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A Tribe Apart: Jews of the American South

They are not the Jews of bagels and lox brunches with the Sunday New York Times. They do not necessarily get the humor of a Woody Allen movie and are as likely to salivate over a dinner of fried chicken, collard greens, sweet potato pie and iced tea as they are to crave a repast of matzoh-ball soup, pastrami on rye, side knish and glass of Dr. Brown’s.

They are the Jews of the American South, fundamentally different from their Northern cousins, and not simply because, historically, they assimilated more quickly and intermarried more frequently.

If the South, as Wilber J. Cash puts it in his classic The Mind of the South, is “part of America and yet set apart most definitely from America, a nation within a nation,” then Southern Jews likewise are part of American Jewry but distinct, a people within a people.

Southern Jews have had a disproportionate effect on the history of their region. “Though Jews never comprised more than 1 percent of the South’s population,” writes Louis Schmier in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, “few phases of the Southern experience and few places in the South escaped their influence.”

And Southern Jews displayed an almost visceral connection to the land never quite equaled by their Northern counterparts. “In the North,” noted the Southern-born writer Eli Evans (whose landmark portrait of Southern Jewry, The Provincials, has just been reissued by University of North Carolina Press), “the seamstresses and tailors worked to get their children up and out of the ghettos and to Long Island. In the South the fathers wanted to build businesses to keep their sons at home.”

The key to understanding the Jews of the South is to grasp the sense of “otherness” that has always been at the center of their lives.

“Being Jewish in the South,” according to Evans, “is like being Gentile in New York. “What I mean by that is that Jews in the South live as a minority in a majority culture. The schools close on Jewish holidays in New York; they don’t in the South. The generation of my friends in New York played stickball in the streets of the East Side while I was picking blackberries in the backyard. They were upwardly mobile; we wanted roots.”

In the Beginning

How is the South best defined? The answer has changed significantly over the years, and in fact still depends largely on whom one asks.

The U.S. Census Bureau classifies as Southern a wide swatch of states that includes West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. Others prefer a cultural to a strictly geographical definition, such as the one suggested by John and Dale Reed in 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About the South – “a solid core from the Carolinas to Louisiana; some shakiness in Florida, Arkansas, Kentucky and Virginia; and a sphere of influence along the border from Delaware to Missouri. Texas and Oklahoma are marginal…”

The first Jewish settlements of note in the South were those of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina in the closing decades of the 17th century. The numbers were minuscule – barely a handful of families – but in general Jewish immigration to the U.S. wa virtually non-existent: even a hundred years later, at the time of the Revolutionary War, the country was home to no more than 2,500 Jews, most of them residing in the Northeast.

Slowly, though, a Jewish presence was making itself felt in the lower colonies well in advance of the mass immigrations from Europe that commenced in the late 1800′s. In 1783, for example, Isaiah Isaacs and Jacob Cohen, a pair of Jewish merchants from Richmond, Virginia, commissioned the legendary explorer Daniel Boone to charter thousands of acres of land in Kentucky, thereby helping to open the vast, previously unclaimed territories of the West.

On the back of the receipt Boone signed in exchange for his cash payment, Isaacs noted and dated the translation in Yiddish – a historical tidbit left unmentioned in the various movie and television accounts of Boone’s exploits.

By 1800 there were more Jews in Charleston than in any other U.S. city, and South Carolina’s Jewish population exceeded 1,000 – making the state home to better than one in five American Jews. It was in Charleston that Germany’s Reform movement would establish its first American foothold, a harbinger of what by century’s end would be the near total dominance of Reform Judaism in the South.

Southern Jews were for the most part left alone by their non-Jewish neighbors, though life was far from easy for those who wished to maintain a ritualistically meaningful lifestyle. The flavor of the times is conveyed in a letter written in 1791 by a woman named Rebecca Samuels, whose husband owned a silversmith shop in Petersburg, Virginia, to her parents in Germany:

“We have a shochet who goes to market and buys treif food. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the people worship here without one sefer [Torah]. And not one wore the tallit, except my Sammy’s godfather….We do not know what the Sabbath and the Holidays are. On the Sabbath, all the Jewish shops are open….

“As for the Gentiles, we have nothing to complain about. You cannot know what a wonderful country this is for the common man. People can live here peacefully.”

Civil War and Aftermath

The Jews who lived in the South in the 18th and 19th centuries were almost without exception peddlers and merchants – by the 1890′s their importance to the region’s economic well-being was such that a Georgia newspaper noted, with clumsy gratitude, “Where there are no Jews there is no money” – but in the decades immediately following the Civil War they played an increasingly prominent role in the South’s political and social life as well.

The loyalties of American Jews during the Civil War were divided along geographic lines, with the contribution of Southern Jews to the Confederate war effort deemed crucial enough for General Robert E. Lee to turn down requests for High Holiday furloughs.

As Lee put it in a letter to a Virgina rabbi, “Neither you nor any other member of the Jewish congregation would wish to jeopardize a cause you have so much at heart by the withdrawal, even for a season, of a portion of its defenders.”

The dominant Jewish personality of the Confederate South was Judah P. Benjamin, described by one writer as the “most important American-Jewish diplomat before Henry Kissinger, the most eminent lawyer before Brandeis, the leading figure in martial affairs before Hyman Rickover, the greatest American-Jewish orator, and the most influential Jew ever to take a seat in the United States Senate.”

The son of an English Jewish father and a Portuguese Jewish mother, Benjamin became a senator in 1852 and a year later was offered a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, an appointment he declined in favor of continuing his career as a legislator and one of the South’s most vociferous voices on behalf of slavery. Benjamin would fill several key posts in the Confederate government – attrney general, secretary of war and, finally, secretary of state – before escaping to England when the South lost the war.

