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Examining the Long History of Jewish Roots in the American South

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring 2008

Edited by Marcie Cohen Ferris and Mark I. Greenberg,  
Brandeis University Press (Published by University Press of New England),  
368 Pages,  
In the traditional recounting of American Jewish history, the role of late 19th and early 20th century immigrants from Eastern Europe, and their settlement in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and other large urban centers along the East Coast, looms large. There are, however, a number of other Jewish stories to be told. One of these concerns Jews in the American South and their prominent role from colonial days through the Civil War and Reconstruction to the present day.  
Jews have long been a presence in the South, first arriving in the late 17th century as part of exploratory voyages from Europe to the New World. Two of the nation’s earliest Jewish communities were founded in Savannah in 1733 and Charleston in 1749. By 1800, more Jews lived in Charleston than in New York City.  
This book, edited by Marcie Cohen Ferris, Associate Director of the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Mark I. Greenberg, Director of the Florida Studies Center and Special Collections Department at the University of South Florida, offers essays that address historical issues from the colonial era to the present. Topics include assimilation and American Jewish identity, southern Jewish women writers, the Jewish Confederacy, Jewish peddlers, the rise of Reform Judaism, and black/Jewish relations.  
Southern Jewish History  
In the forward, Eli Evans, whose 1973 book The Provincials, was one of the first to explore Southern Jewish history and identity, writes: “Years ago, I was a lecturer on a restored steamboat called the Delta Queen and sailed down the Mississippi River with Shelby Foote, the renowned Civil War historian. It was little known that Foote’s grandfather had been a Jewish peddler ... When The Provincials was first published ... southern Jewish history was not really a field at all. There were only a few novels and books to guide me, and a handful of interested scholars along with a group mostly of amateurs and rabbis who specialized in their own congregations, cities and states. ... Today’s scholars and artists must plunge into the intersecting influences and unravel the deeply intertwined strands of religion, race, gender, history, state-by-state variations, and economic and social history. To paraphrase Arthur Miller, they will help discover what I stated are the central themes of my own writing — ‘how Jews made of the South a home.’”  
An impetus for the current volume, Evans notes, were the students in the “Shalom Y’all” seminar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill which explored the history of Jews in the South and yearned for a single text — instead of photocopied articles and course packs. “Their enthusiasm for southern Jewish history inspired this book,” he declares.  
In his landmark book, American Judaism: A History, Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University contrasted American Jewish history with the Jewish history of Europe. He wrote that “persecution, expulsion, tragedy and mass murder are not the central themes of American Jewish life and never have been. Instead, American Jewish history offers the opportunity to explore how Jews have flourished in a free and pluralistic society where church and state are separated and where religion is entirely voluntary.”  
Merchants and Traders  
The editors point out that, “Unlike the urban Northeast, where large numbers of Jewish immigrants settled in ghettos, Jews came south in small numbers and found themselves at the center of white and black Gentile communities where they played an important, highly visible role as merchants and traders. In these worlds, it was impossible for Jews to remain untouched by the history and culture of their region. ... Just as William Faulkner’s character Quentin Compson wonders about his southern identity when his Harvard roommate Shreve asks him, ‘Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all,’ southern Jews face similar questions about who they are, why they exist, and what makes their experience worthy of discussion.”  
The southern Jewish experience began more than fifty years prior to the first permanent Jewish settlement in Savannah in the 1730s, when Jews joined exploratory expeditions from Europe to the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sephardic Jews who fled the Iberian Peninsula to avoid the Inquisition sought religious tolerance as well as economic opportunity in the newly developing markets of the coastal south. Other Jews came from St. Croix, Curacao, England, Alsace and the Rhineland, Poland, Prussia and the Netherlands, as well as northern colonial cities like New York, Philadelphia and Newport, Rhode Island.  
When the Revolutionary War descended upon Charleston in 1779, the women prepared for the ensuing conflict while their husbands enlisted in a local militia that included so many members of their temple that it became known as the ‘Jews’ Company.”  
