Moore's findings. So I looked for the place that most radically contrasted with New York City: small in size, isolated, dominated by heavy industry, with limited opportunities for other employment, non-union, overwhelmed by numbers and ruled by conservative-minded Anglo-Protestants who were unfriendly--or, at best, indifferent (as long as they kept quiet)--toward foreigners. I consulted a number of American social historians for suggestions on such a place, and John Bodnar recommended Johnstown: a steel-producing town surrounded by a ring of coal-mining townlets in the hills of Western Pennsylvania, approximately 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Until World War II, Johnstown was non-union under the enforced patronage of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, which employed about 70 percent of the local working population throughout the first half of the twentieth century. It maintained an autocratic political order sustained by resolutely right-wing Republican politics, and its social system was marked by rigid stratification, with sharp ethnic cleavages between the established Anglo-Protestant elite and West European groups, on the one hand, and, on the other, new ethnic groups mostly of South and East European origin--"Hunkies," "Dagos," and "Hebrews," as they were referred to by members of the dominant groups. Jews in Johnstown numbered between 1,000 and 1,200 (about 1.2 percent of the general population) from the time when mass migration ceased in 1914 until the outbreak of World War D.
Johnstown appeared to possess just the characteristics against which I could test Moore's New York City "master pattern." It was also small enough for a conscientious historical sociologist with a lot of Sitzfleisch like myself, I believed, to be able to examine thoroughly the available sources. It took me twelve long years to complete my...