From the Jewish communities of America’s small towns there have come some of the outstanding leaders in both American and Jewish life. Is this reservoir, with the slow passage of the years, being dried up by a process of assimilation? Lee J. Levinger, who here describes the situation of the small-town American Jew today, speaks from first-hand knowledge. Born in Burke, Idaho, in 1890, he was ordained a rabbi in 1914. From 1914 to 1918 he was rabbi at Temple Israel in Paducah, Kentucky, leaving that post to become a chaplain in the U. S. Army. Subsequently, he led congregations in Evansville, Indiana, and Wilmington, Delaware. He has also, in the course of a long and varied career, been a lecturer in philosophy at Ohio State University, director of the research bureau of the Hillel Foundation, and representative of the Jewish Welfare Board to the USO during the last war. At present he is a chaplain at the Veterans Hospital in Palo Alto, California.
About twenty years ago I attended a family reunion of a group of my father’s cousins in a little town in the Middle West where I had lived as a child. The sons of a large family had come back from their widely scattered homes: Sam from his farm in Nebraska, Ludwig from the Black Hills, William from his clothing store in a small Iowa city. Even Frank had turned up, all the way from Texas, wearing a ten-gallon hat and wielding a cigarette-holder almost a foot long.
In the whole mishyocha, the only Jewish wife, besides my own, was Emil’s—he kept a delicatessen store in St. Louis. The children of these mixed marriages were Lutherans, Methodists, Christian Scientists, according to the churches of their mothers. Frank from Texas boasted that his son, brought up by a pious Catholic mother, resembled him in appearance, and was nicknamed “the little Jew”; Frank also told us that he subscribed to an anti-Catholic paper just in order to read it ostentatiously whenever the priest came to visit.
Only one branch of the family was not represented, but I was able to add to the many tales I had previously heard of Fred Levinger, born Fritz. He had come from Germany in the 1890’s, and in the little Kansas town where he settled had certainly been the only Jew. In the course of years he married, reared a family, joined the Episcopal church, became a successful merchant, and then the village banker and main financial power of the community. Though he retained his Jewish name, his relatives asserted that he crossed the street to avoid coming face to face with them when he visited their town. Later, the depression closed his bank, and he ended a lifetime of successful assimilation by suicide.
Is this a gloomy advance token of the fate of most of America’s small-town Jews?
According to Linfield’s census of American Jews in 1937, there were then about 9,800 communities of a hundred Jews or less, containing all told some 150,000 Jewish persons. In the course of the past fifty years I have encountered many such small clusters, ranging from two to thirty families, in such places as Dover, Delaware; Mitchell, South Dakota; Walla Walla, Washington; Cairo, Illinois; and San Luis Obispo, California. They present a distinct situation among American Jews, vastly different from that of the larger group with its organized community, and different too from the situation of Jewish farmers who live on isolated farms like most American farmers.
Regardless of where the tiny community is located, certain common problems arise; and perhaps we may legitimately add to the range of Jewish types found in this country “The Small-Town Jew.” His past is generally colorful; his present often shows as successful an integration in American life as is to be found anywhere; but his future raises some troubling questions.
A few scattered Jews came with the early pioneers in every section of the country. The first Jews landed in New Amsterdam almost three hundred years ago when it was a village. Judah Touro settled in New Orleans when it was still French territory; Lazarus Straus, the father of the Straus family, got his start in Talbotton, Georgia; Cyrus Adler first saw the light of day in Van Buren, Arkansas. Jews came to San Francisco with the forty-niners, and within a single year established two rival congregations.
My wife’s grandparents came to Illinois in a covered wagon as part of German Jewish migration before the Civil War. Her grandfather passed up the opportunity to buy an acre on State Street in Chicago (most of that generation seem to have missed similar chances) and settled in the tiny town of Mendota, Illinois. His boom years came during the Civil War, when the passing soldiers were eager customers. But there he remained for the rest of his life, tending his store and bringing up his children.
I happen to be a native of the mining village of Burke, Idaho, where my father settled when it was still frontier; my mother, coming from civilized Munich, rode into town in one of the first boxcars of the new railroad. In Burke my father was storekeeper, justice of the peace, and postmaster; the only other places of business were saloons. He soon acquired the reputation of being the only man in town who never carried a gun, and hence was one of the few men who ran no danger of a gun fight or holdup. When my father’s health made it necessary for the family to move to the prairie country, he settled in another village—Mitchell, South Dakota—and opened another store.
