Why Jewish Holiday Announcements in the American Press (pre-1865)?

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Newspapers are somewhat of a fascination for me. Two summers ago, I worked on Ryan Cordell’s Viral Text project. I learned about and visualized how articles from newspapers spread and were reprinted in the United States during the 19th century. For this project, Jewish Notices and Newspapers,  I took some of what I learned working at Viral Text’s two summer’s ago and applied my knowledge to another fascination of mine: religion and Jewish religious praxis in American life during the pre-Civil War era.

When I researched for my senior thesis  at Haverford College this past year, I found a treasure trove of different newspaper articles from Louisiana and Mississippi (pre-Civil War) announcing a variety of different Jewish holidays. Who knew?! Often times, the South and other parts of the U.S. are thought of as remote havens of Judaism (whatever that means) and especially during the pre-Civil War period these areas are not considered centers of Jewish religious praxis. While the evidence below does not offer conclusive evidence that these areas were centers of Jewish religious praxis, they definitely had Jewish life, and prominent enough Jewish life at that to be featured among the most prominent news of the day.

So, why were articles about Jewish life featured in newspapers, despite the fact that Jews made up a tiny portion of the American populace? I venture to guess for three main reasons:

  • Jews owned businesses. In my thesis I wrote:

“While it is impossible that Jews dominated every town’s businesses or every industry, statistics of American Jewish businesses from the mid-19th century do illustrate the prevalence of Jews in commerce. Rowena Olegario, in her article ‘”That Mysterious People”: Jewish Merchants, Transparency, and Community in Mid-Nineteenth Century America,’ supplies a table of statistics which illustrates the high proportion of Jewish-owned clothing businesses during the mid-19th century. In Springfield, Illinois, for example, between 1841-1869, ‘Jews owned more than half of clothing establishments.’ In 1860 Cincinnati, ‘Jews owned 65 out of 70 clothing businesses.’ And in Indianapolis during the 1860’s, ‘Jews owned 70 percent of all clothing stores'”(Olegario, 166)(Eckstein, 9).

When Jews, as a large percentage of business owners in certain industries, would close up shop on seemingly random days (for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, or Pesach), non-Jews would take notice because it would affect their buying patterns and probably the city’s economy for the day(s) that their businesses were closed. Take this wonderful article I found in the New Orleans Times entitled “Red River Correspondence.” In my thesis I analyzed this article and wrote:

“’This is the first day of the Jewish New Year,’ the correspondence writes, ‘and as a consequence all the stores with very few exceptions are closed, and country people wander about the town from place to place, vainly endeavoring to find some place to do a little trading; for you must know that all the principal dry goods stores in Alexandria are kept by Jews’ (Red River Correspondence). The ‘Red River Correspondence’ clearly demonstrates the concentration of Jews in the dry goods business in Alexandria, due to the detail that ‘all the principal dry goods stores in Alexandria are kept by Jews.’ In addition, because it is ‘the first day of the Jewish New Year’ and ‘all the stores with very few exceptions are closed,’ according to the correspondent, it then follows that the non-Jewish ‘country people wander about the town from place to place, vainly endeavoring to find some place to do a little trading.’ Thus “country people” depend on the Jewish business community in their town” (Eckstein, 8-9).

If you look at many of the articles I found for this project, you see a similar thought process. Because Jews are primary traders or affect business in such an extreme manner, everyone wants to know, “Where are the Jews?”. Hence, they write these notices regarding Jewish holidays in order to raise awareness and answer questions.

  • Judeo-Christian Religion. I am not an expert on this, but I don’t particularly like this term because I think that it is a misnomer used to make Judaism and Christianity appear philosophically similar when they often times are not. However, if you look back at the newspapers, there is a certain sense that Judaism is Christianity’s parent religion and that Judaism has an exoticism and ancient character that give it authority. Sometimes, it seems that the authors write their stories because they are fascinated. It is a little bit like a freak show at a circus, with Judaism taking center stage (I don’t mean disrespect. That is the best way I can describe what I am attempting to convey).