Urban Origins of American Judaism

Deborah Dash Moore

On the urban experience of America’s Jews


“This fascinating study of urbanism and American Judaism offers an insightful portrait of the ways that the rhythms of city life shaped the religious practices of American Jews. Examining synagogues, city streets, and photographs, Deborah Dash Moore has changed our understanding of the evolution of American Judaism. Moore demonstrates brilliantly that the distinct features of American Judaism must be interpreted through the lens of urban experience.”
—Beth S. Wenger, author of History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage

"While it is hardly news that U.S. Judaism has ‘urban origins,’ Moore rightly focuses on why it made a difference. . . . Recommended. For all readers."
—J.D. Sarna, CHOICE

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The urban origins of American Judaism began with daily experiences of Jews, their responses to opportunities for social and physical mobility as well as constraints of discrimination and prejudice. Deborah Dash Moore explores Jewish participation in American cities and considers the implications of urban living for American Jews across three centuries. Looking at synagogues, streets, and snapshots, she contends that key features of American Judaism can be understood as an imaginative product grounded in urban potentials.

Jews signaled their collective urban presence through synagogue construction, which represented Judaism on the civic stage. Synagogues housed Judaism in action, its rituals, liturgies, and community, while simultaneously demonstrating how Jews Judaized other aspects of their collective life, including study, education, recreation, sociability, and politics. Synagogues expressed aesthetic aspirations and translated Jewish spiritual desires into brick and mortar. Their changing architecture reflects shifting values among American Jews.

Concentrations of Jews in cities also allowed for development of public religious practices that ranged from weekly shopping for the Sabbath to exuberant dancing in the streets with Torah scrolls on the holiday of Simhat Torah. Jewish engagement with city streets also reflected Jewish responses to Catholic religious practices that temporarily transformed streets into sacred spaces. This activity amplified an urban Jewish presence and provided vital contexts for synagogue life, as seen in the captivating photographs Moore analyzes.

George H. Shriver Lecture Series in Religion in American History

Page count: 208
33 b&w photos
Trim size: 6 x 9


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Deborah Dash Moore is the Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professor of History and director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan.