April 2, 2012

Book of the Month:

Bryan Stone, The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas 

Review by Sarah Imhoff

In The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), Bryan Edward Stone uses the idea of the frontier to conceptualize his history of Texas Jews. Perhaps this should come as no surprise as the tale of a place where the sixteenth century saw Spanish-heritage Crypto-Jews, the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries presented fighting between white settlers (some of whom were Jewish) and Native Americans, and the subsequent racial landscape claimed Anglos, Blacks, and Mexicans. For some of us, however, thinking about the American West in terms of “frontier” conjures specters of the problematic interpretations of Frederick Jackson Turner: white men courageously conquering the land and its residents, civilization defeating barbarism.

But Stone reimagines the idea of the frontier to be a place of cultural coexistence, interaction, and negotiation. In this way, he writes, “American Jews are, and always have been, frontierspeople” (15). In justifying his choice of central motif, Stone relies on the recent work of Sander Gilman, who has proposed the idea of the frontier as a better image for understanding contemporary Jewish identity (specifically post-1948). Rather than clinging to traditional ideas like Diaspora or exile, using frontier metaphors allows us to imagine Jewish identity in more complex ways than one that identifies Israel as the center and the Diaspora as the periphery. Gilman writes: “Let us imagine a new Jewish history written as the history of Jews at the frontier, a history with no center, a history marked by dynamics of change, confrontation, and accommodation, a history that focuses on the present and in which all participants are given voice. The frontier is not the periphery… it is the conceptual and physical space where groups in motion meet, confront, alter, destroy, and build.” (Gilman, Jewish Frontiers, 15). The idea of the frontier leaves behind the center-periphery in respect to Israel and the Diaspora, but in the American context, it also unseats versions of American Jewish history in which New York serves as the paradigmatic locale of the Jewish experience.

Stone, therefore, sees this model of the frontier as a fruitful one for understanding the experiences and identities of Texas Jews throughout their history. By building on this conceptual framework, Stone’s work aligns with the methodological commitments of what we often call “borderlands” histories. (Although he never explains his preference for “frontier” over “borderlands,” it is clear that for Stone the two share much of their substance and method.) The Chosen Folks traces how the space of conceptual divide, contact, and difference played “a pivotal role in shaping Jewish identity and self-definition in Texas” (2).

At the outset, Stone claims that as frontierspeople, these Jewish Texans made poor Jews, and as Jews, they made poor frontierspeople. Stone shows that strictly observant traditional Jews—what he means here by “good Jews”—never constituted a large portion of Jewish Texans. Without large Jewish communities, religious observance like keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath could be quite difficult. Nevertheless, Stone’s research suggests, the Jews who did make their homes in Texas became different kinds of “good Jews”: Jews who negotiated to adapt and defend Jewish identity and what they saw as Jewish values. His chronologically organized history stretches from the Crypto-Jews and their descendants in the sixteenth century to present. Along the way, Stone provides insightful interpretations of major historical issues as well as the minutia of everyday life. He analyzes the early nineteenth century and its settler-“Indian” encounters in the “wild” region, interfaith friendships, reactions to early Zionism, responses to the Ku Klux Klan, Jewish participation in Texas politics, disagreements about religious practice within the Beth Israel synagogue, reactions to World War II and the Holocaust, and interaction with the Civil Rights movement.

While a single work could never cover all the details of Jewish Texas history, Stone’s wide-ranging attention to “frontiers” in the metaphorical sense allows him to present compelling accounts of both important episodes and larger social trends for Jewish Texans. For instance, his careful attention to the dynamics of the racial and religious components of Jewish identity demonstrates how Jews (as not Black, not Mexican, and not Indian) found themselves firmly in the category of Anglo, and yet nevertheless would experience the acrid rhetoric of the Klan. In this sense, The Chosen Folks sets itself apart from most other histories such as Hollace Ava Weiner’s Lone Stars of David and Jewish Stars in Texas that concentrate on telling the tales of individual personalities and communities.

If we take seriously the idea of the frontier as a metaphor for all Jewish identity—as Stone suggests—then The Chosen Folks may serve as a model for helping us to rethink the metaphorical topography of American Jewish history in two ways. It can help decenter an often New York-centric story, and it can offer a narrative based on borders and encounters rather than center and periphery.

Editor’s note: Have you read this book?  What do you think about it?  Join the conversation and leave your thoughts in the comments!  If you have a suggestion for a future book of the month, or if you would like to review a book for the book of the month series, please contact us. Next month, James Bennett reviews Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (University of North Carolina Press, 2012). 

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