Introduction to the special issue on the thirty-fifth anniversary of Deborah Dash Moore's At Home in America.

Author:Berman, Lila Corwin
 
FREE EXCERPT

In 1986, Deborah Dash Moore published an article about the French anthropologist Emile Durkheim. The thesis of the article flowed from Moore's articulation of Durkheim's full name: David Emile Durkheim. Indeed, his first name was Jewish, as were his parents (his father was a rabbi) as well as the social context in which he developed his theories about the individual, the collective, and, especially, religion. Although Durkheim contended in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) that he studied the "simplest and most primitive religion" of his day--aboriginals in Australia--to determine the essence of religion, Moore maintained that he drew from a far more personal and immediate source: Judaism as he had experienced it in his family and in the French Jewish community of his youth. No matter that he wrote under his French middle name, he was "a Jewish thinker," according to Moore, and his definition of religion reflected that. At a time when other thinkers focused on the holy, the soul, prayer, divinity, or the supernatural as the crux of religion, Durkheim instead concluded that "religion must be an eminently collective thing," and only in the context of a "single moral community" do beliefs, practices, and rituals gain their meaning. (1)

We begin our brief assessment of Moore's thirty-five years of scholarship with her insight into Durkheim for what it reveals about her as much as it does about him. First, Moore's intellectual framework for thinking about American Jews is anchored time and again by Durkheim's refusal to consign religion to a particular belief, ritual, or inner experience in favor of a capacious understanding of religion as the sum of its collective expressions. Eli Lederhendler, in this issue of American Jewish History, perceptively refers to Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, as Moore's "intellectual hero". Still, Durkheim also looms large in Moore's (and Kaplan's) conceptualization of Judaism as a collective enterprise, composed of things, whatever they may be, that Jews do together. Second, Moore's contention that Durkheim's thought grew from his Jewish experience applies to Moore's own scholarship. A daughter of firmly middle-class New York Jews, Moore oriented her scholarly concerns toward the features of mid-twentieth-century American Jewry with which she was most familiar.

Unlike Durkheim, who never publicly contemplated the connection between his Jewishness and scholarship, Moore has written thoughtfully about both, a scholarly mandate borrowed, if not from Durkheim, then certainly from the anthropological and sociological disciplines he birthed. In the anthology Ethnic Historians and the Mainstream, Moore explains that her "points on the compass" in the lower Manhattan of her youth shaped her eventual interest in studying Jews in New York City. The sidewalks of her childhood traversed the short distances from her apartment to her family's printing business, along streets lined with Jewish shops and institutions, with a Catholic church and school only a few blocks away. On holidays and for Hebrew school, Moore traveled to the Upper West Side's Society for the Advancement of Judaism, Kaplan's synagogue, where her maternal grandparents were longtime members and supporters. As she grew older, Moore's compass points expanded to the whole island of Manhattan, and in her explorations she encountered diverse modes of Jewish culture and expression, not to mention non-Jewish worlds. (2)

Moore left New York City in 1963 to attend Brandeis University, where she studied American history with a focus on "Negro" history and urban history. She returned to New York after graduation and began her postgraduate studies at Columbia, intent upon developing her interests in African Americans. Yet erupting urban crises and the emergence of Black Power in the waning years of the civil rights movement reoriented Moore's intellectual compass. In 1970, students at Montclair State College, where Moore then taught, demanded the hiring of an African-American scholar to teach black history. Moore supported the students' demand and, hence, reassessed her own aspirations to study and teach the subject. In the process, she found herself drawn toward "one of my enduring intellectual interests that actually coincided with my identity." (3) Thus was born an American Jewish historian, a future leader of the nascent field.

The path toward becoming an American Jewish historian in the 1970s was not well marked. Moore recalls reading just one book on American Jews--Moses Rischin's The Promised City--during the entirety of her graduate training. (4) Even then, the book was assigned for a seminar on Gilded Age America, not...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP