Jews on the Frontier

Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America

208 pages

December, 2017

ISBN: 9781479830473



Add to Cart Available: 11/17/2017

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Shari Rabin is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Associate Director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture at the College of Charleston. She is a historian of American religions and modern Judaism, specializing in the nineteenth century.


All books by Shari Rabin

Winner, 2017 National Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studies from the Jewish Book Council 
Finalist, Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature
An engaging history of how Jews forged their own religious culture on the American frontier
Jews on the Frontier offers a religious history that begins in an unexpected place: on the road. Shari Rabin recounts the journey of Jewish people as they left Eastern cities and ventured into the American West and South during the nineteenth century. It brings to life the successes and obstacles of these travels, from the unprecedented economic opportunities to the anonymity and loneliness that complicated the many legal obligations of traditional Jewish life. Without government-supported communities or reliable authorities, where could one procure kosher meat? Alone in the American wilderness, how could one find nine co-religionists for a minyan (prayer quorum)? Without identity documents, how could one really know that someone was Jewish?
Rabin argues that Jewish mobility during this time was pivotal to the development of American Judaism. In the absence of key institutions like synagogues or charitable organizations which had played such a pivotal role in assimilating East Coast immigrants, ordinary Jews on the frontier created religious life from scratch, expanding and transforming Jewish thought and practice.
Jews on the Frontier vividly recounts the story of a neglected era in American Jewish history, offering a new interpretation of American religions, rooted not in congregations or denominations, but in the politics and experiences of being on the move. This book shows that by focusing on everyday people, we gain a more complete view of how American religion has taken shape. This book follows a group of dynamic and diverse individuals as they searched for resources for stability, certainty, and identity in a nation where there was little to be found.


  • "For far too long, historians of American Jews have glossed over most of the nineteenth century, as preamble for the truer or more interesting histories of twentieth-century American Jewry. Rabin offers a deeply researched, beautifully rendered case for the centrality of the nineteenth century to how we understand American Judaism. By looking toward ethnographic models, material culture, and narrative techniques, she argues that the provisionality, the instability, and the mobility of nineteenth-century Judaism created new modes of Jewish life suitable to endure in the American environment. Following in the footsteps of Robert Orsi, Leigh Eric Schmidt, and Kathryn Lofton, who all expertly wed ethnography to deep historical inquiry, Rabin allows the reader to understand the human contours of Jewish life in motion."

    —Lila Corwin Berman, Temple University

  • Jews on the Frontier is one of the most significant contributions in years to the study of nineteenth-century American Judaism with vast implications for students of American religion generally.  An eye-opening and creative study of how mobility shaped distinctive patterns of religious life.

    —Jonathan D. Sarna, author of American Judaism: A History

  • "In [an] enlightening study largely focusing on the pre–Civil War South and West, Rabin examines the intertwining of Jews and mobility in the 19th-century US... Impressively documented, this intriguing exploration is appropriate for general libraries."


  • "Jews on the Frontier is a compelling account of the cultural and spiritual changes experienced by American Jews outside the main coastal cities and their large congregations before the large East-European emigration waves of the late Nineteenth-Century."

    Civil War Book Review

  • "Rabin convincingly describes frontier mobility as the motive force behind one of the most creative and constructive eras in American Judaism."

    The Journal of Southern Religion

  • "Rabin makes a compelling case here that the full arc of American Jewish history cannot ignore the young Jewish men who pursued their livelihoods by heading for the frontier. Their religious inconsistencies, creativities, and sense of empowerment as ordinary Jews may actually serve as a better template for thinking about how Judaism developed in America." 

    Annals of Iowa

  • "Jews on the Frontier stands as a significant historiographical intervention in de-centering established institutions and denominations and the Protestant secular from the narratives of minority religions and religious communities."

    Reading Religion