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The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas, by Bryan Edward Stone. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010. 294 pp. $50.00.
Bryan Edward Stone begins The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas with an implausible story: One market day in 1884 in frontier Corsicana, a peg-legged tightrope walker, carrying a cast-iron stove on his back, attempted to cross a rope stretched between two rooftops. He fell, the stove crushing him. As he lay near death, a Methodist preacher was summoned, but he requested a rabbi. None available, a Jewish merchant prayed with him in “flawless Hebrew” (p. xi) until death took him. “Implausible” is a word that recurs in Stone’s account of Texas’ frontier Jews. Even today the state’s most notable Jew is the improbable jokester-novelist-songwriter-politician Kinky Friedman, a self-proclaimed Texas Jewboy. Stone’s task is to dispel not just the stereotypes outsiders hold of Texas and its Jews, but indeed the ways Texas Jews see and represent themselves. Stone confronts not just the Texas Jewish experience itself but the folklore and historiography that have mythologized it. Texas Jews, he argues, are really not so different.
The Chosen Folks complements a list of recently published books on Texas Jewish history, most notably Hollace Ava Weiner’s Jewish Stars in Texas: Rabbis and their Works (1999) and her anthology, with Kenneth Roseman, Lone Stars of David: the Jews of Texas (2007).
For a study that began as a dissertation The Chosen Folks is lively and engaging. The stories are told well, and the analysis is informed and intelligent, if at times contentious. Stone’s interest is not “to narrate the Texas-Jewish story comprehensively,” but to trace the “evolution of an idea”: “a frontier, in its widest sense, involves an interaction between different groups of people that requires them to define themselves in relation to one another” (pp. 2–3). Stone aligns with the new historians who interpret the frontier not geographically as the westward progress of civilization over savagery, but culturally as the encounter with “the other.” Regional identities are shaped by specific ethnicities, and the Texas frontier traces cultural exchanges of Jews with Anglos, Hispanics, and Native Americans.
Frontier is both an “external reality” and a “conceptual divide” (p. 3), site specific and metaphor. As metaphor, frontier describes the global Jewish condition of a mobile people constantly negotiating boundaries of “us” and “them.” All Jews, he argues, are frontier Jews. This tension between particular and universal frontiers informs Stone’s discourse and invites argument. The “material frontier” experience of most Texas Jews was “short lived” and, like Jews nearly everywhere, they gravitated toward cities where they found communities.
Aspiring to join the state’s hegemonic “Anglos,” Texas Jews felt themselves living on the Jewish periphery. Rejecting “essentialism” and center/diaspora models of Jewry—as if only the New York or Jerusalem Jew could be “authentic”—Stone cites those scholars who see the Jewish experience as fluid, diverse, and negotiated. Although local and regional Jewish historians often argue for the uniqueness of their communities, Stone rightly notes how isolated frontier Jews remained connected through family, business, and religion to larger and distant Jewish communities.
Stone’s first chapters focus on the material frontier, and here again he confronts history and historiography, noting how Jewish filiopietism has often exaggerated the Jewish contribution. The Inquisition persecuted as Judaizers the family of Luis de Carvajal, a New Christian descendant who received a 1579 land charter, but records are unreliable and politically tainted. Although no continuous Jewish community grew from them, the “Carvajal colony” became an “origin myth” (p. 26). Similarly, Jewish origins are claimed for the Isaacks, a founding “Old 300” family of Stephen F. Austin’s 1821 colony, but the name is recognizably Scottish.
The ethnic groups whose frontiers Stone mostly explores are not Hispanics or Native Americans but Anglos and African Americans. Several chapters focus on Jew vs. Jew. The Texas story, however vivid, thus follows the familiar American-Jewish narrative. German mercantile immigrants arrived in the antebellum years, working from ports into an urbanizing interior. Communal life organized tentatively. Adolphus Sterne, who settled in the 1820s, converted to his wife’s Roman Catholicism yet noted Jewish holidays in his diary and maintained Jewish associations. By the 1850s family chains drew more immigrants. Houston and Galveston followed a typical pattern of community development from cemetery or benevolence societies to congregations. Lay leaders yielded to rabbis. The Civil War only interrupted this progress. Stone’s generalizations about southern Reform Judaism slight ethnic complexities and congregational conflicts among German Jews, especially as religiously Orthodox Prussians arrived. By the 1850s the newspapers of both Isaac Leeser in Philadelphia and Isaac Mayer Wise in Cincinnati reported communal stirrings of “True” Texas Jews. Such affirmations contrasted with Anglo assimilation. As southerners, Jews held slaves and proved loyal Confederates. As a case of frontier accommodation, Stone cites Rabbi Berenhard Wohlberg, who presided at Waco’s 1904 Possum and Taters dinner.
Texas, too, was the site of Jewish colonization schemes, most notably Jacob Schiff’s Galveston Plan which directed 10,000 East Europeans away from northern ghettos to the Texas port, where Rabbi Henry Cohen welcomed them. Those who saw Zion in Texas, Stone notes, conflicted with the immigrants who organized for Palestine. Jews like Galveston mayor Isaac Kempner and Houston Judge Henry Dannenbaum rose to civic leadership, but with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, Texas Jews became a “persecuted minority” (p. 136). In the 1924 gubernatorial election Jewish voters chose between a Klan candidate and an antisemitic populist.
East European immigration in the 1880s brought Orthodoxy and Yiddishkeit, and communities bifurcated between shul and Temple. Texas Jews worked to rescue Jews from Nazi Europe. The state was a stronghold of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, but Jews supported Israel philanthropically. An “Israel Revolt” splintered Houston’s Beth Israel. During the civil rights era Jewish merchants resisted integration before being among the first to desegregate. Sunbelt transformations brought population growth, suburbanization, and an end to feelings of provincialism, of living on a periphery. Writers of Texas Jewish fiction, however, still measure the Jewish experience against the frontier.
Texas Jewry, Stone concludes, “typifies the fundamental nature of Jewish life wherever it occurs” (p. 236). This interior, universal “frontier remains an evocative and eminently useful idea” (237), Stone argues, but it is the specific “frontiers” of the subtitle, the local histories, that will most engage the reader.
Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina