2017 Symposium

Jews in the Midwest: c. 1850 to c. 1950

November 12 (Sunday), 2017, 9:00am - 6:30pm

At the Oread Hotel, Hancock Ballroom, 1200 Oread Ave., Lawrence KS 66044

9:00am Breakfast and coffee
9:45am Welcome
10:00am Tobias Brinkmann, "Western Jews"
11:00am Hasia Diner "Immigrant Jewish Peddlers"
12:00-1:30pm Lunch break
2:00pm Ava Kahn, "Linked by Letters"
3:00pm Lee Shai Weissbach, "Synagogues in the Midwest"
4:00pm Break
4:30pm Keynote Speaker: David Katzman, "Midwestern Small-Town Jewish Life"
5:30pm Reception
This event is free and open to the public
"Jews in the Midwest," a one-day symposium open to the public, celebrates both the 19th and early 20th century Jewish settlers in the Heartland of America and the encyclopedia project of the same name under the direction of David Katzman, emeritus professor of American History at The University of Kansas.
Dining options at the Oread can be found on The Oread's website. A Kosher breakfast and lunch option are available by request. Please request your certified Kosher meal before Nov. 1. For more information please contact JewishStudies@ku.edu or (785) 864-4664.
Bus service is available between the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and The Oread Hotel, free of charge. Reservations are given on a first-come, first-served basis. Contact jewishstudies@ku.edu or (785) 864-4664 for more information. Bus departs at 8am from the parking lot in front of the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy on the KC JCC campus, and arrives at The Oread Hotel at 9am. The bus then departs from The Oread Hotel at 6:30pm and arrives to the KC JCC at 7:30pm.

We thank our KU sponsors: Office of the Chancellor; Office of the Provost; College of Liberal Arts & Sciences; Office of Diversity and Equity; The Hall Center for the Humanities; University Honors Program; School of Languages, Literatures & Cultures; Center for Global and International Studies; and the Departments of Religious Studies, English, Anthropology, Sociology, History, American Studies, Political Science, African and African-American Studies, and Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies.
This Program is funded in part by The Community Legacy Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Kansas City.

Presenters and Abstracts


Western Jews:

Becoming American and Embracing Modernity


Tobias Brinkmann

Penn State University, University Park, PA

Abstract of Paper
In my paper I want to discuss the question whether Jewish migrants who settled in the American West during the middle decades of the 19th century embraced a “western” mentality that made them particularly susceptible to redefine themselves as modern Jews and as Americans. In western towns and cities Jews often belonged to the early settlers and were well respected. Close involvement and mutual respect between Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors, friends and business partners, political engagement, and strong local pride corresponded with growing support for the Jewish Reform movement (and widespread religious indifference). To better understand the western mentality several factors have to be assessed: the origin of migrants and migration routes to and within America, class backgrounds, the impact of the Civil War, the impact of the small migration of traditional Jews from the Russian Empire, differences between Jewish “communities” in rapidly growing cities like Chicago and small towns able to support only a single Jewish congregation.
Tobias Brinkmann (MA, Indiana University, 1992; Dr. phil., Technische Universität Berlin, 2000) is the Malvin and Lea Bank Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and History at Penn State University, University Park, PA. Between 2004 and 2008 he taught at the Department of History and the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations at the University of Southampton, UK. Brinkmann is a member of the executive board of the Academic Council of the American Jewish Historical Society and of the Board of the Leo Baeck Institute, London. He was the John F. Kennedy Memorial Fellow at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, Harvard University in 2007/08. He is currently completing a study about Jewish migration from Eastern Europe between 1860 and 1950. Recent book publications include Sundays at Sinai: A Jewish Congregation in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); Migration und Transnationalität: Perspektiven deutsch-jüdischer Geschichte (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2012), (Editor), Points of Passage: Jewish Transmigrants from Eastern Europe in Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain 1880-1914 (New York: Berghahn, 2013).

Immigrant Jewish Peddlers and the

Founding of Midwestern Jewish Communities


Hasia Diner

New York University, New York, NY

Abstract of Paper
Immigrant Jewish Peddlers and the Founding of Midwestern Jewish Communities: The American midwest provided wide open roads for Jewish peddlers, immigrant men from central and eastern Europe who came to America looking for places to sell goods and then to set up their new homes. In powerful ways the midwestern region of the United States, from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains differed little from the rest of the United States, and indeed the entirety of the Jews' new world, as they set out as itinerant merchants, selling house to house, and farm to farm. Who were these Jewish peddlers? To whom did they sell and what? How did the nature of their occupation shape their subsequent Midwestern Jewish lives? 

Hasia Diner is the Paul S.and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History at New York University, with a joint appointment in the departments of history and the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. She is also the Director of the Goren Center for American Jewish History. Previously she was a professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park. Professor Diner held a Fulbright Professorship at the University of Haifa in Israel, 1990-1991. She has been a Lilly Fellow at the Mary I. Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, in 1998 won election to membership in American Academy of Jewish Research and in 2004 to the Society of American Historians. She has also been a fellow at the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Research at Princeton University. In 2010 she won a Guggenheim Fellowship.

