MIDDLETOWN JEWS by Dan Rottenberg


The Tenuous Survival of an American Jewish Community
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 The pioneering 1929 and 1937 sociological studies of ``Middletown''--the small city of Muncie, Indiana--said almost nothing about the community's 200 Jews. This work, while not altogether satisfying, goes a significant way toward describing Jewish life there during the first three-quarters of this century. Reading these interviews with Muncie Jews whose roots in the community go back to the 1920s, one is struck by how professionally homogeneous they were : Almost all the heads of households were merchants. Almost as notable is their lack of religious and cultural resources: There was and is one Reform temple (serviced by a visiting student rabbi) and a chapter of the fraternal organization B'nai B'rith. This has resulted in much intermarriage- -apparently, a critical mass of Jews is needed for a community to endure--and some syncretistic religious practices by those who have remained Jewish; one woman recalls how her family lit Sabbath candles each Friday night but also had a Christmas tree. The word ``tenuous'' in the book's subtitle is well chosen. Revealingly, not a single interviewee recalls the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 or mentions visiting there. Finally, the interviews reveal the extent of anti-Semitism in Muncie. In his useful introduction, Hoover (History/Ball State Univ.) estimates that fully ten percent of the town's citizens were members of the Ku Klux Klan during the '20s, and that restrictive covenants in housing persisted until the mid-'50s. This book could have benefited had Rottenberg, a Philadelphia-based journalist, and Hoover noted the broader political, socioeconomic, and cultural context in Muncie and provided some hard data on such questions as: What exactly was the intermarriage rate at various periods, or, how did the Jews' educational and income levels compare with those of their fellow Muncie-ites? Yet if this history is somewhat ``soft,'' it still is a welcome addition to the small but growing number of monographs covering local aspects of American Jewish history.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-253-33243-5
Page count: 184pp
Publisher: Indiana Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1997


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