Beyond the Synagogue
Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice
North American Religions
Published by: NYU Press
272 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm, 20 b/w illustrations
- ISBN: 9781479820511
- Published: November 2022
Finalist for the 2021 National Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studies
Honorable Mention, 2021 Saul Viener Book Prize, given by the American Jewish Historical Society
Reveals nostalgia as a new way of maintaining Jewish continuity
In 2007, the Museum at Eldridge Street opened at the site of a restored nineteenth-century synagogue originally built by some of the first Eastern European Jewish immigrants in New York City. Visitors to the museum are invited to stand along indentations on the floor where footprints of congregants past have worn down the soft pinewood. Here, many feel a palpable connection to the history surrounding them.
Beyond the Synagogue argues that nostalgic activities such as visiting the Museum at Eldridge Street or eating traditional Jewish foods should be understood as American Jewish religious practices. In making the case that these practices are not just cultural, but are actually religious, Rachel B. Gross asserts that many prominent sociologists and historians have mistakenly concluded that American Judaism is in decline, and she contends that they are looking in the wrong places for Jewish religious activity. If they looked outside of traditional institutions and practices, such as attendance at synagogue or membership in Jewish Community Centers, they would see that the embrace of nostalgia provides evidence of an alternative, under-appreciated way of being Jewish and of maintaining Jewish continuity.
Tracing American Jews’ involvement in a broad array of ostensibly nonreligious activities, including conducting Jewish genealogical research, visiting Jewish historic sites, purchasing books and toys that teach Jewish nostalgia to children, and seeking out traditional Jewish foods, Gross argues that these practices illuminate how many American Jews are finding and making meaning within American Judaism today.
Gross seeks to expand how we understand the practice of American Judaism to include Jewish nostalgia, and argues that any notions of American Jewish religiosity being in ‘decline’ are false; it’s rather how we understand American Judaism that needs to be expanded.` ~Alma Magazine
Gross demonstrates how nostalgia does much of the same work as religion and can therefore be properly understood as religious itself ... Gross compellingly points to a Jewish life that seems to have been flourishing already for members of at least four generations of American Jews. She gives her readers tools to ask a vital question: where to look to discover robust Jewish life as it is occurring all around us. ~Moment Magazine
Gross’ assessment of the way institutional Judaism dismisses activities that aren’t officially Jewish is well-argued and comprehensive ... and her book challenges prevailing orthodoxies of American Jewish life with respect and purpose. ~Jewish Exponent
A stunning and timely volume on heritage production and material nostalgia that is sure to be an instant classic on American Jewishness. This is groundbreaking scholarship at multiple levels of analysis: for its compelling reconfigurations of American Jewish religious practice—and for its elegant expansion of American religion’s affective parameters. A must read! ~Sally M. Promey, editor of Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice
Brilliant and innovative, Beyond the Synagogue is a game changer. Each chapter draws us in, deepening our understanding of how objects and places participate in nostalgia. Gross’s book is destined to change the way we think about how and where Jews ‘do’ religion. ~Laura Arnold Leibman, author of The Art of the Jewish Family
This studious and careful book is brave and beautiful in equal measure. I defy anyone who reads it to be left unmoved by the power of what Gross records. Beyond the Synagogue proves definitively that studying religion requires thinking about what people feel in the present as they think again about pasts they can't stop retelling. ~Kathryn Lofton, author of Consuming Religion
In this vivid and convincing work, Rachel Gross creatively expands what counts as religious practice. Museum spaces, deli menus, genealogical enterprises, and children’s toys—Gross explores them all as revealing facets of American Jewish memory, the materials of both nostalgia and ongoing religious expression. She powerfully evokes the longing for remembrance, for a palpable reconnection with the past, contained within seemingly ordinary objects and activities. ~Leigh E. Schmidt, Washington University in St. Louis
Beyond the Synagoguebreaks important methodological ground in the study of American Jewish religion, especially by drawing key theoretical insights from the field of American religion. ~American Religion