Back to top

The Chosen Folks

The Chosen Folks
Jews on the Frontiers of Texas

A colorful, groundbreaking study of Jewish populations in Texas from late-sixteenth-century Spanish colonialism through the achievements of twentieth-century innovators.

Series: Jewish History, Life, and Culture Endowment

March 2010
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
Add to cart
312 pages | 6 x 9 | 38 b&w photos |

Texas has one of the largest Jewish populations in the South and West, comprising an often-overlooked vestige of the Diaspora. The Chosen Folks brings this rich aspect of the past to light, going beyond single biographies and photographic histories to explore the full evolution of the Jewish experience in Texas.

Drawing on previously unpublished archival materials and synthesizing earlier research, Bryan Edward Stone begins with the crypto-Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition in the late sixteenth century and then discusses the unique Texas-Jewish communities that flourished far from the acknowledged centers of Jewish history and culture. The effects of this peripheral identity are explored in depth, from the days when geographic distance created physical divides to the redefinitions of "frontier" that marked the twentieth century. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the creation of Israel in the wake of the Holocaust, and the civil rights movement are covered as well, raising provocative questions about the attributes that enabled Texas Jews to forge a distinctive identity on the national and world stage. Brimming with memorable narratives, The Chosen Folks brings to life a cast of vibrant pioneers.


Southern Jewish Historical Society Book Prize Winner for 2011

  • Prologue: Rope Walker, A True Story
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Los Judíos en la Frontera
  • Chapter 2. A "Wild Indian Region": At Home on the Frontier
  • Chapter 3. The Possum and the Zionist
  • Chapter 4. Texas News for Texas Jews
  • Chapter 5. Texas Jews and the Ku Klux Klan
  • Chapter 6. Traditional Judaism and the Beth Israel Revolt
  • Chapter 7. Texas Jews Respond to the World Crises of the 1940s
  • Chapter 8. "Are You Going to Serve Us?": Texas Jews and the Black Civil Rights Movement
  • Chapter 9. Interior Frontiers
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Bryan Edward Stone is an Associate Professor of History at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, and has been a Visiting Professor at the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He has published a variety of articles on Texas Jewry.


On a warm, still afternoon in 1884, the citizens of Corsicana, Texas, gathered in the center of town for Trades Day. Merchants from Navarro and nearby counties set up displays of their goods along Beaton Street, and a crowd came out to take advantage of the bargains and to enjoy the food—baked, fried, and barbecued—offered from stalls and shop windows. Normally a quiet stop along the Houston and Texas Central Railroad, Corsicana came alive for a brief time to celebrate its commercial success and, just as importantly, to break the monotony of life in an East Texas town of only a few thousand people.

Beaton Street was bustling with visitors—itinerant peddlers, shopkeepers from nearby towns, wholesalers in to drum up business with local stores, farmers and their families come to see the newest implements and to stock up on supplies. In that crowd the stranger could have blended in easily. Even the wooden peg leg where his right calf and foot had once been would not have drawn attention among people so accustomed to the sight of Confederate war veterans. His intention, however, was not to go unnoticed.

Later tellers of the story disagree on whether he was working for someone wishing to make a lasting advertising impression or he had dreamed up the stunt on his own. Some have suggested that he was a former circus performer plying the only trade he knew for scattered nickels and dimes from the crowd. Few disagree, though, on the particulars of what he did.

As the people moved among the stalls, a heavy rope, one end securely tied to a rooftop, flew overhead to another rooftop across the intersection with Collin Street. They watched as the stranger came down from the first building, hobbled across the street, vanished into the second building, and reappeared on the roof to pull the line taut and tie it off. As they looked curiously up at him, he stepped back from the edge of the roof, out of their view. After a few dramatic moments, he reappeared, brandishing a pole several feet long. A cast-iron cookstove was attached firmly to his back with leather straps. Struggling only a little under the weight of the stove, the stranger stepped to the end of the roof, the balancing pole stretched out away from him on either side. He had tied his trouser legs over his knees, revealing the wooden leg, which he slid carefully out onto the line. People in the crowd saw that the bottom of the peg was notched to fit snugly over the rope.

Pushing the peg leg out before him, he followed with his good foot, stood a moment to secure his balance on the rope, waggled the pole a bit—for dramatic effect, surely—then slid the peg forward another step. The crowd fell to a tense hush and quickly cleared a swath below him as if rushing from a fire—far enough for safety but still close enough to watch. They stared upward as he worked his way along the rope, his face marked with intense concentration, his back straining forward under the weight of the stove. Even from two stories down, they could hear his strong and deliberate breathing, which settled into a mechanical pattern with the shifting of his weight and the inching of his body—slide the peg, step the foot—over the middle of the street.

He had his first trouble where the rope reached its lowest point and began its slight uphill incline toward home. He tipped a bit to one side, the crowd gasped, but he righted himself easily. With the next step he made another sideslip, dipping the pole opposite to recover his balance. The stove on his back gave him an unnatural inertia and he overcompensated, pulling too hard against the fall. Leaning more heavily now, he flung his shoulders again to the opposite side, the pole flailing uselessly in his hands, the quivering of his legs giving the rope first a barely controlled then a violent oscillation. He rode it there for a moment, then tumbled from the line. As the crowd watched in horror, he landed in a heap under the stove, a cloud of dust rising around him.

Someone confirmed that he was breathing, but barely. They carefully unstrapped the stove from his body and the strongest among them pushed it aside. Someone hoisted him over a shoulder and carried him to a nearby hotel, where they laid him in a bed and called for the town physician. Dr. J. T. Gulick arrived quickly and found the stranger hovering on the edge of consciousness. Gulick asked the stranger his name but got no response. A brief examination showed that death was imminent. Unsure if the stranger could even understand, the doctor gently told him the bad news and asked if he wanted a preacher. The cloudy eyes momentarily cleared, and the stranger said yes, please, he was a Methodist. The doctor sent for Methodist minister Abe Mulkey, who in later years became a famous evangelist.

