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Jews in the South: A Long History and a Feeling of Home

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Winter 2000

by Eli Evans, The Free Press, 391 Pages, $16.00.  

Much of the history of American Jews has related to the immigrant experience in the large cities of the Northeast. There is, however, a great deal more to the story, particularly when it comes to the South.  

Often, the South has been perceived as intolerant, racist, and anti-Semitic. As with other easy generalizations there is, of course, an element of truth. The real story, however, is quite different.  

The Provincials, Eli Evans' classic portrait of Jews in the South, takes readers inside the nexus between Southern and Jewish histories. First published in 1972, the book has recently been reissued. In a forward to the new edition, Mr. Evans recalls that, "I began the diaries that led to The Provincials in the 1950s, sitting in a dormitory room at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill...It is now clear to me that the subject of Jewish identity formed in the South, with braided roots in history, blended by legends and seasons into a unique Southern Jewish consciousness has fascinated me all my life."  

Book Idea  

The idea for The Provincials came in the late nineteen sixties when Willie Morris, then editor of "Harper's" and a distinguished Southern writer, invited Evans to a lunch that lasted through dinner. At the end of it, he proclaimed, "You've got yourself a book."  

Morris, a native of Mississippi, wrote his own autobiography in his mid-thirties. The book, North Towards Home, had a tremendous impact on Evans. In his book New York Days published in 1993, Morris recalled, "Eli Evans, a Jewish friend of mine from Durham, North Carolina and Chapel Hill, liked to observe to me that our roles as Wasp and Jew in New York were reversed from our days in the South. I was in the decided minority, he was in the emphatic majority." Evans found in his own diary that he had told Morris, "being Jewish in the South was a lot like being gentile in New York."  

In this book, Evans mixes reminiscences of his own family's history with anecdotes from the history of the region. From penniless Lithuanian immigrants, to traveling peddlers throughout the South, to civic, business and political leaders, Evans has a noteworthy family history to recount.  

Growing Up  

He grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where his father served as mayor and owned a major department store. He remembers his goals in those days: "My ambition was to marry a cheerleader and go into my father's business. I really knew no other Southern boys who didn't have the same ambition. Yet, the story of the Jews in the South is the story of fathers who built businesses to give to their sons who didn't want them."  

Evans' family achieved economic success in what was a blueprint for advancement for Jewish immigrants. His grandfather started by traveling from house to house with a pack of wares. He then bought a small store which grew to a major department store which grew into a chain across North Carolina and Virginia. Similar stories can be told, he points out, about the Rich family in Atlanta, the Thalhimers in Richmond, the Godchaux family in New Orleans and the founders of Neiman-Marcus in Dallas.  

One of the messages Evans seeks to convey is that, "Jews are a blood-and-bones part of Southern history." He does this very well indeed.  

Heartbeat of Southern Life  

The Provincials evokes the rhythms and the heartbeat of Southern Jewish life. Evans intertwines his autobiography of growing up in Durham with stories of communities, individuals and events throughout the South. Jewish history in the South goes back to the nation's very beginning. In 1800, Charleston, South Carolina had the largest Jewish community in America, largely because of the tolerant constitution John Locke had written for the colony, which guaranteed religious freedom. In fact, South Carolina was the first community in the modern world to permit Jews to vote, hold office, and serve in the military without any impediment.  

Jews migrated to the South because it was possible, through hard work, to be successful in life, both socially and materially. It was seen as a place with less rigid economic classes than the North. Before the Civil War, there was a higher proportion of Jews among the white population of the South than in the Northeast. Reformers in the 19th century actively tried to blend in with the local population. They did not wish to be seen as different from other Southerners. Because of this, they abandoned many ritualistic practices. Evans writes that reformers in the South and West argued: "Judaism must be fluid, flexible and adaptive to survive. We are not a static people, and here in America we will forge a uniquely American Judaism, and cast off the outmoded traditions, let go of the unenlightened customs, and strike out the curious rituals that separate us from other Americans."  

Blending into Southern Culture  

Evans points out that Jews largely succeeded in blending into Southern culture and played a major role in every event in Southern history. At least 23 Southern towns were named for Jews who owned the plot where the post office was built or used the crossroads as a center for their peddling. Among these towns are Manassas, Virginia; Marks, Mississippi; and Kaplan, Louisiana.  

In a chapter about the Tobias family of Charleston, Evans writes that, "The earliest Jew recorded in the Carolinas was a Spanish-speaking Marrano, one of the secret Jews forced to convert to Christianity in Spain and Portugal, who showed up in military records in 1695 as a translator for the governor of the colony in questioning four captive Indians from the Spanish colony of Florida."  