Reform Judaism Begins  
It was in Charleston that Reform Judaism in America began. In 1825, South Carolinians Isaac Harby, Philip Benjamin (father of Judah P. Benjamin, who later became secretary of war and secretary of state for the Confederacy) and ten other Jews petitioned leaders of Congregation Beth Elohim to make changes in the form of the worship service. The Reformers argued that their goal was to fight the apathy of congregants who were “wandering gradually from the true God,” but there were other concerns as well. A growing “sense of crisis” among whites in Charleston caused the younger generation of Jews to seek reforms. The Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy of 1822 terrified Charleston’s white citizens, who were already concerned because of the city’s economic decline. In response, young native-born Jews turned inward and sought order in their own community through what they viewed as “a more rational worship service.”  
Editors Ferris and Greenberg note that, “Reformers were also influenced by the Second Great Awakening, an era of religious revival that swept the South during this period, inspiring Christian missionaries, preachers and churchgoers to draw nonbelievers into their fold. Concerned that apathy within the Jewish community made them vulnerable to such efforts, Reformers sought to secure the survival of Judaism in fragile times, a deed so empowering that it has been described as the ‘first revitalization of Judaism in America.’ The central issue was the inability of one synagogue to meet the needs of a Jewish community that included young Jews born after the Revolution who were deeply influenced by American ideas of democracy, freedom, and religious change ... This marked a transition from the Old World model of a ‘synagogue community’ to the New World ‘community of synagogues,’ with the transfer of power from synagogue leadership to the congregants. Charleston reformers advocated shorter services in both Hebrew and English, vernacular prayers, a weekly sermon, and increased decorum in congregants’ style of worship. ... Reformers sought to balance the two poles of their identity — their white southernness and the Judaism of their ancestors. The Reformers wanted Judaism to survive and sought to adapt their religion to the southern world in which they lived.”  
Part of the South  
In his memoir of growing up in the Reform Jewish community of Charleston, author Louis Rubin explains: “These people were part of the South, and their response to their experience was very much in terms of the Southern community ... Cut off from what for their forebears had been a powerful historical and self-sufficient community tradition, in effect they replaced it with the intense heritage of their new home — which was also a minority enclave within a larger cultural and political entity.”  
In the Mississippi Delta, Jewish peddlers traveled the roads between outlying plantations, towns and villages, where they served the scattered population of planters sharecroppers, and laborers. Progressing from packs to horse-drawn wagons to dry-goods stores, Jewish merchants established homes in the Delta, purchased land and began to farm it. In his memoir of the Delta, Lanterns on the Levee, William Alexander Percy explains that “every American community has its leaven of Jews. Ours arrived shortly after the Civil War with packs on their backs, peddlers from Russia, Poland, Germany, and a few from Alsace.” Percy describes how the Jewish peddlers became merchants, bankers and plantation owners; sent their children to universities, and became involved in the arts and politics. “Why shouldn’t such a people inherit the earth?” he writes, “Not surely, because of their meekness, but because of a steadier fire, a tension and tenacity that makes all other whites seem stodgy and unintellectual.”  
Jewish merchants filled an important niche in this cash-poor society as a restructuring of the supply system took place during Reconstruction. Local storeowners replaced planters as the suppliers of goods to black laborers. “The war, in liberating the slaves, flooded the plantation South with just such individuals,” writes Michael Wayne. ‘When old patterns of supply broke down, it was the local storekeeper who stood best prepared to deal with the material needs of the freedmen.”  
Role of the Peddler  
An essay by Professor Hasia Diner of New York University explores the role of the peddler in the South. She writes that, “Rather than being a life sentence, as it had been in Europe, Jewish peddlers in their destination homes used peddling as a way to leave the occupation. And because they pursued the trade for only a fairly short time, sons did not pick up their fathers’ packs or sit down behind their fathers’ horses. Rather peddling represented merely a stage in a Jewish immigrant man’s life, one not passed on to subsequent generations ... The preponderance of former peddlers among the ranks of shopkeepers, large and small, in the towns and cities of the destination countries, further proves the temporary nature of new world peddling. One example, drawn from Atlanta, Georgia, is the Rich brothers, immigrants from Kaschau, Hungary, the first of whom came to the U.S. in 1859. By 1867, he owned one of the most significant emporiums of the city reborn from the ashes of the Civil War, a symbol almost of the commercial underpinnings of the New South.”  