Southern Jews were neither more nor less likely to own slaves than their Christian neighbors, though on an individual basis Jews tended to treat blacks with an empathy unusual for Southern whites of the era, and they would continue to do so long after the abolition of slavery.

In a perverse way, the persecution of blacks in the South served to deflect many potential problems from the region’s Jews. Bertram Korn, a prominent scholar of Southern Jewry, argued that blacks “acted as an escape valve in Southern society. The Jews gained in status and security from the very presence of this large mass of defenseless victims who were compelled to absorb all of the prejudices which might otherwise have been expressed more frequently in anti-Jewish sentiment.”

Approximately 40,000 Jews, most of them German immigrants, made their way to the South in the fifty years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I. The entrepreneurial and business skills of this group made the words “Jew” and “shopkeeper” synonymous in the Southern mind, and their names lived on long after they themselves were gone: the Rich brothers in Georgia, the Thalhimers in Virginia, the Godchaux family in Louisiana, the Levine brothers in North Carolina, Neiman and Marcus in Texas.

And then there were men like Oscar Straus and Adolph Ochs, who would go on to bigger and better things elsewhere only after their forebears had first carved a niche for themselves in the South. Straus, whose father was a peddler in Georgia, eventually became the owner of R.H. Macy’s in New York; Ochs, whose mother was a charter member of Chattanooga’s United Daughters of the Confederacy, bought The New York Times and turned it into a journalistic institution.

Further highlighting the accomplishments of the region’s Jews: no fewer than two dozen Southern towns are named for Jewish peddlers or landowners, among them Marks, Mississippi; Kaplan, Louisiana; and historic Manassas, Virginia.

At Home in Dixie

Of the various changes that marked the day-to-day lives of 20th century Southern Jews, two stand out, one internal, the other external.

Internally, the staunchly anti-Zionist mindset of the community – “For the majority of Southern Jews and their rabbis,” wrote Malcolm Stern, “America was their Zion, and they wanted no other” – was reversed over time, with the 1967 Six-Day War in particular triggering an avalanche of emotion and pride.

Externally, there was an appreciable drop in anti-Jewish sentiment among non-Jewish Southerners, and along with that a reduction in the number of anti-Semitic incidents.

Not that violence against Jews was ever a pressing problem in the South; even taking into account the infamous lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915 and a flurry of synagogue bombings at the height of the Civil Rights movement, attacks on Southern Jews and Jewish property were notable for their infrequency. Even the Ku Klux Klan, with rare exceptions, chose to harass Jews verbally rather than physically.

The phenomenon of hardened white racists harboring a relatively benign attitude when it came to Jews was typified by Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Birmingham, Alabama commissioner of public safety whose dogs and fire hoses became internationally recognized symbols of Southern racism in the 1960′s. At a law enforcement conference organized after the first wave of the aforementioned synagogue bombings, a perplexed Connor drawled, “Nigras, maybe, but Jews – why?”

Just as Israel’s military victories helped do away with Southern Jewry’s tradition of anti-Zionism, so too did the Jewish state’s success on the battlefield dispel some myths about Jews long held by the general public.

“The State of Israel,” wrote Eli Evans, “profoundly changed the image of the Jew in the South.The underdog region, celebrated for the fierceness of the [Confederate army] against the overwhelming odds of Yankee cannons and superior numbers, deeply admired the Israeli courage when outmanned and, above all, respected a winner.”

A legislator from a Southern state relished telling the story of the time, shortly after the Six-Day War, an admitted Ku Klux Klan member visited his office and noticed a newspaper photo of Moshe Dayan lying on the desk. The Klansman pointed to the picture and said, “I admire that man more than anyone else in the world today except for George Wallace.”

Fundamentalist, Bible-based religion has played a major role in the South’s embrace of Israel. When Flonnie Maddox, mother of the rabidly segregationist Georgia governor Lester Maddox, visited Israel in the late 1960′s, a hawkish Israeli boasted to her, “One day we’ll have Jordan.” To which the devout Mrs. Maddox replied, “You’ll have every inch of it. God said you would.”

With increased acceptance came the inevitable downside of intermarriage and assimilation, and in those departments Southern Jews had about a 50-year jump on Jews in the rest of the country. The result was an epidemic of synagogue closings throughout the South over the second half of the 20th century, particularly in towns whose Jewish populations were too small to sustain anything approaching a communal infrastructure.

And yet, thanks in no small measure to a resurgence of Orthodoxy in areas long thought inhospitable, vibrant Jewish communities can be found in a number of large Southern cities. The situation looks even brighter if one goes by the Census Bureau’s definition of Dixie and adds the Jews of Texas and Florida to the mix.

The South’s Jewish population, Evans recently noted, “has tripled in size since I first started writing about it in 1970 – from 382,000 to an estimated 1,200,000 in 2004. Atlanta is now one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in America, growing from 16,000 and three congregations when I first wrote about in 1969 to well over 100,000 and thirty-seven congregations today. Austin, Texas, has grown from 500 Jews when I was first writing about it to 15,000 to 18,000 today….The Research Triangle of the Durham-Chapel Hill-Raleigh area has quadrupled in the last twenty years and Charlotte is well on its way to becoming the Atlanta of the twenty-first century. The Jacksonville-Tampa-Orlando area is also growing dramatically.”

The late Harry Golden, editor of the Carolina Israelite and self-styled bard of Southern Jewry, liked to say that “there were Jews in the South before there was a South.”

Nearly a quarter-century after Golden’s death one can add that there are more Jews than ever in the South no matter how you define the South.

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.


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