Jan 24, 2022
Rachel B. Gross, Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice. (New York University Press, 2021). 272 pp. $39.00.
In the course of my research, I have often visited the New Jersey farm of Malya Levin and her husband William Levin, which has been in William’s family since his great-great grandfather Moses Bayuk helped found the Alliance Colony, a Jewish agricultural colony supported by the Baron De Hirsch Fund and HIAS, in 1882. My visits there often include tours of the nearby synagogue, Tifereth Israel, founded in 1890, as well as the Alliance Cemetery and the Alliance Colony Museum. At a celebratory event that brought together hundreds of Alliance Colony descendants to the Alliance Colony Reunion in August 2018, I was a participant-observer as they sang, danced, ate, met with genealogists and documentary filmmakers, and shared photos and stories. 1 1 Participant observation, Alliance Colony Reunion, August 12, 2018. These people were part of a vast network of connected Jews building Jewish practices and identities—to borrow the title of Rachel Gross’s fascinating new book—“beyond the synagogue.”
With such networks growing, Gross’s observations are crucially important in what they reveal about American Jewish life. Gross argues that the Jewish worlds “beyond the synagogue” are larger than most American Jews imagine, and focuses her attention on four particular nostalgic practices: “visiting Jewish historic sites, conducting genealogical research, purchasing books and toys that teach Jewish nostalgia to children, and seeking out traditional Jewish foods” (4).
What does it mean to say that these are “nostalgic” practices? Gross defines nostalgia as “a wishful affection or sentimental longing for an irrevocable past.” Building on the work of scholars like Vanessa Ochs and Samira Mehta among others, Gross shows how particular Jewish cultural activities should actually “be understood as an American Jewish religious practice” (4-5). Gross excels at revealing the role of nostalgia in American Judaism while breaking down the boundaries between lay people and clergy and religion and culture. Emphasizing the voices of the purveyors of these religious experiences – the museum administrators and docents, the genealogists, the authors and toymakers, and the chefs – Gross describes the worlds they build for American Jews to embrace their nostalgia and experience tiny slices of Eastern European Ashkenazi immigrant culture, mainly through the lens of the Lower East Side of New York City. The nostalgic activities these purveyors create engage Jews through their senses as they invite people to feel indentations in the floorboards (1), look through hundreds of pages of birth, marriage, death, and immigration records (41), hear their parents read stories off the colorful pages of PJ Library books (124-125), and smell and taste revived Ashkenazi culinary classics like gefilte fish and pastrami (160). That is to say, nostalgic practices are not only about learning about the past, but sensually experiencing it, reliving it, emotionally connecting to it, and feeling a sense of belonging through it.
While these nostalgic activities are often classified as Jewish culture, Gross builds a case for such activities to be understood as mitzvot (commandments), noting that “Jews have long used the language of mitzvot to describe a variety of practices they consider sacred” (7). The Jews who tour synagogues, research their families, read Jewish stories, and eat Jewish foods might not describe themselves as religious, but Gross argues that they are in fact doing religion (6-7). Through her work, Gross seeks to validate practices that meaningfully contribute to Jewish identity formation and connect Jewish Americans to their history as a people and to the contemporary community of Jewish people. In this way, these practices mirror practices widely accepted as religious, like religious school, youth groups, and Torah study. Importantly, and unlike many other Jewish practices more typically thought of as “religious,” these activities are available to Jews and non-Jews regardless of their level of Jewish education, their synagogue membership status, or how often they pray.
As Gross describes the worlds outside the synagogue, she opens avenues for future research into the blurry spaces between different types of Jewish institutions and organizations. Gross’s book reminds me of the American Jewish nostalgia I was taught in the 1990s in my Reform religious school in Buffalo, NY. We spent time in our religious school classes working on family trees, and my eighth-grade religious school class traveled together on a weekend trip to New York to visit the Tenement Museum and Ellis Island. In the 2010s, I found myself teaching nostalgia as a Reform religious school instructor, leading my sixth-grade students through an Ellis Island experience complete with the adoption of historical identities, costumes, images, and documents to enliven their experience. In this case, nostalgia was incorporated into the religious school curriculum and taught alongside liturgy and Torah. These forms of nostalgia are surely connected to the growing interest in nostalgic genealogy work, museums, foods, books, and dolls that Gross describes. Gross builds on the work of Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi and other theorists in her book as she argues that “nostalgia bridges historical scholarship and social memory” for individuals and organizations (10). Where Yerushalmi saw history as the product of scholars and memory as the product of communities, Gross sees nostalgia as an intersection between history and memory. In other words, nostalgia is a space where history and memory come together to influence how Jews feel about the past (10). Further work on nostalgia in different kinds of Jewish spaces, including institutions like synagogues (as well as legacy institutions like JCCs and Federations), would continue to illuminate these connections. At the very least, if religious schools are teaching nostalgia, it seems to bolster Gross’s argument for considering nostalgia a modern American Jewish mitzvah.
Gross points to the potential problems with nostalgia throughout her book, but discusses them most explicitly in her chapter four discussion of the books for the Jewish American Girl doll, Rebecca Rubin. The author, Jacqueline Dembar Greene, initially thought she would write a story about a Sephardi family living in Boston, much like her own. But she ended up writing the standard American Jewish immigration story of Eastern European Jews entering New York City through Ellis Island. Gross called this out, explaining that “the normative history of Eastern European Ashkenazi immigration functions as monolithic precisely because it is understood that it must be told first, even if the author herself is Sephardi” (146). Gross ends her commentary on this part of Rebecca’s story with an emphatic line, “Other stories receive later billing, if they are told at all” (146).
As the field of Jewish Studies continues to come to terms with the role of nostalgia, we might use Gross’s work as a starting place to remind ourselves that attention to nostalgia can offer a more nuanced approach to historical scholarship because it can offer broader perspectives and expand our sense of what Jewish history is and who it involves. 2 2 Hannah Dreyfus, “Former Jewish Studies Association presidents alarmed by response to shamed sociologist,” Forward, April 23, 2021, https://forward.com/news/breaking-news/468341/jewish-studies-presidents-letter-sarna-pianko/. We should seek out, analyze, and share stories that better represent the diverse and vibrant communities within American Judaism. Sustained attention to these issues would reveal the connective tissue between what scholars and activists are calling Ashkenormativity and the American Jewish community’s centering of the Eastern European experience.
Just as I was finishing this review, a story broke about how Gugulethu Moyo, the first woman of color to lead an American Jewish museum, had resigned from her position as executive director of Tucson’s Jewish History Museum due to the racism and sexism she experienced there.
Asaf Shalev, “First Jew of color to lead an American Jewish museum resigns, citing gender and racial discrimination,” Forward, May 2, 2021, https://forward.com/fast-forward/468774/first-jew-of-color-to-lead-an-american-jewish-museum-resigns-citing-gender/.
This is not one of the museums Gross discusses, and Gross was very clear that her focus was on nostalgia for a particular Eastern European Jewish experience. Still, this news left me with a nagging sense that there is more work to do here. Gross argues convincingly that nostalgia for Eastern Europe has become so central to American Judaism that we might use the language of mitzvot to describe it. But the effect of centering the experience of one Jewish subcommunity to such an extent that nostalgia for that community’s historical experience is seen as a required component of being a Jew renders the experiences and nostalgias of other Jews to the margins. It prevents white American Jews from seeing how different stories and experiences might broaden their understanding of history and racism in ways that could help them build coalitions and move forward in positive ways. Gross opens up a generative discussion about American Jewish nostalgia, and I hope other scholars will continue this work with an eye on both the past and the future.