Mulkey arrived and asked the man his name but got no response. He began to pray quietly over the bedside. Before he could get far, however, the stranger awoke, caught the minister's gaze, and whispered that, forgive him, he was not, in fact, a Methodist. He was a Jew, and could he please talk to a rabbi?

Like many Texas towns, Corsicana had a Jewish population, as many as three hundred by some counts, but they had no synagogue and no rabbi. Mulkey sent instead for a prominent merchant, a leader of the Jewish community. When the merchant arrived, he took Mulkey's chair at the bedside. The stranger was now very near death, and the two had only a moment to pray together—long enough for the man's flawless Hebrew to convince the merchant that he was undoubtedly Jewish—before the stranger died, his name still unknown.

Though without a synagogue, the Jews of Corsicana had organized themselves into an informal congregation, and they had set aside a piece of ground nine years earlier for a Jewish cemetery with a low fence around it to separate it from the non-Jewish graves nearby. They resolved that this was the only fitting place to lay the stranger to rest. They took up a collection, purchased a plain headstone, and engraved it with the simple epitaph "Rope Walker." It is there to this day in the Hebrew Cemetery in Corsicana, a reminder that in life, and perhaps especially in Texas, there is no greater virtue than balance.

Kinky Friedman, the country singer, crime novelist, and former Texas gubernatorial candidate, once described himself as "the bastard child of twin cultures." "Both cowboys and Jewboys," he explained, "wear their hats in the house." This is a typical Friedman throwaway line: clever, a bit crass, played strictly for laughs. Like many of the jokes that pepper his songs and novels, though, it hints at something deeper. By calling himself a "bastard child," Friedman implies that his two heritages, Texan and Jewish, are incompatible in some way, that their marriage cannot produce a legitimate child. At the same time, he calls them "twin" cultures, indicating that, however incompatible they appear, they still have much in common. The joke unites the two groups, each with its distinctive headgear, while reminding his listener that Stetsons and yarmulkes are really not the same at all.

The paradox in Friedman's joke lies at the heart of Jewish life in Texas: Jews are both part of Texas history and not part of it, at home in the state but distinct from most of its people. They have managed to walk a fine line, accommodating the demands of secular life in Texas without sacrificing their separate religious and ethnic heritage. And they have found ways to contribute enormously to the state's economic, political, educational, and artistic institutions while remaining loyal to a faith whose center of spiritual and institutional energy has always been somewhere else.

This book examines the juncture of these two cultural traditions, Texan and Jewish. Its method is primarily historical, and it explores in detail many key developments in the growth of the Jewish community in Texas, numbering today some 130,000 people. Rather than make an attempt, however, to narrate the Texas-Jewish story comprehensively, I am interested in the evolution of an idea, that of the frontier, and its pivotal role in shaping Jewish identity and self-definition in Texas. Although I have not included every significant fact or every interesting person, or provided information about every one of the innumerable Texas cities and towns in which Jewish life occurred, I have selected for emphasis those events that best reveal the frontier idea in action. The frontier is so crucial a metaphorical force in Texas-Jewish history, however, as to be inseparable from it, and the events in which it most reveals itself are generally the same ones that would receive attention whatever means of selection an historian were to use. The following pages offer the first continuous narrative of Texas-Jewish life and the first to tell the story of the Jews in Texas within a coherent interpretive framework. Gaps and absences in that story should prove only that much has yet to be learned and explained.

The Idea of Frontier

Texas is at the intersection of two distinct and sometimes competing narratives that established the symbolic context of Jewish life in the state: the American frontier and the Jewish Diaspora. Texas is both a quintessential frontier and, as Jewish historian and philanthropist Cyrus Adler wrote in the 1920s, "one of the last corners of the Dispersion," and Texas Jews are part of both the movement of Americans into the West and the scattering of Jews across the globe. As frontierspeople entering a forbidding environment in search of economic opportunity, they often made poor Jews, removing themselves from population centers where the requirements of their faith would have been easier to maintain. As Jews, they often made poor frontierspeople, as they continued to look back to Jewish religious tradition and to Zion for the sources of their identity, rather than permitting the melting pot of the American frontier to absorb them. As frontierspeople, they saw their venture into the West as part of a necessary and admirable project to build a lasting community where none had existed before. But as Diaspora Jews they also knew that they were building a life in exile, far from the sources of Jewish meaning and identity and outside the consciousness of most Jews.

A frontier, in its widest sense, involves an interaction between different groups of people that requires them to define themselves in relation to one other. A frontier need not be a physical or geographical place but rather a set of ideas that gives meaning to physical reality. It has both literal and figurative significance. In the original French, "frontière" describes a national border, and frontiers are often political or cultural boundaries taking physical form on maps or marked on the ground itself. In American history, similarly, "frontier" is usually used in the context of westward expansion to describe new territory that was discovered, claimed, fought over, settled, and eventually annexed into the nation. It also describes a set of physical conditions created by the lack of civilized order and effective government: the American frontier was the "Wild West."

But these conditions, strictly speaking, are not what make a frontier. The external reality is only an outward expression of a conceptual divide, a perceived difference between the people or conditions that exist on either side of that divide. A frontier is fundamentally a line between "us" and "them" and marks differences of culture, personality, condition, and identity among groups of people. The meaning of frontier, then, lies not in physical space but in group identification. Frontiers often take material form, certainly, but reflect inward struggles over how to define one's own group among outsiders and how to maintain one's distinctive identity in the presence of others. Thus Jews, who have lived in nearly all of the world's places among nearly all of its peoples, are the quintessential frontiersmen.

Nineteenth-century Texas Jews encountered the frontier in its most literal, material sense—a sparsely populated region at the edge of Euro-American settlement that offered few of the inducements of "civilized" life. The American frontier lay between settled and unsettled portions of land, between areas that were under the control of the American government and American social institutions and those that fell under the dominion of non-Americans or of no one at all. For Jews, this frontier also distinguished places with Jewish people and institutions from those without. To cross that line, to enter the frontier, was to move away from established centers of Jewish life into a condition that made the practice of their faith and the preservation of their particular identity much more complicated. In such a place, Jews formed a small and marginal religious community, set apart from the mainstream of American Jewry and from Jewish events around the world. The awareness of being peripheral was a condition of Jewish life in early Texas, and the long-term effects of that original condition have been profound.

To offset their marginality and preserve a connection to their people's history, Jews on the Texas frontier often described their settlement in Texas in prophetic terms, arguing that their sojourn into the American West made them more like their biblical ancestors than were their urban contemporaries. "Like the tent of our Patriarch Abraham in the desert," wrote a Houston rabbi's descendant, "[his] home radiated the warmth and splendor of Torah life." In her history of the El Paso Jewish community, Fanny Sattinger Goodman elaborated the same analogy: "In this Desert Environment, similar to the one in which their forefathers travelled on the way towards the Promised Land, there came to the pioneers of the eighteen hundreds 'A Behest from the Prophet, to prepare the way in the wilderness.'" The desert provided a common trope for Jews venturing into the American West. California Congressman Julius Kahn, to cite one of countless examples beyond Texas, declared in 1919 that "the United States is my Zion and San Francisco is my Jerusalem." Nevertheless, Jews in the western states, especially in the earliest years of their settlement, faced hardships that belied their hopeful evocations of milk and honey. The struggles of the material frontier for Jews in Texas—the difficulty of maintaining Jewish identity where no Jewish community existed—are examined in the first two chapters of this study.

The material frontier was short-lived, however, and by the early twentieth century most Texas Jews lived in the state's largest cities, where Jewish facilities were available, if not plentiful, and the observance of Jewish rituals was as convenient as it was almost anywhere else in the country. If Texas lacked the profound, all-encompassing Jewish life available in New York, it could consistently provide the rudiments of Jewish community, ritual, and practice. Participation in nationwide organizations like B'nai B'rith, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the National Council of Jewish Women drew Texas Jews into closer relationships with co-religionists in other parts of the country and mitigated the isolation that had characterized their community's earliest years. Nevertheless, the frontier idea remained crucial to Jewish identity in Texas. As the material frontier ceased to be a factor in their lives, Texas Jews internalized and transformed it into a changing set of symbolic boundaries that continued to define and distinguish them from both non-Jewish Texans and non-Texan Jews.

In defining their particular place in the world, Texas Jews enacted the observation of sociologist Fredrik Barth that groups living in pluralistic societies, where interactions with other groups occur continuously, must define more concretely the cultural boundaries that distinguish them from others. "The critical focus of investigation from this point of view," he writes, "becomes the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses." Groups define themselves, that is, in contrast to others, across imaginary lines of difference, rather than by inherent qualities. Identity is not built on something essential and unchanging but is defined by borders that slip and shift through negotiation and conflict. Cultural identity is itself, then, a set of frontiers, and pluralistic Texas, where so many cultural groups collide, is a frontier society in more ways than one. The Jews in Texas, a minority deeply concerned with defining and maintaining their distinctive character, were always, and are still today, frontierspeople.

Jews and Other Texans—Texans and Other Jews

As a tiny ethnic and religious minority, rarely more than 0.6 percent of the state's population, Texas Jews continually managed cultural boundaries, drawing and maintaining lines of difference to define their place within and to distinguish themselves from the rest of the diverse Texas population. The first factor in play was racial: central and eastern European Jews felt included in the state's Anglo majority. Indeed, there was no real alternative in a state whose rich ethnic diversity had traditionally been simplified into stark racial categories—Anglo, Black, and Mexican. The term "Anglo," as Texas historian T. R. Fehrenbach once explained, essentially referred to people who fit into neither of the other two groups. "By this definition," he wrote, "ethnic groups as diverse as Irish Catholics, Jews, Lebanese, Norwegian, Chinese, Greek, German, Czech, and Polish Americans in Texas are all Anglos and consider themselves such." In this sweeping usage, "Anglo" designated only vaguely what an individual was but more emphatically what he or she was not. Such labels left no room for subtleties. By identifying as Anglos in this racialized system, Jews could be part of the white majority and share in the state's commercial and political power structures. To be anything else was to face a life of diminished opportunity. As long as it would have them, and usually it would, Jews opted to join the majority.

In fact, Texas Jews were generally delighted to accept the state's Anglo history as their own, and they often displayed pride in identifying themselves with triumphalist, even racist, retellings of the state's past. Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston (a native Londoner and so an "Anglo" in even the strictest sense) was the first researcher to begin documenting the history of Jews in Texas, and he made special efforts to identify Jews among the state's pioneering Anglos. According to Cohen, for example, the Alsatian Henri Castro (Cohen anglicized him to Henry), who organized a colony in South Texas and founded the town of Castroville, had done nothing less than establish "a permanent home for civilized men between San Antonio and the Rio Grande," something "which both Spanish and Mexican power had failed to do." Despite Castro's French tongue and Spanish surname, not to mention his flimsy connection to Judaism, Cohen seized on him as a pioneering Texas Jew and emphasized his "heroic" exploits.

Cohen described at length the various threats to the survival of the Castro colony, notably "the attacks of bandits and degenerate Mexicans," as well as gun-toting Indians he called "savages." For overcoming such obstacles, Castro deserved "to be enrolled among the most prominent pioneers of civilization in modern times." Cohen included Castro in his canon of heroic Anglo Texans while carefully distinguishing him from the supposedly less advanced Spanish, Mexican, and Native American cultures excluded from his narrative. For Cohen, Jews were part of the conquering Anglo majority, not a subordinated minority, and they deserved to take their place among the state's elite. At the same time, however, Cohen's goal clearly was not to erase all difference between Jews and other whites: he published his remarks about Castro in a Jewish historical journal. Indeed, the efforts of Jewish Texans to preserve their separate ethnic and religious identity while still claiming the rewards of Anglo identity shaped much of their twentieth-century experience, as many of the chapters that follow explain.

As Texas Jews negotiated their differences from other Texans, they also defined themselves in contrast to other, non-Texan Jews. Jewish Texans were keenly aware of the geographical and conceptual distances between themselves and the world's Jewish centers. "[I] want to tell you," wrote a nineteenth-century immigrant in El Paso to his family in Germany, "that this place is nearly the end of the world and the last of creation." As the twentieth century progressed, however, Jews from eastern Europe and from New York arrived in Texas, bringing a more traditional religious style and a stronger devotion to Zionism, the movement dedicated to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Their presence changed the ways that Texas Jewry related to larger Jewish communities. Still, many Jewish Texans continued to view other Jews across a frontier of social and cultural difference and to consider themselves a separate, equally legitimate, Jewish community. Thus, to examine Texas Jewry only in the context of the Diaspora, as a story of isolated people far from the centers of their faith and culture, cannot adequately explain what has happened in Texas. Texas Jews must be viewed as people seeking to establish themselves in a new homeland as a group among other Texas cultural groups. They are people of the Diaspora, but, more importantly, they are people of the frontier.

West of Center

Recent scholarship suggests that the Diaspora idea, with its implication that the Jewish universe has a center, is insufficient for explaining Jewish life throughout the world, and that the frontier provides a more useful interpretive framework. Sander L. Gilman and Martin Shain's Jewries at the Frontier explores Jewish communal and spiritual life in "frontier" communities like China, South Africa, Alaska, and, in an essay by Seth Wolitz, Texas. In his introduction, Gilman suggests that Jewish historians dispense with the idea of the Diaspora as "the overarching model for Jewish history":

This model [has] been reinforced by the role that Israel and Zionist historians have had in reshaping the narrative of Jewish history. It was (and remains) the model of "you" and "us." It is the imagined center which defines me[, a Diaspora Jew,] as being on the periphery. "Israel," the lost Garden of Eden, the City on the Hill, is its center; all the rest of Jewish experience is on the periphery.

In a diasporic "center/periphery model," American Jewry is peripheral to the Israeli center. The United States in turn has produced its own Jewish center, New York City, and so other American Jewish communities, including Texas, are peripheries of a periphery. They stand in relation to world Jewry as, perhaps, Ireland stands in relation to Europe—an island off the coast of an island off the coast.

Consequently, a belief has prevailed that American Jews are necessarily New Yorkers. In titling his 1976 classic history of the Lower East Side World of Our Fathers, for example, Irving Howe excluded the experience of thousands of American Jews whose fathers (or mothers, for that matter) were not from Howe's old neighborhood. A few years later, apparently hoping to correct the oversight, he coauthored a second volume looking at American Jews beyond New York but only piled insult on injury by calling it We Lived There Too.

Similarly, in her study of the postwar migration of New York Jews to the Sunbelt, Deborah Dash Moore smoothly omitted the existence of most of the nation's Jewish communities. "Nineteen forty-five marks a turning point for American Jews," she says. "That year they crossed a threshold to embrace the fulfillment promised by America. Behind them lay the immigrant working-class world—their parents' world of passionate politics and a vibrant Yiddish culture, their childhood world indelibly associated with New York City and the other large cities of the Northeast and Midwest." This description only pertains to some American Jews and not, as Moore implies, to all of them. She goes on to say that "[i]n the postwar era Jews discovered Houston and Dallas, Atlanta and Phoenix, and especially Miami and Los Angeles." The suggestion that these communities were unknown until New York Jews "discovered" them, crossing the Hudson like Columbus over the Atlantic, is deceptive. They all had thriving Jewish communities long before World War II. Placed at the center of this model of American Jewry, New York stands as the only American Jewish experience, and all others vanish.

More troubling than this omission is the question of spiritual authenticity underlying such approaches: Jews on the periphery are somehow less Jewish, or are Jewish in some lesser way. "Center," after all, describes not only a geographic location (Israel, New York), but also a spiritual core of authentic Jewish practice and intuitive awareness of one's Jewish identity. In its religious form, this core is Orthodox ritual and belief; conceived linguistically, it is Yiddish and Hebrew; conceived culturally, it is the Yiddishkeit (Jewish culture and language) of eastern Europe; conceived socially, it is political Zionism and a wish for the ultimate ingathering of the Jewish people. If these characteristics mark the center, the only authentic Jewish "Us," then most of the world's Jews—those in the Americas (except, perhaps, in New York), those who are Reform, those who acculturate or intermarry, those who don't know a schlemiel from a schlemazel—are "Them," consigned to the margins and alien to their own cultural and religious heritage.

The question of authenticity is a recurring theme in depictions of Texas Jewry. In 1997, for example, a satirical article appeared in the humor magazine, The Onion. Under the headline "Jewish Texans Commemorate Holocaust . . . Texas-Style!" the writer describes Holocaust Hoedown '97, a month-long program sponsored by the West Texas chapter of B'nai B'rith "commemorating the 20th century's darkest hour." Rabbi Leonard "Too Tall" Sussman of San Antonio opened the proceedings by laying a wreath at B'nai B'rith headquarters and reminding his listeners that "[i]f we do not remember the past, we are doomed to repeat it. . . . Never again, y'hear?" He closed with a "Yee-haw!" and lit the Eternal Flame, over which "a spit will be installed for Wednesday's kosher steer cookout." Additional highlights included "a Main Street parade featuring red, white and blue Texas blossoms spelling out 'Don't Mess With The Jews'; a special appearance by six-time Zionist calf-roping champion Barry Lowenstein; and daily double-bill showings of Schindler's List and John Wayne's True Grit." A photograph, captioned "Texas Jews rustle up some memorial grub," accompanies the article. The picture shows two men cooking steaks over a pit. One wears a black, broad-brimmed hat, thick gray beard, and dark coat; the other a short black beard with sidecurls and a casual burnt-orange shirt, leather vest, and a somewhat Stetsonish fedora. Both wear cooking aprons, one bearing an image of the Texas flag (with a six-pointed star) and the other the motto "Never Again, Pardner!" A group of Hasidim mosey around behind them against a background of blue sky and desert mountains.