Diner notes that, “In the American South, color mattered more than anything, and Jews as white people could take profound advantage of that reality.” Perhaps the best statement available to historians describing this, she declares, comes to us from the memoir of Oscar Straus, close confidant of Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. ambassador to Turkey, and the first Jew to hold a cabinet position. Straus’s father Lazarus came to the U.S. in 1852 from Bavaria and began his American career as a peddler in Georgia. As the son looks back on his father’s life, he writes: “The itinerant merchant ... filled a real want, and his vocation was looked upon as quite dignified. Indeed he was treated by the owners of the plantations with a spirit of equality ... This gave to the white visitor a status of equality that probably otherwise he would not have enjoyed to such a degree, provided only, therefore, that the peddler proved himself an honorable, upright man, who conscientiously treated his customer with fairness and made no misrepresentations regarding his wares, he was treated as an honored guest by plantation owners, certainly in a spirit of true democracy.”  
Civil War  
Discussing the role of Jews in the Confederacy, Robert N. Rosen, author of The Jewish Confederates, notes that, “... southern Jews were an integral part of the Confederate States of America ... When the Civil War began, there were sizable Jewish communities in all of the major southern cities. Louisiana boasted more than five congregations, New Orleans had the seventh largest Jewish population in the U.S. (Boston was 6th, Chicago 8th). In Charleston, home to three congregations, ‘Israelites occupy the most distinguished places,’ according to one Jewish traveler. The Jews of Savannah organized K.K. Mickve Israel in 1735, the third congregation in America following those in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. There were Jewish communities in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia; Atlanta, Macon and Columbus, Georgia; Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee, and Galveston and Houston, Texas, and Jews lived in dozens of small towns throughout the South.”  
Louisiana was, Rosen points out, emblematic of the acculturation and assimilation of Jews in the antebellum South. Judah Benjamin served as one of the state’s U.S. senators. Lt. Gov. Henry M. Hyams was Benjamin’s cousin, having moved to Louisiana with Benjamin from Charleston in 1828. Edwin Warren Moise, also from South Carolina, served as Speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives.  
Southern Jews, writes Rosen, “accepted regional customs and institutions, and most significantly, its greatest pathology, slavery.” Oscar Straus wrote in his memoir that, “As a boy brought up in the South I never questioned the rights or wrongs of slavery. Its existence I regarded as a matter of course, as most other customs or institutions.” In 1862, Bernhard Felsenthal, a northern abolitionist rabbi, wrote that, “Israelites residing in New Orleans are man by man ardently in favor of secession” and that German Jewish immigrants favored slavery precisely because many non-Jewish German immigrants opposed it. “No Jewish political figure of the Old South ever expressed reservations about the justice of slavery or the rightness of the southern position,” Rabbi Bertram Korn concluded.  
The Bible and Slavery  
According to many rabbis, North and South, the Hebrew Bible allowed for slavery. “How dare you ... denounce slaveholding as a sin?” Rabbi Morris C. Raphall of New York thundered at the abolitionists. “When you remember that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — all three men were slaveholders.” Many Christian ministers took precisely the same position.  
“Because Jews accepted southern customs and mores,” states Rosen, “southerners accepted Jews. Most southerners were tolerant of different religions. The Fundamental Constitution of Carolina written by John Locke in 1699 granted freedom of religion to ‘Ye Heathens, Jues (sic) and other Dissenter.’ Jefferson’s celebrated act of religious freedom asserted that ‘no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatever.’ Southern aristocrats, influenced by the Anglican, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist and liberal Protestant tradition had few concerns about Jews in their midst. They found their Jewish neighbors to be law-abiding, educated and cosmopolitan, characteristics they appreciated. Finally, southerners believed fervently in the God of the Old Testament and respected their Jewish neighbors’ knowledge and historic connection to the Bible. Oscar Straus recalled how his father, who was well versed in biblical literature, translated passages from the Hebrew Bible for local ministers over dinner in their home.”  
The irony of Jewish slaveowners was not lost on northern critics of slavery. The anti-slavery senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio referred to Judah Benjamin as an “Israelite with Egyptian principles.” The Jewish Messenger of New York City called upon American Jewry to “rally as one man for the Union and the Constitution.” In April, 1861, the Jews of Shreveport, Louisiana responded with a denunciation of the newspaper and its editor: ‘We, the Hebrew congregation of Shreveport scorn and repel your advice ... We solemnly pledge ourselves to stand by, protect and honor the flag, with its stars and stripes, the Union and Constitution of the Southern Confederacy, with our lives, liberty and all that is dear to us.”  
Confederate Memorial  
Moses Ezekiel of Richmond, best known as the sculptor who created the memorial to the Confederate dead located in Arlington National Cemetery, recalled that, ‘We were thoroughly imbued with the idea that we were fighting not for the perpetuation of slavery, but for the principle of state’s rights and free trade, and in defense of our homes which were being ruthlessly invaded.” The Lost Cause remained so much with Ezekiel that he is buried at the base of the Confederate monument. The inscription makes no allusion to his artistic achievements but instead places him within the tradition of military honor to which so many southerners have belonged. He wished himself to be identified only as “Sergeant of Company C, Battalion of Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute.”  
Judah Benjamin, Rosen notes, “was the best-known Confederate official next to the president and vice president and third in order of succession. Varina Howell Davis (wife of Jefferson Davis) called Benjamin her husband’s ‘right arm.’ Historians have described him as ‘the president’s most intimate friend and counselor.’ ... Benjamin took on the most dangerous assignment Davis had given him, that of spymaster. This would be his last assignment for the Confederacy. He established spy rings and sent political propagandists to the North and to Canada. He enlisted the seductive Belle Boyd, the ‘Cleopatra of Secession,’ in the cause. He sent agents to Ireland to stem the tide of Irish volunteers entering the Union Army. He planned the burning of federal medical stores in Louisville, and bridges in strategic locations across the occupied South.”  
Rosen describes many Jews who played prominent roles in the Confederacy. The quartermaster of the Confederate army was Col. Abraham Myers, the great-grandson of the first rabbi of K.K. Beth Elohim in Charleston. After graduating from West Point, Myers became a career army officer and served in the Second Seminole and Mexican Wars. Fort Myers, Florida was named in his honor by his father-in-law, General David Emanuel Twiggs. Phoebe Yates Pember, born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Charleston in 1823, went to wartime Richmond to become the first matron of the Chimborazo Hospital.  
Good Reason for Loyalty  
“The Jews of the Confederacy had good reason to be loyal to their section,” concludes Rabbi Bertram Korn. “Nowhere else in America — certainly not in the ante-bellum North — had Jews been accorded such an opportunity to be complete equals as in the old South.”  
An essay by Professor Gary Phillip Zola of Hebrew Union College describes “The Ascendancy of Reform Judaism in the American South During the 19th Century.”  
The first organized attempt to reform Judaism in America occurred in Charleston’s Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. Zola reports that, “Charles-ton’s distinguished Unitarian minister, the Rev. Samuel F. Gilman (1791-1858) had on at least one occasion observed the traditional ritual as it was practiced during Sabbath morning worship services sometime toward the beginning of the 1820s. He described his impression of the experience in an article he wrote some years later for the North American Review. Gilman noted that the Jews’ traditional mode of worship in Charleston consisted of ‘readings and responses in a kind of chant, or recitative, enunciated frequently with great indistinctness and volubility, now sinking into a low murmur, and now rising into a kind of nervous and violent vociferation.’ Indeed, the ceremony certainly seemed odd to the outsider, and he expressed satisfaction when a group of Jews decided that the synagogue needed ‘to remedy these and other defects and improprieties.’”  
On November 21, 1824, the nation’s first formal crusade on behalf of reforming Judaism began as a result of widespread dissatisfaction among a portion of Charleston’s Jewish community with the traditional liturgical practices. Nearly fifty disgruntled Jewish residents gathered and urged that English translations be presented of all prayers, that everything “superfluous” be removed from the service and only “the most solemn portions” be retained. Their plan was designed to spark a revitalization of Jewish life and bring disaffected Jews back into the synagogue.  
Organ Is Installed  
In 1840, an organ was installed in Beth Elohim’s new building and this, writes Zola, “was just the first step on a long road that led to Beth Elohim’s transformation into a Reform congregation.” There was, however, opposition to the changes: “Beth Elohim’s new spiritual leader, the Rev. Gustavus Poznanski became hasan (liturgical reader) of the congregation in 1837 and undertook a new reforming initiative ... On Passover 1843 he asserted in a sermon that second-day observances of the Holy Days should be abandoned ... For the next three years, the congregation’s two factions battled in the court over the organ’s installation in the synagogue, and they carried the case to the chambers of the South Carolina Court of Appeals. ...the Court of Appeals ultimately sided with the liberal faction in 1846.”  
Reform Jews, it seems, had rejected Jewish nationalism long before the appearance of Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat in 1896. As early as 1841, at the dedication ceremony of Temple Beth Elohim, Rabbi Poznanski declared that, “This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our Temple.” Similar efforts at reform proceeded throughout the South. In 1841, several Richmond Jews organized a synagogue called Beth Ahabah. They noted that the education of the “younger generation” had been “partially neglected,” thus leaving young people disconnected from Jewish “moral and religious feelings.’~ Moreover, the young had become unacquainted “with the history of their ancestors and the signification of their religious ceremonies.” To address this crisis, Beth Ahabah’s leaders voted to engage a religious leader able to relate to young people by teaching them in English, leading meaningful services, and offering lectures (on the pulpit) on “lessons of morality to young and old,”  
Choir Is Organized  
A newly formed committee sought to fulfill the board’s resolution and the Rev, Maximilian J. Michelbacher became Beth Ahabah’s new spiritual leader, In 1866, the rabbi organized a choir for the synagogue’s worship services that featured male and female voices. The choir became an immediate success and in 1867 the congregation installed family pews and an organ to accompany the choir. From 1869 through 1894, Beth Ahabah moved steadily from its starting point as a traditional Ashkenazic congregation toward complete identification with American Reform Judaism.  
“When Abraham Harris died in Beth Ahabah’s pulpit (like his predecessor Abraham Hofmann, he died while preaching)” writes Zola, “the congregation elected its first Hebrew Union College graduate, a man who remained in Richmond for more than 50 years, Rabbi Edward N. Calisch (1865-1946).” Rabbi Calisch was one of the early leaders of the American Council for Judaism.  
In Savannah, in 1867, Mickve Israel congregation elected its second full-time minister, the Rev. Raphael D.C. Lewin (1845-86), who played a pivotal role in transforming the congregation into a stalwart of Reform. On February 1, 1868, he delivered a sermon entitled “Orthodoxy vs. Reform.” He told his listeners that American Judaism was rife with division and quarreling over the Orthodoxy versus Reform controversy and that many blamed those who advocated reform for bringing disharmony to their communities. In truth, he said, it was the Orthodox and not the Reformers who caused the conflict: “The very premises of the supporters of Orthodoxy are wrong. The advocates of Orthodoxy view the biblical laws and the rabbinic teachings as if they are of equal stature.”  
In Lewin’s view, a loving God would not have allowed the salvation of man to be dependent on a tradition or law that was “orally transmitted from generation to generation.” Orthodoxy’s advocates in Mickve Israel, he said, justified their actions by insisting that they were merely preserving faithfully an inherited tradition: “We came into the world and found it so. Our parents acted so, and surely a good child should not question the wisdom of his parents ... All we have to do, is to follow in their footsteps and obey.”  
Reforms Are Approved  
Three days later, at a special meeting of the congregation, Lewin delineated the specific reforms he sought to inaugurate. First, he wanted to organize a choir with mixed voices and music for use in worship services. Second, he proposed eliminating the celebration of the second day of Jewish festivals. Third, he recommended curtailing some of the prayer service by doing away with certain customary repetitions. Members voted unanimously for the reforms.  
The liturgical transformations in the three historic synagogues in Charleston, Savannah and Richmond spread throughout the South. Zola writes that, “Religiosity was critically important in the post-bellum South, and Jews sought to express their religious commitment on their own terms. ... By reforming their traditional ritual, southern Jews hoped to forestall depictions of themselves as religious outsiders. They sought to adapt their spiritual heritage to the norms of a region dominated by the values of Protestantism, fundamentalism, and a veneration of the biblical tradition. These circumstances made the organ, mixed choir, English prayer, and the abandonment of the second day of holiday observances so attractive in southern synagogues. Religious reform provided southern Jewry with ‘a pathway of acceptance.’ ... By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Reform Judaism became the predominant form of Jewish religious life in the American South. This occurred because Reform Judaism provided an approach to Jewish practice that was particularly well suited to meet the distinctive social, cultural and demographic conditions that characterized Jewish life in that particular region.”  
Discussing “Southern Jews, Whiteness and the Rise of Jim Crow,” Professor Eric L. Goldstein of Emory University sets forth the “rigid black-white dichotomy” that characterized life in the post-Civil War South.  
Race Prejudice  
“Race prejudice is of two kinds,” argued southern writer Thomas Dixon in a speech before the American Bookseller’s Association in 1903. Dixon, whose racist novel The Clansman (1905) later inspired the film “Birth of A Nation” (1915), differentiated between two varieties of prejudice by comparing the hatred of the Jew to that of the “negro.” Hatred of the Jew, according to Dixon, was “a mean thing,” which “exists simply because the Jewish race is the most persistent, powerful, commercially successful race that the world has ever produced.” He argued that it was an example of unfair and petty jealousy and was not a matter of “self-preservation,” as was hatred of African Americans. “Thousands of them have been assimilated by America and thousands more will be assimilated,” he said of the Jews. “Millions of them may be swallowed by our Germanic race and that will not change your complexion ... but you can’t swallow a single nigger without changing your complexion.”  
Professor Goldstein states that, “While Jews in the South were careful to remain within the range of acceptable positions on racial issues, these factors meant that by the 1880s, it was not unusual for them to align themselves with supporters of political rights and education for blacks. Edwin W. Moise, who served as adjutant and inspector general in South Carolina, embraced the paternalistic racial attitude of Gov. Wade Hampton, who courted black voters and opposed the violence and intimidation practiced by racial radicals. In Virginia, William J. Lovenstein, a legislator who became the highest ranking Jewish officeholder in the state’s history, also supported the rights of African Americans, pushing his fellow lawmakers to support health care and teacher training for blacks. Educational projects for blacks also received the support of Jewish activists like Rabbi Judah Wechects, who campaigned for a bond issue to pay for the first black school in Meridian, Mississippi in 1888 and Samuel Eliman, who as a member of the Birmingham Board of Education, advocated improved facilities for black schooling as early as 1885. The frequency with which prominent Jews took public stands in favor of black causes during the 1880s indicated just how little they worried about being accepted by their non-Jewish neighbors as part of the white majority.”  
