Academic journal article American Jewish History

From the Banks of the Rhine to the Banks of the Mississippi: The History of Jewish Immigrants and Their Individual Stories

Academic journal article American Jewish History

From the Banks of the Rhine to the Banks of the Mississippi: The History of Jewish Immigrants and Their Individual Stories

Article excerpt

From the Banks of the Rhine to the Banks of the Mississippi: The History of Jewish Immigrants and their Individual Stories. By Anny Bloch-Raymond. Translated from the French by Catherine Temerson. Santa Maria, CA: Janaway Publishing, 2014. xxvii + 294 pp.

Many aspects of the mid-nineteenth century immigration of Jews from different parts of Europe to the United States remain understudied. In the last two decades, a number of essay collections and monographs have shed light on the development of larger and smaller Jewish communities before 1900. Religious life, especially the rise of the Reform movement, but also sociability and more recently the role of peddling have been studied in some detail. Relatively little is known about the Central and Eastern European backgrounds of the immigrants. Even after emancipation most Central European states registered Jews, making it possible for researchers to trace them. But since the history of rural communities, where most Central European Jews lived before the 1820s, is hardly researched, scholars have to spend much time uncovering and deciphering frequently dispersed records.

In From the Banks of the Rhine to the Banks of the Mississippi, French sociologist Anny Bloch-Raymond traces the background, migration and settlement of several Jewish families from Alsace and the Palatinate in New Orleans and the Delta region during the nineteenth century. The seven chapters of the book cover Jewish life in Alsace; causes for the migration; the Atlantic crossing; economic and business history; the building of communities; the rise of Reform Judaism; private lives, with a focus on food and cooking; the Civil War; and relations with other groups. In the introduction Bloch-Raymond states that she "is not a historian and the book should not be regarded as the [sic] history book ... [but] as a suggestive collection of family memoirs" (xix). The book does not have an overarching thesis and is best characterized as a loosely organized historical-anthropological micro-study of several Jewish immigrants and their families in New Orleans.

Since the author explicitly states that she did not want to write a historical study, it is a little unfair to criticize her for paying limited attention to the social and political context in Europe and the United States. For instance, Bloch-Raymond does not mention that before 1870 Jews in Alsace were fully emancipated French citizens, while their coreligionists in the Palatinate (which belonged to Bavaria) did not enjoy full civil equality before 1871. Another example that illustrates the pitfalls of her grassroots approach is the lack of background information on the history of Jews and others in New Orleans. In passing, Bloch-Raymond points to a few dates, such as the founding of Temple Sinai, the first Reform congregation, in 1870. Other bits of information are spread throughout several chapters. Ultimately, though, readers learn little about other Jews in New Orleans. The lack of context is partly compensated by Bloch-Raymond's analysis of the letters and memoirs through an anthropological lens. …

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