The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas

Article excerpt

The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas. By Bryan Edward Stone. Austin: University of Texas, 2010. xi + 294 pp.

Imagine the Texas Jewish experience. As quick as you can say, "Shalom, pardner" or "Lo, the Texas Jewish pioneers wrought a 'Promised Land' from the desert as their ancestors had done in ancient Egypt," historian Bryan Edward Stone counters these classic tropes of Texas and Jewish identity with a more nuanced and historically accurate narrative of Texas Jewish history in his book The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas. This work is a significant addition to the growing canon on Texas Jewish history that ranges from early work by Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston to the Texas Jewish Historical Society's photographic history by Cathy Schechter and Ruthe Winegarten, Deep in the Heart: The Lives and Legends of Texas Jews (1989), and, more recently, Hollace Weiner and Kenneth Roseman's anthology Lone Stars of David: The Jews of Texas (2007).

Like the "insider/outsider" Texas Jews he describes, Stone is both part of and removed from this canon. What separates his work from other accounts of Texas Jewry, and indeed other regional studies of American Jewish life, is a strong overarching narrative grounded in the power of the frontier--the story of Jews on the supposed periphery. His narrative plays off the scholarly notion of a Jewish universe whose center is located somewhere between New York, Israel, and eastern Europe. Stone convincingly argues that it is time to put this diasporic "center/periphery" model aside (8). He suggests that all Jewish experiences matter--including those in Texas--and not solely in relation to the "real" centers of Jewish life: "All Jewish history is local history," Stone states. "Jewish life always occurs here, in some specific place, and it always takes on shades and colorings unique to its particular setting" (235). Stone helps us to see that the history of the "margin," "the frontier," "the edge," is "central to the Jewish experience ... even profoundly Jewish" (12). The experience of the frontier--whether it is in New Amsterdam, Palestine, or Texas--is the central theme of Jewish history.

Stone's book is not a comprehensive treatment of Texas Jewish history. Instead, Stone selects historical episodes that show the frontier in action from the earliest Jewish presence in Texas--possibly the 1580s--to the contemporary Jewish world of the Dell Jewish Community Center, a forty acre campus in Austin that houses two synagogues and is named after patrons Michael and Susan Dell of Dell computer fame. The historical issues he examines--institution building, antisemitism, the Ku Klux Klan, the southern Jewish press, World War II, the Holocaust, the creation of Israel, the contentious battle over Zionism in Houston's Temple Beth Israel, and the Texas Jewish reaction to the civil rights movement--are interwoven into a larger history that speaks to both the Jewish and the American experience. As Jonathan Sarna has noted, the study of religion must be situated within a historical framework, the term "religion" must be broadly defined, and diversity in belief, practice, gender, and region must be recognized. (1) Stone successfully follows these guidelines. Texas Jewry is set within the history of the American West and the South. This history includes Anglo, black, and Mexican people, institutions from B'nai B'rith District 7 to the Jewish Herald-Voice (one of the nation's longest-running Jewish newspapers), Houston's pro-integration Citizens' Relations Committee, and the numerous congregations throughout the state.

A study of the American West that reflects the thinking of "New Western Historians" such as Patricia Limerick, this history rethinks boundaries: literal lines on maps, thousands of miles of Texas fences, and the complex cultural, ethnic, racial, and religious boundaries in people's minds. Stone uses the classic work of sociologist Fredrik Barth to understand the pluralistic society of Texas. …