Economic and Social Upheaval  
This situation, however, began to change when economic and social upheaval, brought on by the depression of the early 1890s, devastated agricultural production. “Most Jews abstained from promoting the harshest forms of southern racism, like mob violence and lynching,” writes Goldstein. “Yet there were at least some Jews who felt the need to support such practices, including Frank Cohen, the editor of the Atlanta Jewish Sentiment. ‘The white man will rule by fair means or foul,’ Cohen warned after the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898. ‘God Almighty never created the negro the white man’s equal and even an act of Congress will not change the trend of Nature or swerve the white man from his determination to retain his supremacy.’ Maryland’s Jewish attorney general, Isidor Rayner, made disenfranchisement a central tenet of his political credo, arguing in 1903 that the Declaration of Independence was wrong in proclaiming that all men were created equal. Later, when Rayner became a U.S. senator, he lent his political clout to a state disenfranchisement bill championed by another Jewish politician and one of his successors in the attorney general’s office, Isaac Lobe Straus. The bill restricting black voting rights became law in Maryland in 1908 and was named the ‘Straus Amendment’ after its primary author.”  
Other southern Jews assisted the black community. Julius Levin, a prominent lumber merchant in Alexandria, Louisiana, who began his career as a country peddler, established close ties with many of his black customers and frequently made generous donations to the African American Shiloh Baptist Church of that city. When Levin died in 1910, local blacks published resolutions in his memory in the local paper, calling him a “true friend of our race as well as to humanity.” The Jewish merchants of Montgomery developed a strong rapport with Booker T. Washington and frequently supplied the needs of the Tuskegee Institute, which they also supported with financial contributions. Goldstein reports that, “Occasionally, Jewish merchants went beyond discreet acts of friendship and assistance and took more public stands. Once, when Tuskegee faced the possibility of an economic boycott, Jacques Loeb, a French-born Jew who headed a large Montgomery grocery concern and was influential in local business affairs, resisted the pressure of non-Jewish merchants and continued to supply the school with necessities until other companies agreed to do likewise.”  
Support for Black Education  
During the first two decades of the 20th century, a small but significant circle of southern rabbis supported African American education, opposed lynching, and worked for what they termed interracial “harmony” and cooperation. Rabbis such as Ephraim Frisch of Pine Bluff, Arkansas and Bernard Ehrenreich of Montgomery felt free to use their role as civic leaders to solicit support for black schools such as Branch Normal College and Tuskegee Institute. Seymour Bottigsheim, the rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel of Natchez, Mississippi ignored the concerns of some of his congregants and invited George Washington Carver to address his congregation from the pulpit.  
An essay by Professor Clive Webb of the University of Sussex, England addresses the question of “Black-Jewish Relations in the 20th Century South.” He quotes the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I think we all have to admit that there are Jews in the South who have not been anything like our allies in the civil rights struggle and have gone out of the way to consort with the perpetrators of the status quo.”  
Webb argues that, “The most common relationship between southern Jews and blacks was a commercial one. Jewish merchants earned a reputation among African Americans for being more willing than other white businessmen to offer both credit and basic courtesy to black customers. Social intercourse between the two peoples was nonetheless impossible. Jews understood that such a blatant transgression would lead to serious retribution by the white community. Black activist James Weldon Johnson captured the dilemma of one Jewish retailer in Atlanta who attempted to forge a fragile link across the racial divide. ‘Long traditions and business instincts told him when in Rome to act as a Roman,’ Johnson observed. ‘Altogether his position was a delicate one, and I gave him credit for the skill he displayed in maintaining it.’”  
Early NAACP Leaders  
The early leadership of the NAACP included a number of northern Jews, including the brothers Arthur and Joel Spingarn. Samuel Leibowitz and Joseph Brodsky, the lawyers who defended the Scottsboro boys, nine black youths accused of raping two white women in the early 1930s, were also Jewish. Southern Jews attempted to dissociate themselves from these radicals. When Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein-Lowell of Montgomery attended a rally in support of the Scottsboro defendants, his synagogue’s board of trustees forced him to resign.  
While the majority of southern Jews kept a low profile with regard to the civil rights movement, there were some important voices on both sides of the question.  