At first glance, the humor of this piece lies in the apparent incongruity of Jews in Texas and in the assumption that Texas Jews must be conspicuously different from normal ones. The article mixes, for comic effect, iconography familiar from both Jewish and Texan stereotype: barbecues, boisterousness, desert expanses, beards, Semitic names, and broad dark hats. Beneath the humor, though, is a commentary that gives the satire its edge. These characters are more than Jews out of place. They are acculturationists who fail to realize how far they have fallen, how far they have drifted from any genuine sense of Judaism. They are entirely unaware of their own vulgarity, of the cheapness with which they treat what should be a somber occasion. Nothing could be in poorer taste, after all, than a barbecue as a way of memorializing the ovens of the Holocaust. The article's author implies that the celebrants have so readily accepted the trappings of Texas identity that they have made their Jewishness less authentic, a meaningless and ill-fitting costume.

If actual Texas Jews feel uncomfortable in their "Texanness," however, they have rarely shown it, refusing to yield moral and spiritual authority to Jews anywhere else. Nineteenth-century Texas correspondents to national Jewish newspapers signed letters with pseudonyms like "Lone Star" and "Alamo," and they reported proudly on their community activities "[a]way out here, on the rolling prairies of Texas." More recently, individual Texas Jews have emphasized the presence of their families, or even of themselves, at the state's origin—even if they had to stretch the truth a bit. Bertha Bender, a longtime resident of Breckenridge, reminisced after her 101st birthday that "Texas had become a state in 1885, just three years before my birth, and it seemed we were destined to grow together." But Texas actually became a state in 1846 and again, following the Civil War, in 1870, long before Bender was born. She also neglected to mention that she immigrated to the United States from Lithuania, but did not arrive in Texas until she was twenty-six years old. The force of Texas identification can be strong enough to subsume simple historical reality.

In fact, as Seth Wolitz writes in his contribution to Jewries at the Frontier, many Texas Jews are at peace with their peripheral status:

[E]ven though New York functioned and functions today as the center of Jewish-American life, the Texas Jew, while accepting his peripheral condition from the New Yorker's perspective, does not feel decentered. The Texas Jew sees New York as the alternative vision and considers the Texas-Jewish experience no less valid and perhaps more desirable.

Wolitz, however, argues that the Jewish identity claimed by "third generation" Texans is thoroughly compromised: "Traditional Ashkenazic ethnicity," he writes, "is surely gone, or at least distinctly transmogrified into a new Texas-Jewish expression." Today's Jewish Texans have "no consciousness that there is any significant difference between the present Jewish identity and that of the past." They wrongly believe, moreover, that their acculturated, "Texanized" sense of Jewish identity is authentic, that Jews have always believed what Texans believe today. Wolitz does not dispute that Texas Jews feel at home in Texas. They claim "originary rights," in fact, by pointing out the presence of Jews in the state's early history, and they produce historical and creative texts that "have reinscribed this Texas Jewishness back into the original Jewish culture of the first generation so that the ancestors are proto-Americans or proto-Texans." But such a reinterpretation of the past, he suggests, is ultimately self-deluding, and "the delightful aporia called the 'Texas Jew'" is a fallen creature.

Wolitz's critique proceeds from his assumption (shared, it seems, with the editors of The Onion) that there is, in fact, an essential Judaism, a spiritual center, and that Texas Jewry is peripheral to it and thus inferior. In contrast, Sander Gilman proposes using the idea of the frontier as a means of describing peripheral communities without questioning their authenticity. Rather than presuming an essentialist standard of Judaism, next to which others are second-rate, Gilman argues for a new rendering of Jewish history "marked by the dynamics of change, confrontation, and accommodation; a history which focuses on the present and in which all participants are given voice." Gilman finds the source of such a narrative in the idea of the frontier, "a place not defined by a center and a periphery, but by a constant sense of confrontation at the margin." If Jewish history is, in fact, a story of confrontation at the margin, then Jews in peripheral places, where contact with non-Jews is commonplace and unavoidable, become central to the Jewish experience. By suggesting that Jewish history be retold "as the history of the Jews at the frontier, a history with no center," Gilman validates "marginal" Jewish experiences, like those which occurred in Texas, as genuinely, even profoundly Jewish.

Frontiers and Borderlands

"Frontier" is a complicated term with a controversial history, and it will be helpful to trace its meaning through many of its possible interpretations, as Gilman does. Any understanding of the significance of the frontier in American history begins with Frederick Jackson Turner and his conveniently titled 1893 address, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." Turner offered a vision of an American nation defined by its frontier, by the restless urge of its people to move ever westward. "The peculiarity of American institutions," Turner wrote, "is the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people." That is, what made Americans American was the existence of a frontier and their urge to push into it. Turner understood that frontier to be an actual geographic location: the line marking the western extreme of Euro-American settlement, the "margin of that settlement which has a density of two or more [Americans] to the square mile." In less quantifiable terms, the frontier was also a place fraught with cultural significance, the point where the wilderness met western civilization and consumed it. As Americans advanced westward, Turner wrote, "the frontier [was] the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization." Turner touched a resonant chord. More than just settlers or colonists, pioneers in American popular mythology are culture heroes who redeemed the wilderness from savagery.

Many later western historians, including Patricia Nelson Limerick and Richard White, rightfully criticized Turner's approach, going so far as to reject the frontier entirely as a useful means of understanding the history of the American West. "When clearly and precisely defined," Limerick writes, "the term 'frontier' is nationalistic and often racist"; in essence, it is "the area where white people get scarce." Rather than viewing westward expansion as a civilizing process, "New Western Historians," in Limerick's summarization, prefer to use terms like "invasion, conquest, colonization, [and] exploitation." They recognize what Turner did not: westward expansion was no simple process of a monolithic civilization meeting and subduing its opposite. It was, rather, a "convergence of diverse people—women as well as men, Indians, Europeans, Latin Americans, Asians, Afro-Americans . . . and their encounters with each other and with the natural environment."

Although he accepts the validity and necessity of the New Western Historians' critique, Sander Gilman looks past it for a definition of "frontier" that may describe Jews in any marginal community. The American frontier, after all, which can certainly be described as a place of racism, conquest and exploitation, is only one of the many frontiers Jews have inhabited around the world. To show that the frontier can be "a useful category for the writing of the new Jewish history," Gilman draws on the work of Stephen Aron, another historian of the American West:

Rather than banishing the word for past offenses, western historians need to make the most of the frontier. Reconfigured as the lands where separate polities converged and competed, and where distinct cultures collided and occasionally coincided, the frontier unfolds the history of the Great West in ways that Turner never imagined.

Kerwin Lee Klein has similarly redefined the frontier as "a zone of cultural interaction" rather than a fixed line or a boundless region. Aron and Klein imagine the frontier in terms of cultural boundaries more than geographic place. Frontiers are the placeless imaginary spaces in which cultural interactions occur.

Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicana poet who grew up along the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas, has further refined the idea of the frontier as a "borderland," a permeable region of cultural interaction. Borderlands, she writes, may be physical and political, as the "Texas-U.S. Southwest/Mexican border," or they may be the "psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands and the spiritual borderlands" which "are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy." While "borders" are established "to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them," a "borderland" is "a vague and undetermined place . . . in a constant state of transition." Anzaldúa's borderland is multinational, multiracial, and multilingual; it is gendered and sexualized; it is simultaneously intimately personal and dangerously public. It is a place where distinctions between Us and Them lose their meaning in the process of personal and cultural interaction. Anzaldúa's borderland, her frontier, is any material or psychological space in which intercultural collisions occur.

Frontierspeople, the inhabitants of any such borderland, are not those who conquer the West but those who, in any context, go out and encounter the "Other." They must be perpetually self-defining, drawing imaginary lines around themselves that separate them from others. They internalize the frontier, transforming what was a geographic, Turnerian dividing line between civilization and savagery into subtler conceptual and symbolic boundaries distinguishing them from all Others, or, as Anzaldúa suggests, dissolving those distinctions altogether. As the essays in Jewries at the Frontier demonstrate, Jews draw and redraw such lines on frontiers around the world and across history, balancing the urge to acculturate with the competing urge to remain different. "Jews confront and are confronted," Gilman writes, "by the inhabitants of each land, from medieval Britain to Poland to China to India to Palestine." The result is a variety of possible "Jewries," all equally valid. Instead of writing off frontier Jews as tragic examples of declension, a Jewish history built on the frontier idea allows us to see "peripheral" communities like Texas as, in fact, central to Jewish history. They are part of a perpetual process of reimagining and revivifying the meaning of Judaism in the Diaspora.

Moreover, if the frontier experience can unite such disparate Jewish experiences as those of Poland and China, it is also a useful way to understand Jewish life throughout the United States. To be sure, the frontier experience of Texas Jews is frequently repeated in other American regions. Published studies of local Jewish communities, especially in the South and West, have emphasized their distance from the Jewish centers, as revealed in their titles: Eli Evans' classic work about southern Jewry, The Provincials; Carolyn Gray LeMaster's A Corner of the Tapestry, about the Jews of Arkansas; Sophie Trupin's recollections of her South Dakota upbringing, Dakota Diaspora: Memoirs of a Jewish Homesteader; Linda Mack Schloff's And Prairie Dogs Weren't Kosher: Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest Since 1855; and The Jews of Wyoming: Fringe of the Diaspora by Penny Diane Wolin. "You feel a separateness from the community," says one of Wolin's Wyoming interviewees. "If you read Genesis, about Abraham and Isaac and all those stories, you get a sense of people who are just out there alone in the desert with nobody else. And that's what it's really like out here." "Out here in Laramie," says another, "we're as far removed as possible from a coherent, cohesive Jewish community. You make it yourself here. You can't rely on institutions that already exist."

These and many similar examples suggest that the frontier model is useful not only in describing Jewish life in Texas, or even in other southern and western states, but also may in fact be an essential metaphor for understanding American Jewish life in general. American Jews are, and have always been, frontierspeople. Fredrik Barth's claim, furthermore, that boundaries are more important in shaping group identity than the "cultural stuff" they enclose, means that it is unnecessary to attempt specialized descriptions, as several generations of American Jewish historians have done, of "western," "southern," or "northern" Jews: all are frontier Jews. This insight is especially helpful in dealing with Texas, where regional boundaries are problematic. Texas is sometimes southern, western, or southwestern depending on context, who is doing the naming, and why. As will be seen in the following chapters, regional identification is as manipulable a concept as any other form of group identity. It is unnecessary, and even undesirable, to make a definitive decision about which American region Texas is part of, because it is part of several in varying ways at different times. Texas itself is a borderland, and regional lines, like religious and racial lines, are just another set of terms open to interpretation in the process of defining group identity.

"Ride 'em, Jewboy"

A number of examples attest to the potent intermingling of cultural experiences that occurs in Texas and to the symbolic possibilities that the Texas-Jewish experience can provide. In her contribution to a 1988 collection of essays about her Orthodox Jewish family, Judith Geller Marlow, who grew up in El Paso but later moved to New York, provides one such instance. She begins by describing the physical environment in West Texas as "a valley with bare mountains surrounding it. There is no green lushness there. There is no water nearby; it is isolated, the closest large city 250-350 miles away. It is arid, very hot. The summers are hot, over 100 degrees daily, no humidity. Winters are cold—there are no fall or spring seasons." Why so much climatic detail? "Because whenever I hear the stories of the Jews wandering in the desert, trying to come together as a people before entering the promised land, I identify with them." The Jews' time in the desert of Sinai, she says, "was a necessity in the formation of the Jewish nation" and, like them, "I was formed in the desert, as a person and as a Jew." The desert was an exterior setting for Marlow but had deep inner significance for her as well.

In a city with a very small Jewish population, moreover, Marlow says that she "truly felt [herself] as a minority in Christian America," an experience that also "shaped my existence as a Jew." Jewish identity for Marlow came, in part, from contrasting herself with the Christian majority, but it also arose from the differences between Marlow, an Orthodox Jew, and other Jewish El Pasoans. Like Jews throughout the nation who had sought to Americanize, Marlow says, El Paso Jews "kept, at most, the outer structure of Jewish life" but were missing "the richness and quality of the essence of being Jewish." The "daily rituals are performed in the shul," she writes, "the form and structure are all there—but, for me, the soul was missing."29 Marlow fixes her own Jewish identity by triangulating herself against ancient Jews, contemporary El Paso Jews, Christians, and a forbidding natural environment.