She received her Ph.d. in History at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Her bachelor's degree was awarded in 1968 from the University of Wisconsin and her master's at the University of Chicago in 1970. A specialist in immigration and ethnic history, American Jewish history and the history of American women, she is the author of numerous published books, including most recently We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence After the Holocaust, 1945-1962, published by New York University Press in the spring of 2009, and Yale University Press published, Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migration and the Peddlers Who Led the way. She is the editor of the forthcoming, Oxford Handbook of the Jewish Diaspora.

1918 Linked by Letters:

Men, Jewish Family, and Deception


Ava Kahn

Independent Scholar, Berkeley, CA

Abstract of Paper
"It's all over now and thank God for that. Now is time enough to tell you the truth. I’ve told you all falsehoods for such a long time that I feel that I must confess to the truth, now that I am alive, and we are victorious.” So wrote Lt. Jacob Kahn a Jewish doctor serving with the American Expeditionary Forces in France to his sister in Chicago on November 12, 1918, ninety-nine years ago today. Beyond censor’s official mark, men edited their narratives to convey messages of safety and wellbeing, not always the reality. This discussion will address reality and deception in the context of a WWI American Jewish family.
Ava F. Kahn holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her publications include: Jewish Voices of the California Gold Rush: A Documentary History, 1849–1880 (2002), Jewish Life in the American West: Immigration, Settlement and Community (2002, 2004); Jews of the Pacific Coast: Reinventing Community on America’s Edge (2010) co-authored with Ellen Eisenberg and Bill Toll; California Jews (2003, paperback 2011) co-edited with Marc Dollinger; and Transnational Traditions: New Prospectives on American Jewish History (2014) co-edited with Adam Mendelsohn. Kahn served as the Research Associate at the Western Jewish History Center of the Magnes Museum and as a visiting scholar at the California Studies Center, University of California, Berkeley.

The Significance of Midwestern

Small-Town Jewish Life


David Katzman

The University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS

Abstract of Paper

Much of the study of American Jewish life has focused on place and region—Northeast cities, the South, more recently the Pacific Coast, and even recognition of urban areas as a distinct Jewish region. Despite these regional approaches and the recent revival of Midwestern studies, Jews in the Midwest continue to be overlooked as an area of study.

The American heartland and its Jews are diverse. In a thousand small towns, Jews as merchants and professionals, even as farmers, left their mark on the Midwest and have been changed by their experience. They have also changed urban life, as generations of small-town Midwestern Jews have moved to major cities, reshaping Jewish life there as did immigrants from abroad.

Among scholars, the Midwest, in Jon Lauck’s words, has been a “Lost Region.”  This paper contributes to the recovery of Mid-American culture and history by suggesting the importance of Jews in the small-town Midwest and the significance of the Midwest in American Jewish history and culture.


David M. Katzman directs the Kansas Jewish History Project, and is Professor Emeritus of American Studies, the University of Kansas. A specialist in race, ethnicity, and religion, his current research focuses on small-town Midwestern Jewish life. The Kansas project, affiliated with Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, and funded by the Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Charitable Trust, will produce a dictionary-encyclopedia of the 19th and 20th century Kansas Jewish experience. David recently authored “The Children of Abraham and Hannah: Grocer, Doctor, Entrepreneur: The Summerfields of Lawrence, Kansas,” in Kansas History (2014).

David has published 6 books, and has held Guggenheim, NEH, Ford and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships, as well as a Fulbright. He has been a visiting professor in Ireland, England, Japan (twice), Hong Kong, and lectured in Italy and Israel. He is an elected fellow of the Society of American Historians.


Synagogues in the Midwest and Beyond:

What These Buildings Tell Us


Lee Shai Weissbach

University of Louisville, Louisville, KY

Abstract of Paper
Synagogues have always been the most visible symbols of Jewish life in the United States, and the buildings that various Jewish communities have erected and occupied in the Midwest and in other parts of the country can reveal a great deal about the nature of Jewish life in America.  Synagogue buildings can provide information not only about the history and the behavior of American Jews, but also about their beliefs and their collective mentality.  These buildings can, for example, provide evidence of demographic changes, of philosophical developments, and of the nature of Jewish-gentile relations.  This illustrated lecture will examine synagogue buildings in the Midwest and beyond over the last two centuries and consider how these structures can be “read” as sources of information about the American Jewish experience.

Lee Shai Weissbach is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Louisville, where he also served as Chair of his department and as Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences.  During his career at U of L, he was recognized with both the College’s Distinguished Career of Service Award and its Career Award for Outstanding Scholarship.  Professor Weissbach received his undergraduate training at the University of Cincinnati and earned his doctorate at Harvard University in 1975.  Among other honors, in 1996 he held a prestigious Senior Scholar Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and in 2006 he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to spend a year at the University of Haifa in Israel.  Professor Weissbach and his wife now live in Philadelphia, where they are enjoying the city’s culture, and their grandchildren.

A specialist in social history, Professor Weissbach has written and lectured on a wide variety of topics, with special emphasis on the Jewish experience in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  His publications include The Synagogues of Kentucky: Architecture and History; Jewish Life in Small-Town America: A History; and A Jewish Life on Three Continents, an edited and annotated version of his grandfather’s memoir which Professor Weissbach translated from the original Hebrew and which was published recently by the Stanford University Press.

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