Jewish Communities on the Ohio River
by: Amy Hill Shevitz
Published by: The University Press of Kentucky
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Reviewed by Muhammed Hassanali
Jewish Communities on the Ohio River chronicles the establishment, rise and decline of the Jewish community on the banks of the Ohio River. In the introduction, Shevitz says that her research focuses on twenty-four communities. The two most different seem to be the communities in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Shevitz takes readers through the duel challenges of “frontier” life and being a minority community (sometimes unwelcomed) in small-town America during pre-modern times. Along the way, readers witness the pressures of assimilation, the reinterpretation of self and the evolution of Judaism in American life, and the not always peaceful co-existence of different religious beliefs along the Ohio River. Readers also learn of the economic opportunities that presented themselves as a result of the changing economic and political climate (such as the advent of the railroad and the changing colonial influences in the region).
In addition to the external factors, readers learn about the opportunities that the Jewish communities created for themselves (through their structure, closeness through communications, self-reliance, and redefined sense of identity). Stories of the families who lived through these times humanizes the entire experience, and help readers appreciate the various forces that sometimes draw the community apart and sometimes create solidarity with the community.
Shevitz describes the Jewish experience of being part of a community within a community, being different from mainstream Americans, and trying to find one’s voice within the Jewish community and within the larger community. She narrates the community’s self-reliance, but self-reliance has both positive and negative effects. While it makes towns more independent, it also isolates different sub-populations. The latter would create a sense of “other” for the Jews, and may breed anti-Semitic sentiments among non-Jews.
The experiences related here can be applied to other minority communities in the United States. The treatment of Japanese-Americans after World War II is one such example. In recent times, our attitudes towards American Muslims in general, and Arab-Americans in particular come to mind.
While Shevitz has penned a historical account, it is hoped that we learn from the lessons that history holds for us, and that Shevitz and other have portrayed for us.
Armchair Interviews agrees.
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