To Americans the country over, “Jew” is almost everywhere synonymous with “merchant.” Certainly the small-town Jews of my boyhood were merchants almost to a man, although some of them had begun as peddlers only a few years before. By now almost all the peddlers, including the most recent immigrants, have promoted themselves to storekeepers, on however small a scale. They sell clothing, furniture, or groceries; if there is a department store in the village, it is usually Jewish-owned. In more recent years many Jews have opened specialty shops in small communities, often with the owner’s wife as head saleswoman. Other Jews have made fortunes in the junk business. When he begins to ship in carload lots the junk peddler becomes a scrap-iron dealer and is accepted socially. Originally it was the German Jews who were the small-town merchants—and the junk dealers—but by now East European Jews are in the same businesses.
Recently we have begun to see Jewish professional men who avoid the overcrowded cities and practice in small towns instead. Some of these are European refugees, others young graduates of medical or dental schools. They seem to be uniformly successful, which is more than can be said of their big-city colleagues, but their total number is still very small. In certain parts of the South, the small-town Jews are coming to include manufacturers, since many small factories have been running away from the unions up North (only to meet the organizing drives of the same unions in their new locations).
Jewish workers and artisans of the kind found in New York simply do not exist in the small town—probably the villagers, Jews and Christians alike, would deny their existence anywhere. Certainly the villagers would refuse to believe there are really Jewish poor: the few Jewish beggars they meet travel from one large city to another, and pay the village a visit only if it happens to be located on the main railway line. For some years it seemed that small-town merchants, both Jews and Gentiles, would have to give way before the great retail chains, but somehow they have held their own and even achieved a new prosperity. Some of them have branched out into small chains of their own, spreading across the prairies. It is hard to say how much of this survival is due to the spirit of the small town, which is loyal to its own; how much to the skill with which the Jewish merchant identifies himself with his community. In a California town they still tell the story of the aged merchant, now dead, whose department store was a not-so-gay relic of the gay 90’s, with a forbidding battered facade and miscellaneous heaps of merchandise “to satisfy every human need.” A friend once asked him why he did not improve the appearance of his store in line with others on the block; he pointed to three country families who were just then shopping for the fall and winter, and said: “Those people have shopped here for two generations; if they saw a new front they’d say ‘My money built that place,’ and they’d never come back.”
People in small towns, we all know, behave differently from those in the great cities. They meet each other face to face; they know each other by their first names. They are friendly, not necessarily because they possess more virtue, but because in such small groups it is hardly possible not to be. They harbor little anti-Semitism, though there is always a remnant of religious prejudice, often fostered by the churches—and the churches have far more influence there than in the city. They are willing, even eager, to accept the Jew as one of their own if he fits into their pattern. They need him in both business and social life—the group is too small to dispense with any potentially useful member.
Of course, the Jew himself must be ready to go a little more than halfway, and most small-town Jews are. He finds it easier if he has been born and bred in a small town himself, but he can come from the city and quite easily establish himself as a member of the small community if he is friendly and willing to take part in civic life. The prime factor here is the absence of a Jewish social group. When there are only a very few Jewish families, the individual Jew finds his social life largely among congenial Christian neighbors. On the other hand, when Gentiles meet no compact body of Jews they are left free to reject or welcome each individual on his own personal merit.
The Jewish merchant becomes a member of the American Legion, the Rotary Club, the Masons, the Elks. He does not join the Presbyterian church, but he contributes to its annual bazaar. His wife holds an office in the Eastern Star; his son plays football at high school or golf at the country club. Sometimes he buys a farm or becomes a director of the local bank. The situation seems made to order as a background for complete assimilation.
This process has gone furthest in the South, where many Jewish families trace their origins back before the Civil War. There being few recent immigrants to dilute the tradition of the “old family,” a Jewish body as large as fifty families in a Southern town will generally be much more closely integrated in the life of the whole community than a group of the same size in the North. And in a Southern town, where the Negro problem dominates every other, anti-Semitism is apt to be of little importance. Even the Klan in most communities never actually distinguished Southern Jews as an element apart from the community or disturbed their comfortable, middle-class life.
This ease, far from Zion, was not always the norm, for Jewish pioneers must have stood out painfully both as foreigners and as Jews in the fairly homogeneous communities of the earlier days. Isaac M. Wise tells in his reminiscences how a Quaker couple from Kentucky traveled many miles to see him in his early years in Cincinnati, during the middle of the last century. After a thorough inspection of the slight young rabbi, the woman concluded, with disappointed air: “Why, thee art no different to other folk!” Mark Twain, speaking of his Jewish schoolmates in Hannibal, Missouri, tells of his awe at knowing people who seemed to have stepped directly out of the Old Testament.this initial exoticism before too long. My wife’s grandmother was a famous baker of cakes, and was always asked to contribute one of her masterpieces when one of the Mendota churches gave a supper. My mother served for some years as treasurer of the Women’s Club in her town, and complained mildly: “Why do they always make the Jewish representative the treasurer? I’m not really good at figures, and I’d be much better as a committee chairman.” In one of Irvin Cobb’s stories of Paducah, Kentucky, he has the Jewish clothing merchant’s cook bring a dish of gefilte fish every Friday to the Catholic priest, who appreciated equally the compliment and the cooking.
Sometimes the Jewish merchant becomes the leading figure of his town. I am thinking of Will Schlossberg, who died a few years ago, honored and mourned by an entire community in Texas. He was born in the North but married a native of the town, daughter of an early Jewish pioneer. He established a department store, acquired considerable farm property, and became a director of the local bank. In time, he was made a trustee of the local Methodist college and of the Catholic hospital. When the depression closed every bank within a hundred miles, Will put his entire fortune at the disposal of the local bank and gave all his time to restoring its resources, thus saving both businessmen and farmers! During the bad years he tore up many a farm mortgage rather than drive a hard-working family off their land. Three of his four children married Jews from outside the village, while a fourth married a Christian classmate.
Will’s life, while hardly typical, shows what the Jew can accomplish in the small town. When a Jew enters politics there, his success or failure seems to be purely a personal matter. I know one town in California where a Jew was mayor for eighteen years, and according to local legend refused to draw any salary during that entire period. It was in the Far West, where the Jewish vote was negligible, that the first four Jewish governors of states were elected to office. Moses Alexander of Boise, Idaho, and Simon Bamberger of Salt Lake City, Utah, both German immigrants, were elected governors of their respective states during the First World War; Governors Julius L. Meier of Portland, Oregon, and Arthur Seligman of Albuquerque, New Mexico, were elected in 1930. All were merchants—three of the four in small cities (though not small towns), and all were leaders in non-Jewish communities.
For all his acceptance, the small-town Jew seldom gets beyond feeling that he should be most careful to avoid anything that might make him conspicuous or expose him to criticism. The Cohens may try to keep up with the Joneses but they also try equally not to get ahead of them. They never build a bigger house or buy a more expensive car than their neighbors, even if they can afford it. Their parties conform to the local standard, not only because they are part of the community themselves, but also for protective coloration.
But when we turn from this picture of Jewish acceptance to that of Jewish communal life in any proper sense, we find that it just does not exist. The Jews do not form a social group as in the larger city. They may meet together occasionally for special purposes, but most of their social life is with Gentiles. Children play with their classmates; adults visit their neighbors.
Most towns have no organized Jewish activities whatever, not even a congregation. Even the 260 organized communities of less than one hundred Jews that Linfield lists present no rich or lively picture. There is not enough money for a rabbi, not enough children for a well-organized religious school, not enough adults to carry on much interesting or useful activity. It is sometimes pathetic to watch the few interested persons trying month by month to keep up their B’nai B’rith meetings or their Council of Jewish Women. Ordinarily one organization must serve all purposes, including local relief and the appeals for aid to Israel. A halfdozen people pass the offices around among themselves, and are grateful if a newcomer is willing to try his hand at one of them.
Where the community may be big enough to support a minuscule congregation (which perforce includes all wings of practice and belief), it is hardly ever large enough to support a rabbi. Occasionally a devoted Jewish woman organizes a Sunday school, usually in her own home. With a half-dozen children of all ages, one or two untrained volunteers as teachers, and a few haphazard and out-of-date volumes as both texts and reference, it is rare that they are able to do much more than provide a bare alternative to the Christian Sunday school the children might otherwise attend with their friends. I have been told of one small-town matriarch of a generation ago who became alarmed at the frequency with which her three children attended the Methodist Sunday school. So, deciding to begin their Jewish education without further ado, she bundled them up the next Saturday afternoon for a trip to the city, sixty miles away. But the next morning, when the family appeared bright and early—and unannounced—at the temple, the furnace was out of order and school was suspended for the day. Since her enthusiasm was never again up to the effort, the Jewish education of her three children ended before it began.
The small-town Jew is amazingly ignorant of the most elementary matters—even the dates of the holidays. One person may remember the customs in the European town of his origin, another those in a certain American city from which he came, but in both cases the information is scrappy and unreliable. As for those who were born and raised in the town, they do not even have memories.
Of course some small towns are near enough to big cities to be practically part of them, and more are becoming so with the spread of suburbs. I have known families who drove a hundred miles or more every Sunday, especially in confirmation year, to bring their children to a religious school. But only the most interested take the matter so seriously; the majority drop away.
The greatest worry of the small-town Jew is intermarriage, against which parents are constantly waging a losing struggle. They see their boys and girls growing up among Gentiles. All their friends are non-Jews: whom shall they marry? “What shall I do,” protested one despairing father, “import a son-in-law?”
But that is exactly what many parents try to do. Their daughter is sent to the city or a summer resort, or even to college, in the hope that she will meet “a nice Jewish boy” willing to enter an established business. Sometimes her success is all too complete and the boy turns out to be Orthodox, creating difficulties for the family and the village. Sons are less manageable, so it is often pure luck, for the family, if the co-ed the son brings home turns out to be Jewish. But Jewish or Gentile, they accept her; the days of “sitting shiva” for the child who has intermarried have long since disappeared.
In one Southern town the president of the congregation had a Christian wife. In a California town, when the Jewish Welfare Board called for workers to entertain Jewish soldiers, it turned out that the outstanding makers of gefilte fish and blintzes were two women with Gentile husbands; they could be counted on for heroic efforts all year except on Christmas, when they had to conduct their own family celebrations.
I have even been told of one town in the Northwest where the six Jewish families who were entertaining soldiers were surprised to find themselves joined by a volunteer with a distinctly Irish name. While the other women had forgotten the Jewish dishes of their childhood, she turned out to have the best Jewish kitchen training of them all. Rumor had it that the lady had at one time kept a “disorderly house”; but for the duration she served their committee and was even admitted into respectable Jewish homes for committee meetings.
Most of the children of these intermarriages tend to drift into the majority group. Sometimes one is surprised to find a Jewish name surviving in a family long Christian, such as that of Matt Cohen, who some years ago was secretary of agriculture of the State of Kentucky.
Of course in our highly mobile American society, even the most isolated group does not easily disappear from the body of American Jewry. Many families have come from larger cities within the past few years, introducing some additional vitality to smalltown life. Then, people constantly drift back to the larger towns for family reunions, for “fishing expeditions” for the young people, even for specific Jewish contacts. The cemetery, the annual Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, the Kaddish, bring many isolated Jews periodically to the nearest Jewish community. The merchants combine their buying trips to New York, Chicago, or Kansas City with the renewal of family and congregational ties. Sometimes one will even sell out and move to the city to give his children a Jewish environment, but few indeed can afford to do this until their families have grown up. Young people are constantly leaving the small town for the city, in consonance with one of the established patterns of American life, and these smalltown Jews may then be reabsorbed by the body of organized Jewry.
Several national Jewish organizations have recently taken cognizance of the situation, and have planned means to deal with it. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the United Synagogue have an organization of regional rabbis who seek out Jews in the small towns and the colleges in several states. But they can give little time to any single group, and can aid only those that have sufficient numbers and potential leaders. The Jewish Welfare Board also has experimented with community-center activities for groups of small communities in the same areas. But vast distances and small numbers doom most of these efforts from the outset; the spaciousness of American geography is a stubborn opponent.
In recent years, world Jewish movements have reached into every village in America, but their influence has often been curiously weak. Every Jew was upset by the Nazi persecutions, but not every Jew took the matter personally. Even in the big cities there were cases of merchants who gave generously to relief funds, but refused to boycott German goods on the ground that business was one thing and charity another. No wonder many a small-town dweller, secure in his community, felt untouched by the world storm until America entered the war and his own son was called to service. His response was almost entirely the same as that of his neighbors, with only a touch of Judenschmerz.