That sense of something missing drives Marlow deeper into herself and toward her own vision of Jewish meaning. "What growing up there did for me," she writes, "was make me want something more authentic. My experience gave me an appreciation of having a real Jewish experience and perhaps made it a need more acute than for those for whom it has always been available at their fingertips." In the language of centers and peripheries, Marlow describes El Paso as a peripheral and therefore less genuine Jewish experience than those available elsewhere. But she turns a "wasteland of a desert without water" into the wellspring of her Jewish identity, the "foundation for me . . . for desiring more." She later found, in New York, the kind of Jewish community she had sought. Marlow's narrative demonstrates both the opportunity and the risk that frontiers provide. As a Jew in an isolated place, she was unable to find the kind of rich communal experience she wanted, but the very conditions that caused her distress allowed her to transform her experience not only into a positive one but also a revelatory one. "I had to wander from the desert to New York to find that quality and essence," she says, "but I don't think I would have wanted it so much if I hadn't begun in the desert."

In a brasher way, Kinky Friedman has built a career out of merging Texas and Jewish qualities into a unique and provocative persona. With his band, the Texas Jewboys, Friedman released three albums between 1973 and 1976; broke a song, "Sold American," into the Country Top Ten; and appeared on the Grand Ole Opry. The Jewboys, though, were hardly a typical country-western band. Friedman described them as "avant-garde" and "a cult band," and one early reviewer proclaimed them "the world's first Jewish-longhaired country band." Lester Bangs, a Rolling Stone music critic, praised the group's first record and hailed Kinky as "a stocky cigar-chomping Jew from Texas," who was "a true original, blessed with a distinctive wit and a manner of carrying himself both musically and personally that begins to resemble the mantle of a star." Friedman's "macho, cigar-chewing posturing is classic," according to London's Melody Maker magazine in 1973. "Wearing . . . a 10-gallon hat, a pearl-buttoned velvet shirt with tinted glasses, and cowboy boots with . . . gold Stars of David embroidered; there's no sight quite like it." Friedman's style, which he called "Texas-Jewish flamboyance," accented Texan fashion accessories like hats, boots, and belt buckles with recognizably Jewish symbols, displaying his wish to be conspicuously Texan and Jewish at the same time.

Not everyone was as impressed as Bangs and other music critics with Friedman's persona. When the Texas Jewboys first came to national attention, Friedman received complaints about his unabashed use of the word "Jewboy," a term that in almost any context is disparaging. A term of belittlement that charges Jewish men with childishness, dependency, and weakness, it evokes Jews' long history of persecution and, in some measure, blames them for their own victimization: had they been more mature, more manly, perhaps they could have defended themselves more successfully. In the contexts in which Friedman used the term, however, particularly when he so frequently turned it on himself, it became less an insult than a deeply evocative and even empowering expression. In calling his band "Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys," Friedman punned closely on the name of the western swing band "Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys," a group that revolutionized Texas popular music in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Friedman's usage of the anti-Semitic slur "Jewboy" recalled the word "playboy" and borrowed some of its meaning, suggesting something more masculine, adult, and aggressive than the term standing alone could do. These were not, after all, simply "Jewboys," whose whole sad history was too familiar, but they were Texas Jewboys, a new breed, rougher and tougher than before. The term of belittlement was still there, of course, and it still shocked, but through a deft pun, Friedman turned it into its opposite: an expression, at least in a 1970s context, of masculine strength and sexual prowess. The pun suggested that acculturation into Texas culture had made the Jew manlier than ever before.

Friedman put the same pun to a more profound use in one of his most popular songs, "Ride 'em, Jewboy," a piece that served as the band's theme song and that Lester Bangs praised as "both an anthem of ethnic pride and a hauntingly evocative slice of classic American folksong." Released on Friedman's first album in 1973, it is a somber ballad to the victims of the Holocaust. The slow song's simple rhythm is carried on an acoustic guitar, in the style of cowboy campfire songs. Its mood and sound resemble "Home on the Range" as much as anything more recent. The lyric draws a comparison between the persecuted Jew and the mythic cowboy of the prairie as Friedman fuses the cowboy's unrooted, solitary life into the Jews' history of oppression and forced migration:

Ride, ride 'em Jewboy,
Ride 'em all around the old corral.
I'm, I'm with you boy
If I've got to ride six million miles.

On the surface, this could be any one of a hundred western folk ballads in the "git along little dogie" tradition, songs sung by cowboys on the cattle drive or, more likely, by Gene Autry in the movies. But Friedman again adapts the word "Jewboy" to his own purposes, this time playing with the cliché "ride 'em, cowboy." The pun tells the listener that this is a song with two contexts, Texan and Jewish, and allows double meanings to emerge from the lyric's imagery. Later in the song, a description of candles glowing in a window evokes both the prairie tradition of lighting a candle to help the wanderer find his way home and the lights of Sabbath or Chanukah; the "Jewboy" is reminded of a time "[w]hen on your sleeve you wore the yeller star," recalling both the badge of a western lawman and the identification tag of Jews in Nazi Europe; the singer's willingness to "ride six million miles" recalls the six million Jewish Holocaust victims; and, most ominously, "the smoke from camps a'risin'" is both the comforting image of a campfire in the wilderness and the horrific one of Nazi smokestacks. The pun in the title permits us to see these double images and defines the piece as a Holocaust memorial set in the tradition of American western music.

The juxtaposition of these two traditions, western campfire song and Holocaust commemoration, is a peculiar one, but it works. Borrowing the traditional scene of the cattle drive, Friedman casts Jews as the cattle, "helpless creatures on their way," who are "driven relentless 'round the world" and ultimately to the slaughter. Later they are "wild ponies" whose "dreams were broken, / Rounded up and made to move along." Friedman's allusion to the Jewish history of abandonment and persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, and his use of the word "Jewboy," a familiar expression of weakness, underscore the theme of Jewish victimization.

However, as the word "Jewboy" reminds the listener of Jewish helplessness in the face of the Nazi threat, it also puns on "cowboy," a word with very different meanings. When we see the figure the narrator addresses not as the cattle but as a fellow rider, the phrase "ride 'em, Jewboy" suggests a position of strength and power atop a horse in charge of the drive. The word is recast, giving the impression not of a Jewish victim but of a Jewish cowboy, a product of the Jewish past but with a cowboy's toughness and control. Drawing on the mythic history of the American West as a place of boundless opportunity and limitless futures, the narrator tells the Jewish cowboy that he will always remember his tragic past ("old memories still live behind ya"), but that he should not "let the morning [with a pun on 'mourning'] blind ya." With stereotypically Texan optimism, the singer insists that "the road ahead [is] forever rolling" and that "anything worth cryin' can be smiled."

Friedman's creative use of the familiar icons of both traditions and his clever manipulation of their imagery draw the two together in an unexpected and meaningful way. Both the Jewish and the cowboy traditions, as presented here, involve wandering, restlessness, loneliness, regret, and loss. The cowboy and the Jewboy are both melancholy figures, haunted by the past, isolated from society, and cut adrift from community. In the Jewish tradition this is, of course, a tragic experience, a reminder of ancient persecution. But by blending that interpretation with Texas frontier imagery, Friedman presents a distinctively Texan Jew with a distinctively Texan Jewish memory. The tragic past is part of who he is, but as a Jewish cowboy rather than simply a "Jewboy," he need not be diminished by it.

Not many Texas Jews are as explicit as Kinky Friedman and Judith Geller Marlow in describing themselves as distinctively Texan or in seeking the common ground between Texas and Jewish history. The symbolic boundaries by which Marlow and Friedman define their Jewish identities, however, have subtler correlates in virtually everything that Jewish Texans have done throughout their history. Establishing and maintaining imaginary frontiers that define them in contrast to other Jews and to other Texans is characteristic of the Texas-Jewish experience. Like the residents of Gloria Anzaldúa's borderland, the ethnic, religious, and linguistic identities of Texas Jews shade off at the edges into qualities acquired from other groups. In turn, Jewish Texans have contributed their particular historical perspective to the development of Texas society.

The following narrative traces not only the historical experience of Jewish Texans but also the evolution of their sense of themselves as particular kinds of Jews and particular kinds of Texans. The nuanced and malleable concept of the frontier is the shaping force behind that evolution. The first two chapters examine the frontier experience when it was still a material reality, though one abounding in symbolic meanings. The first Jews to enter Texas ventured into a place with little organized social life, let alone of a specifically Jewish sort, and their efforts to preserve a sense of Jewish identity, outlined in Chapter 1, were minimal. As Chapter 2 explains, Jewish institutions in Texas began to take shape in the mid-nineteenth century, and Texas Jews became part of national and regional social and commercial networks that loosely connected them to more populated Jewish communities. Despite these connections, Jewish Texans continued to emphasize their isolation and solitude, defining their Texas home as a wilderness.

The third chapter moves into the early twentieth century, when Texas could not accurately be described as a wilderness, nor its Jewish population as isolated, but the frontier myth remained critical. Indeed, it was evolving into an idea that could be marketed to potential Texans, and Jews inside and outside Texas emphasized the state's underdeveloped aspect as an inducement to immigrants. Similarly, Chapter 4 examines another way in which lines of group difference could be manipulated—in this case, by the editor of the state's first Jewish newspaper, who deliberately described his readership as proud, even unreconstructed, Southerners. His bold regionalist appeal was at odds with the emerging reality, but it was effective in selling papers and establishing an enduring Texas-Jewish institution. The fifth chapter, treating the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, shows that Jews alone did not hold the power to shape their own group identity. The Klan, which achieved astonishing credibility following the First World War, was built on a self-conscious appeal to white supremacy and nativism, and Texas Jews were surprised to find themselves placed outside those categories. The resurgence of the Klan forced Jewish Texans to redraw social and ethnic lines in new and complicated ways and to choose among competing aspects of their own identities.

The sixth and seventh chapters deal with the effects of watershed events of World War II on Jewish Texans. While the war raged in Europe, Houston Jews divided over Zionism, a conflict that tore apart the state's largest and oldest Jewish congregation. More was at stake than the establishment of a Jewish state, at that time still an idea rather than a reality. Houston's Jews fought about the meaning of American citizenship and whether American Jews were Jews first or Americans. The frontier had become fully internalized, now taking the shape of an inward conflict between the most profound elements of personal identity. By the 1940s, as the dividing lines between and among Jews became more complex, the frontier emerged as a threat to the internal cohesion of the Jewish community. At the same time, though, the epochal events of the decade, as Chapter 7 explains, gave Jews much to hold them together. The demands of the war itself, the discovery of Hitler's gruesome intentions for the Jews of Europe, and the establishment of the nation of Israel made ideological distinctions among Texas Jews, as elsewhere, less important. These were binding forces that established a foundation on which to build all subsequent Jewish history.

The final two chapters examine ways that the frontiers of Jewish identity in Texas were reformulated and reimagined in the latter half of the twentieth century. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Jews played a pivotal if often overlooked role throughout the South, and Jewish participation in civil rights in Texas has been almost entirely ignored. Chapter 8 deals with it in detail, considering especially how Jews consciously used their unique situation—inside the social mainstream yet apart from it—to push civil rights programs forward. This chapter follows the evolution of the frontier into an idea with new power: by negotiating lines of ethnic and social difference, and by looking at Texas society from a uniquely Jewish perspective, Jews were able to help motivate meaningful and lasting change. Finally, Chapter 9 considers the current situation of Jewish Texans as their community grows larger, more diverse, and more integrated with national and international Jewish institutions. In this setting, the frontier remains a useful metaphor for determining what is still distinctive about Texas Jewry. Jewish writers (including, it must be said, me) continually invoke it to explain their lives in Texas.


“Bryan Stone is a gifted thinker and storyteller. His book on the history of Texas Jewry integrates the collective scholarship and memoirs of generations of writers into a cohesive account with a strong interpretive message.”
Hollace Ava Weiner, editor of Lone Stars of David: The Jews of Texas and author of Jewish Stars in Texas: Rabbis and Their Work


Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse