Prof. Rachel B. Gross Talks American Jewish Experience In Mpls. This Week

Professor Rachel B. Gross focuses her research on the experiences of 20th and 21st-century American Jews, exploring themes of nostalgia, identity, and the evolution of religious practices. This week, the chair of American Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University will take part in talks at both Temple Israel in Minneapolis and at the University of Minnesota on those topics.

Feeling Jewish: Nostalgia as a Window into American Jewish Religion

On Wednesday, March 27, 2024, from 7:30-9 p.m. at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, Gross will present “Feeling Jewish: Nostalgia and American Jewish Religion.” This talk draws on her book Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice. Gross examines how many American Jews express a longing for their Eastern European heritage through various means such as artisanal delis, children’s books and dolls, historic synagogues, and Jewish genealogy. 

She argues that these practices, often perceived as secular, should be recognized as forms of religious expression that provide insights into how American Jews find and make meaning within their cultural and religious identities.

“I think that we mean a lot of things when we talk about religion,” she said. “It’s all of the things that we do, as individuals and communities that help us answer existential questions and place us in larger stories that matter.”

Gross’s work not only sheds light on the dominant narrative of Ashkenazi heritage but also opens a conversation about the diversity within American Judaism and the challenges of embracing this diversity fully. 

“I think if you’re concerned about Ashkenormativity (centering European, especially Eastern European, Jewish heritage over other types of Jewish backgrounds) and the dominance of this narrative, the first thing we need to do is figure out how it works,” said Gross.

Read more about the event here.

Mary Antin and the Boundaries of Religious Identity

The following day, Thursday, March 28, 2024, from noon-1 p.m. at 135 Nicholson Hall, University of Minnesota, Gross will delve into the life and legacy of Jewish writer Mary Antin in her lecture titled “’I Don’t Care What I Am Called’: Mary Antin and the Boundaries of Religious Identity.” Antin, once a celebrated figure in early 20th-century America, is renowned for her autobiography The Promised Land, which narrates her immigration from Russia to the United States as a child and frames it as a religious experience.

“The book was published In 1912 and it was a bestseller. Everybody loved it, everybody read it,” Gross said. “Mary Antin was probably the most famous American Jewish woman in the 1910s, even though many people do not remember her today.”.

Through Antin’s story, Gross explores the fluidity of religious identities and the broader possibilities for American Jewish women’s identities in the 20th century. 

“I found that Mary Antin’s book about her immigration really set the tone for the way that we still think about Eastern European Jewish immigration,” Gross said.

Read more about the event here.

Understanding Religion and Nostalgia

Throughout her work, Gross emphasizes the importance of understanding religion and nostalgia not just as topics of academic inquiry but as vital tools for exploring personal and communal identities. 

“It helps us understand how Americans, or how people in general, make meaning in their lives,” Gross said.

Gross’s dedication to her research and her innovative approach to studying American Jewish life have already earned her book Beyond the Synagogue significant recognition, including being a finalist for the 2021 National Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studies and receiving an Honorable Mention for the 2021 Saul Viener Book Prize.

For those interested in Gross’s work, her book Beyond the Synagogue can be found here on NYU Press’s website. Readers can use the discount code NYUAU30 for 30 percent off NYU Press books and free shipping on purchases of $40 or more.