Academic journal article American Jewish History

At Home, Indeed: Deborah Dash Moore and the Religious Modernity of New York City's Second Generation Jews

Academic journal article American Jewish History

At Home, Indeed: Deborah Dash Moore and the Religious Modernity of New York City's Second Generation Jews

Article excerpt

Deborah Dash Moore's At Home in America, published in 1981 as the first entry in the "Columbia History of Urban Life" series, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson, offered a startling look at a subject that might have seemed out of place. It focused on religion in a notoriously secular city during the decades when religious leaders almost ubiquitously worried about religion's future. It centered not on the original Eastern European Jewish immigrants, whose arrival transformed American and New York City Jewish life, but on their children, who often were described as more spiritually marginal than their parents. Finally, in a time when social histories were booming and institutional histories declining, At Home in America stressed the importance of institutions in the second generation's reconstruction of modern Jewish life. At Home in America thus implicitly--if not explicitly--confronted Max Weber's argument that institutions, plus bureaucratization and rationalization, had been prime movers in the "disenchantment of the world" and the modern decay of religion. (1)

Coming back to At Home in America after 3 5 years may not be quite like attending one's fiftieth high school reunion, but it conveys a similar sense of familiarity jarred by distance. It is familiar because At Home in America was widely read and appreciated, and it still is. Its facts are now comfortably familiar, at least to historians of American Judaism. But At Home in America also was quite different from most American religious histories. American Protestant histories typically treated the twentieth century as one of decline. Twentieth-century Protestantism, and New York City Protestantism in particular, nourished remarkable theologians--most notably, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. But Protestantism's loss of cultural influence and its modern urban and suburban failures loomed over its histories. American Catholic and Jewish histories superficially shared stresses on immigrant and minority statuses, but they walked different routes in America. Even before Eastern European Jews began arriving in the 1880s, Catholicism had already emerged as the nation's largest single religious denomination. But Catholic population growth made Protestants all the more wary, and it took decades for Catholics to move from being regarded as pariahs, as evidenced in the 19Z8 presidential election, to being accepted, if not always embraced, as measured by President John F. Kennedy's election in 1960. In addition, Catholicism's powerful hierarchical structure contrasted sharply with the essential independence of American synagogues, which cautioned authority inside the nation's slowly evolving Jewish denominations. (2)

At Home In America also took its place within American Jewish history as much as it defined new ground for American religious history. It exemplified the proliferation of scholarship in American Jewish history after World War II, especially histories focusing on the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. This was remarkable in itself, and it contrasted noticeably with American Protestant and Catholic history. Granted that quantitative measures would be difficult to obtain, books and articles in American Jewish history seem particularly abundant, considering the nation's small Jewish population, and notably focused on the decades after 1880, in contrast to Catholic and, especially, American Protestant histories. Still, the heaps of history matter less than its character, and this is where At Home In America was distinctive in 1981 and remains so in 2016.

Most importantly, At Home in America took the twentieth-century city seriously as a place of real religious creativity and achievement. Its attention to urban religion was noteworthy, given the reputation of cities generally and of New York City specifically in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. "The City as Peril" was the title a Protestant clergyman gave to his talk at a Protestant conference on urban religion in New York City in 1887. …

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