11 Questions: Beyond the Synagogue by Rachel B. Gross

Rachel B. Gross’s engrossing new book looks “beyond the synagogue” to find religious practice in museums, restaurants, and children’s books. Through years of wide-ranging travel, conversations, and reading, Rachel has written a book that has so much to tell us not just about Jewish experiences and identities in the US but about what nostalgia is and how it works– about (as she says) nostalgia’s “limits and possibilities.” This is a book for anyone who gravitates to museum gift shops, treasures family recipes, or has feelings about American Girl dolls. It’s also a book for those of us who are trying to figure out what religion looks like now, and how we should think about and invoke the past.

Describe your book in three adjectives!

Well, I hope it’s thoughtful. I hope it’s respectful of the people I write about. And I’d like it to be a bit challenging to some standard ways of thinking about American Jews.

What is one of your favorite sentences from the book?

Two sentences from my conclusion: “When I began this project, I thought I was writing a book about institutions, including genealogical societies, museums, publishing companies, PJ Library, and restaurants. It turns out I also wrote a book about families—or the ways that these institutions help us navigate feelings about our families.” Also, my footnotes defining various Ashkenazi Jewish dishes make me laugh. E.g., “Lokshen kugel is a traditional Ashkenazi dish of noodle pudding.”

Name a book or writer that inspired or guided you as you wrote.

I always come back to the work of my undergraduate mentor, Vanessa Ochs, especially her book Inventing Jewish Ritual, which is my model of taking Jews’ practices seriously and writing about them with analytical rigor but in a way that’s not just accessible but inviting to non-academic Jewish audiences and students. I’m not there yet, but it’s #goals.

What is something you discovered in the process of writing this book?

I’m almost embarrassed to admit I didn’t know this before writing this book, but a fact I learned very early on in researching Jewish genealogists—that they rightfully feel very strongly about—is that no one’s name was changed at Ellis Island. Literally, the job of federal employees at Ellis Island was to check immigrants’ names against a ship’s manifest. Some immigrants chose to change their names before or after immigrating to the United States.

What was challenging about the process?

Oh my God, I find everything about writing so hard. I’ve recently realized that throwing a tantrum about how much I hate writing is an integral part of my writing process.

What was sustaining about it? Feel free to mention writing snacks here.

Getting to talk to fascinating people about things they’re passionate about was the absolute best part of writing this book. Trader Joe’s Swedish Fish are my writing snack.

What’s a song that would be on the book’s soundtrack?

Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia” must be the theme song for this book. But Allison Crutchfield’s “I Don’t Ever Wanna Leave California”—with the line “I keep confusing love and nostalgia”—was the theme song for finishing writing this book in San Francisco.

Who are some of the people you wrote this book for? 

The primary audience is academic, but I also wrote it thinking about the Jews I know at synagogue and other Jewish institutions—and the Jews I don’t know. It’s dedicated to the memory of my grandparents, who, as I write in the dedication, “had mixed feelings about nostalgia,” which is a line that makes me laugh. Some of them were, in fact, fervently anti-nostalgia, and part of writing this book was figuring out what they thought they were rejecting.

What are some of the communities that shaped it?

If I say “academic communities of American religious history and Jewish studies” it sounds stuffy, but what I mean is dear friends taking time to read and reread my work and laughing with me as they help me think through my work. I’m deeply grateful to the communities I write about—Jewish genealogists, staff members and volunteers and visitors at historic synagogues, authors and publishers of children’s books, and Jewish restauranteurs and other culinary entrepreneurs.

What kinds of work do you want your book to do in the world? What are your hopes for its afterlife?

I want it to be part of academic conversations about what religion is and what religion looks like in the United States. But I also want it to encourage Jews to recognize a range of everyday practices in their lives as important, meaningful, and Jewish activities—not just going to synagogue or celebrating holidays but also everyday things like eating certain foods, telling certain stories to children, or remembering family histories. (I think a good word for “important and meaningful activities that connect us to communities” is “religious practice.”)

What are you doing next? (Does not have to be a writing project!)

I’d like to write a religious biography of Mary Antin. She was an important American Jewish writer on immigration issues a century ago and played a role in creating some of ways of thinking about early-twentieth-century Jewish immigrants to the United States that I write about in Beyond the Synagogue. She had a fascinating religious life, and her work advocating for immigrants seems all too relevant these days.

Rachel B. Gross is assistant professor and the John and Marcia Goldman Chair in American Jewish Studies in the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University.

Briallen Hopper is editor of KtB, and author of Hard to Love: Essays And Confessions (Bloomsbury, 2019). She teaches writing at Queens College, City University of New York, and holds a PhD in English from Princeton. Learn more at her website, www.briallenhopper.com, or follow her on Twitter @briallenhopper.