Zionism awakened hardly an echo in the small American town. These Jews were the most intensely local, the least aware of Jewish ties, of all American Jewry. Their way of life being one of assimilation, most
of them had probably come to think of Palestine simply as the Holy Land, as the Presbyterian or Congregational pastor had spoken of it in some public address. But the State of Israel has had a sizable impact. The very people who shuddered to see the name of Jew emblazoned in the headlines day after day, were proud to see it voiced, not in pity, but in praise. A Jewish government, a Jewish army, a successful war, a government loan—these have finally penetrated the consciousness of many who seemed dulled to all Jewish appeals. Some are already buying Israel bonds, on the authority of the Vice-President of the United States.
Because of their proximity to army camps, scores of small communities in the South and Far West experienced a real revival of Judaism during the Second World War. The Jewish Welfare Board supplied a worker affiliated with the USO who reached out to the thousands of Jewish boys from the big cities. At the same time, he organized the local Jews who, after the initial shock, learned to like these seemingly uncouth Jewish boys from the East. The soldiers, on their part, learned to be tolerant of the provincialism and heathenism about them. The local women prepared a lunch for the Oneg Sabbath, cooked a Seder meal for hundreds of strangers from the East, and finally opened their homes and received the newcomers as friends.
How could they have avoided learning a little about Judaism? Many an adult Jew saw his first Seder in a USO club, led by an army chaplain. Sometimes the local community objected to serving kosher food, not only because of the inconvenience, but simply because they found it superfluous, and their neighbors might consider it queer. Only continued contact with the Jewish soldiers made them realize how many came from Orthodox homes, and that every element of the ritual was essential if the Seder was really to suit them. Many a tiny community attended its first Jewish service in an army chapel. Some even organized religious schools under the leadership of a chaplain or welfare worker. Certainly some after-effect must remain of these years of Jewish unity, Jewish worship, Jewish activity. But the small town also remains a small town and its resources have not increased. A continuing influence has been the United Jewish Appeal, which with its constant expansion has finally reached out to every hamlet where Jews may be found. In a little town like Yankton, South Dakota, the eight Jewish families raised five thousand dollars in one year, including a few contributions from non-Jews. But the UJA comes only once a year. It has awakened village Jews in surprising measure, but when the need for funds shrinks to a few millions a year, the leaders may find that the canvassing of small places costs more than it is worth, and little or nothing will have been left behind.
For how many generations can this process continue and the people remain Jews? I know one family in the Middle West now in their third generation of small-town life, several in the South now in the fourth. But little by little they are losing touch.
Many old Jewish communities in this country have died out altogether. Newport, Rhode Island, had a flourishing congregation of Spanish Jews that was scattered by the Revolutionary War. Its historic synagogue, now a national shrine, was unused for a century, and now a congregation of Ashkenazic Jews worship in the synagogue of the Sephardim. (Wilmington, Delaware, had a congregation of German Jews at the time of the Civil War: today the old families have been completely replaced by later immigrants from Eastern Europe.)
I know a little town in California that has a Jewish cemetery as the sole reminder of a once flourishing community. All the old families have died out or moved away except one, an old man and his sister who were born there and still live in their rambling old family home near the river. Old Mr. Jonas is the village department store owner and the local philanthropist. He is a good citizen, but he has no Jewish contacts or interests. Neither the High Holiday services nor the United Jewish Appeal found any response in him or his sister. Once I thought I found a tiny crack in his shell. I was sitting beside the rolltop desk in his old-fashioned office, facing the little old man. We discussed the USO, in which he was as interested as any other good citizen, and I mentioned the need of a Torah for Jewish services. “A Torah?” he asked. “A Scroll of the Law,” I explained, “such as every synagogue requires.” “We used to have one in the old days,” he remarked. I suppose it’s packed away in the basement of the store.” Whether through indolence, indifference, or actual hostility to the idea, the old man never found it.
So the village Jews disappear before our eyes. Their only chance for survival lies in the growth of their town, in its transformation into a suburb by the spread of a metropolitan area. Towns formerly independent have become part of the big-city area, their old inhabitants swamped by the commuters. In such cases, there may be some Jews among the newcomers, as well as among the new businessmen attracted by the growing community. Then we see the rapid growth, not of one but of two or three congregations, not of one lodge or society but of eight or ten at once. The growing town almost overnight reproduces the complex structure and the conflicting movements of a great Jewish community. But then the town is no longer a village, and its Jews are no longer village Jews.
Thus as time passes, it seems that we shall soon have to write off most of the 150,000 village Jews from the roster of American Jewry. True, they are but 3 per cent of our total number. But they have included many of our boldest and most admirable spirits, and we can hardly be indifferent to their loss.