Slowly, Charleston grew into a center for Jews in the New World. The parents of future Confederate statesman Judah Benjamin sold fruit out of a little shop on King Street, keeping the store open on the Sabbath to the consternation of the Jewish community. Joseph Tobias arrived about 1729 as a shopkeeper and served also as a Spanish interpreter for the British in their scuttles with the Spanish in Florida. In 1749, he became the first president of Congregation Beth Elohim Unveh Shalom (House of God and Mansion of Peace). It was a congregation which would play an historic role in the development of Reform Judaism in America. Two hundred years later, Thomas Jefferson Tobias was elected president of the same congregation, he being the only remaining survivor of the early Jewish settlers of the city.  

Admirer of Jefferson  

Asked about his name, Tobias told Evans: "My great-grandfather was such an admirer of Jefferson that the year Jefferson died, he rode all the way to Monticello just to shake his hand. Until then, our family names had been Jewish—Jacob and Joseph—but the next three generations were named Thomas Jefferson Tobias. But I vowed not to burden my son. He is David so that he can be himself."  

The Jewish role in the Confederacy is discussed in some detail. Perhaps as many as 10,000 Jews served in the Confederacy, according to some estimates, including 24 army officers and 11 navy officers. Evans notes that, "There were so many that General Robert E. Lee could not afford an exception to allow high holy days furlough to `soldiers of Jewish persuasion in the Confederate States army.' He wrote in 1861 to Rabbi M.J. Michelbacher, `Preacher, Hebrew Congregation, House of Love, Richmond, Virginia,' that `I feel assured that neither you or 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 reason of a portion of its defenders." Jews even organized two Jewish companies—at West Point, Georgia, in the first month of the War, and at Macon, Georgia in 1862, for the stated purpose of the defense of Savannah.  

Lion in Battle  

Many individual stories are discussed. One of those is that of Max Frauenthal, from Port Gibson and Summit, Mississippi, who served as a member of the 16th Mississippi Infantry and distinguished himself at Bloody Acute Angle during the battle of Spottsylvania Court House in Virginia, where General Grant said, during the bitterest part of the battle, "We will fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." Later a Judge A.T. Watts of Dallas, Texas, who was a member of the company, remembered Frauenthal as "a little Jew, who, though insignificant, had the heart of a lion in battle. For several hours, he stood at the immediate point of contact amid the most terrific hail of lead, and coolly and deliberately loaded and fired without cringing...I now understand how it was that a handful of Jews could drive before them a hundred kings—they were all Fronthals." Evans writes that, "It would not be the last time that a Jewish name was mispronounced; for years in Mississippi, Confederate veterans referred to any brave man as `a regular Fronthal.'"  

Judah Benjamin, who served as U.S. Senator from Louisiana before becoming attorney general, secretary of war and secretary of state of the Confederacy, was only one of many Jewish leaders of this era. Henry Hyams was lieutenant governor of Louisiana, and Dr. Edwin Moise was the speaker of the Louisiana Legislature. Just before the Civil War, Evans reports, Salomon de Rothschild of the Parisian branch of the noted banking family traveled to New Orleans, where he met with Benjamin, Hyams and Moise.Rothschild wrote home: "What is astonishing here or rather what is not astonishing, is the high position occupied by our co-religionists, or rather by those who were born into the faith and who, having married Christian women, and without converting, have forgotten the practices of their fathers...and what is odd, all these men have a Jewish heart and take an interest in me, because I represent the greatest Jewish house in the world."  

Zionism A Minority View  

The chapter on "Zionism in the South" is of particular interest. The Evans family was sympathetic to Zionism and worked for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Their "Zionism," however, did not seem to involve any feeling of "exile" but was based far more on humanitarian concern and a desire to assist those Jews who had suffered persecution in Europe. Throughout the South, Zionism was clearly a minority view in the Jewish community. "From the beginning," Evans writes, "the issue of Zionism plagued the Reform movement, trying to forge a new Judaism in America that would shun such self-conscious ideas as the Diaspora (Jews scattered across the earth longing for a return to Zion). In 1890, Isaac Wise led the effort to place the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform organization) on record against `any attempt toward the establishment of a Jewish state'..."  

The founding of the American Council for Judaism and its widespread support among Southern Jews is described. The fight against Jewish nationalism, Evans declares, "was to become an issue in every Reform Temple in the South...In Houston, Congregation Beth-Israel, one of the oldest and wealthiest Reform Temples in the South, and dominated by members of the American Council for Judaism, adopted a set of `Basic Principles' that laid out the issues in bold-faced, ten-gallon terms `to safeguard at least a segment of the Jewish people of the nation against the indictment before the Lord for worshiping a false god, Zionism'...The resolution was so stark in its bluntness that it became the focal point of a national debate: `We are Jews by virtue of our acceptance of Judaism. We consider ourselves no longer a nation. We are a religious community and neither pray for nor anticipate a return to Palestine nor a restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state. Our religion is Judaism. Our nation is the United States of America. Our nationality is American. Our flag is the `Stars and Stripes'...With regard to the Jewish settlement in Palestine, we consider it our sacred privilege to promote the spiritual, cultural and social welfare of our co-religionists.' The resolution passed in the congregation 532 to 138, but 142 members and the assistant, resigned to form a new, rival temple."  

Politicized Judaism  

A fourth generation German Jew and president of a chapter of the American Council for Judaism in a major Southern city said of Zionism:"Sure it was okay for the refugees, you know, the poor Jews, and anyone else who wanted to go there, but not for me. We were Americans by citizenship and Jews by religion. I mean, did the Baptists have a country?...I was afraid that Judaism would become a political issue here because Israel would change us from a religion into a race; that Jews would be persecuted more because people would think that they were more loyal to a country across the sea. And we were at home here and not about to leave for someplace else."  

Discussing his own adolescent years, Evans remembers sometimes feeling like an outsider in the Durham of the 1950s. He felt that he had to debunk Jewish stereotypes, and did so by fashioning the character of "Mister Jew," a creation expressly for this purpose. By assuming this character, Evans perpetually tried to prove to his classmates that Jews were not really greedy or unathletic. He did so by contributing to charity when the class was called upon—he always contributed a little more than his classmates, but not so much as to appear ostentatious. He also went out for the football team, and despite his small frame, due to hard work, he made it. He was elected president of the student body at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  

Civil Rights Era  

He also recalls the pressures of the restricted Southern society during the Civil Rights era. Although Southern Jews were generally more liberal than their Protestant counterparts, they were often afraid to speak out. And Jews became targets as the Klan spewed anti-Semitic rhetoric and targeted Jewish homes and synagogues for attack.  

Despite the occasional manifestations of anti-Semitism in the South—as in the lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta in 1913—the real problem facing Jews, in Evans' view, was assimilation.  

Jews were so dispersed across the region that they had to unite across the South, sharing rabbis, and attending religious camps, dances and other meetings to keep their children from assimilating into the heavily Protestant Southern culture. Gary P. Zola writes in the journal "Southern Jewish History" that, "Southern Jews have experienced the ravages of intermarriage, Jewish attrition, and societal acculturation more keenly than Jews who reside in the more densely populated Jewish centers."  

Truly Southern  

Over one summer, Eli Evans drove 7,000 miles visiting small towns and small Jewish communities in his study of the "Provincials"—400,000 Jews scattered across the 11 Southern states. Evans shows that Southern Jews are not the embattled group often imagined by their Northern brethren but are a group which is truly Southern, yet worship in a synagogue rather than a church. In the heart of the Bible Belt, Evans knew from personal experience, Jews were accepted by their Baptist and Methodist neighbors. He recalls an evangelist in Durham to conduct a revival meeting introducing Evans' father to the assembly: "Mayor Evans is here to greet us. Now y`all listen to the Mayor `cause he"s the same religion as our saviour."  

No one is more Southern than Eli Evans himself, although he is now a resident of New York where he serves as President of the Charles H. Revson Foundation. "I believe that no one born and raised in the South," says Evans, "even if one moves away physically, can escape its hold on the imagination. I was touched in childhood by its passions and myths, by its language and literature, by the heartbeat of its music, by the rhythm of its seasons and the beauty of its land, by the menacing fear of violence, by the complexities of race and religion, by the intensity of its history and the turbulence of its politics, by its sunlights and its shadows, illusions and mysteries. With such entanglements, a native son remains irredeemably Southern. So it has been with me, immersed in the endless fascinations and dense matrix of Southern history entwined with Jewish roots, resonating in my soul forever. The very word `home" conjures up the South for me..."  

North Carolina Soil  

Just before his son was born in New York City, Evans visited Chapel Hill. He writes: "On a trip to Chapel Hill, I had scooped up some North Carolina soil from the University of North Carolina campus and brought it with me back to New York. I put it in a vial and took it into the New York University Hospital delivery room where my son was being born. With one hand I held Judith's hand, and with the other I clutched the Southern soil. I would later tell people that I simply did not want him to be born altogether as a Yankee, but the truth was that I wanted him to know his roots and I believe that one had to begin to create family legends early...Later I told that story to the national convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and they gave me a standing ovation."  

Eli Evans did not intend to write this book until Willie Morris agreed to send him through the South in the summer of 1970 for a series of articles on Jews in the South for "Harper's" magazine. In the foreword to the new edition, Morris, who died in 1999 and whose body lay in state in the rotunda of the old Mississippi Capitol in Jackson, declares: "Evans endows his narrative with a human texture which elevates it to literature. The Provincials is a multi-layered book of great warmth and feeling...It has become an enduring classic."

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