Academic journal article Western Folklore

Jewish Life in the American West: Perspectives on Migration, Settlement, and Community

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Jewish Life in the American West: Perspectives on Migration, Settlement, and Community

Article excerpt

Jewish Life in the American West: Perspectives on Migration, Settlement, and Community. Edited by Ava F. Kahn. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002. Pp. 144, foreword, introduction, illustrations, photographs, map, tables, bibliography, acknowledgments, index. $22.50 paper)

As a group, Jews have a keen sense of the closeness of history. They feel an urgency to tell stories about Jews in all times and all places and across all dimensions. Perhaps, this results from the idea of Jewish mission. Or, for a people in Diaspora and only recently with a nation-state, storytelling may produce the bonds of community necessary for survival. Experiences of prejudice and persecution certainly also are particularly salient to Jews and offer cues for understanding present and future.

It should be no surprise then, that historians have long traveled the Jewish trail in the American West. Historians such as Norton Stern, William Kramer, Moses Rischin, and John Livingston, among many others, have written about Jewish men and women and their religious, economic, social, political, and cultural activities west of the Mississippi River. We know of Jews in the California Gold Rush, in business, on farms, in the motion picture industry, in social movements, and in political office. We know, as well, of Jews and their interactions, both negative and positive, with their Christian neighbors. Still, much of what is written is the matter of segmented pieces of a mosaic without sense of the broader whole. Missing is an interpretive perspective of regional patterns and themes that would bring coherence to the history of the Jews in the American West.

Jewish Life in llie American West seeks to offer such a perspective. Its five essays about migration and settlement, popular culture, merchant networks, Jewish women, and community building in urban and rural settings from the 185Os to the 1920s form the companion volume to a photographic exhibit funded by the Autry Museum of Western History and designed to show the West in its diversity and devoid of myth. The book, which is beautifully laid out and crafted, intends both to reach a broad audience and to chart new interpretive paths for scholars. Particularly important is Hasia Diner's thought-provoking essay, which sets New York City and the American West as geographic and psychic poles that represent the conflicting desires of Jews for assimilation and ethnic and religious authenticity. …

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