“A small number of southern Jews took conspicuously public stands in opposition to desegregation,” writes Webb. “Solomon Blatt of South Carolina issued an impassioned attack on racial integration from the floor of the state legislature. Photographs picture him stabbing his finger and waving his fist at colleagues, tears swelling in his eyes, as he exclaimed, ‘Do you want some 16 year-old-so-and-so holding the hand of your little granddaughter in the classroom?’ Sol Tepper, of Selma, Alabama acted as official spokesperson of notorious sheriff Jim Clark. Tepper was a member of the sheriff’s posse responsible for ‘Bloody Sunday,’ a brutal assault in March 1965 on civil rights activists campaigning for black voter registration. Charles Bloch of Macon, Georgia was an influential member of the segregationist Federation for Constitutional Government. As a lawyer, he also defended the county unit rule that effectively disenfranchised the African American population of Georgia.”  
Rabbis Support Integration  
On the other side, Webb discusses the Jewish women in Little Rock who were among the leaders of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC), and notes that, “The most principled stand in support of racial integration by southern Jews came from the rabbinate. The majority of rabbis who participated in the integration struggle were from the ranks of Reform Judaism. The prophetic mission to combat social injustice impelled Reform Jews. Orthodox and Conservative Jews, in contrast, prioritized the preservation of the faith and traditions of their own people. ... As Orthodox rabbi Isadore Goodman of Memphis argued, Jews only ‘become more vulnerable when they dissipate their strength in other movements.’”  
Rabbi Julian Feibelman of New Orleans, an early leader of the American Council for Judaism, was one of the principal leaders of the integrationist organization Save Our Schools, Rabbi Ira Sanders of Little Rock testified before the Arkansas state legislature in opposition to a school law intended to circumvent the Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision. Rabbi Emmet Frank of Alexandria, Virginia chose the holiest night of the Jewish year, the eve of the Day of Atonement, to denounce the “Godlessness” of Virginia Senator Harry Byrd, the architect of the massive resistance movement.  
The fate of Rabbi Seymour Atlas in Montgomery, Webb states, “is a telling example of how congregations tried to gag their outspoken rabbis. Atlas appeared on both television and radio in support of the Montgomery bus boycott. The rabbi found himself summoned before his board of trustees, who demanded that he publicly retract his support. At his next sermon an unrepentant Atlas delivered a defiant prayer for black protestors. Ostracized by his outraged congregation, Atlas was obliged to tender his resignation. ... Southern rabbis were among the most active of the white southern clergymen that tried to create a climate of tolerance and understanding in their local communities. Theirs were often the lone voices of reason among the religious leadership of the white South.”  
Southern Jewish Memoir  
Eliza L. McGraw, author of Two Covenants: Representations of Southern Jewishness (Louisiana University Press, 2005), shows that the Southern Jewish memoir has proliferated in the past decade. Leta Weiss Marks’ Time’s Tapestry (1997), Helen Jacobus Apte’s Heart of a Wife (1998), Stella Suberman’s The Jew Store (1998), Edward Cohen’s The Peddler’s Grandson (1999) and Louis Rubin’s My Father’s People (2002) narrate different strains of southern Jewish experience.  
Marks’ memoir centers on her prominent New Orleans family. Her father designed buildings for Huey Long, and her Dreyfous relatives fought for civil rights in the early days of the struggle. Time’s Tapestry is primarily concerned with family remembrances, but it also reflects on being Jewish in the South: “Since we were southerners, our culture and our beliefs reflected a long history of living in the South. We ... feasted on raw oysters or river shrimp on special occasions, and never heard of bagels and lox ... I remember being told that Jewish girls did not wear gold crosses, but I was not told why.”  
David Cohn was born in 1894 to Polish immigrant parents who ran a clothing store in downtown Greenville, Mississippi. His book about the Mississippi Delta of his childhood, God Shakes Creation (1935) was later subsumed into and enhanced in Where I Was Born and Raised (1948). He wrote that his relatives emigrated to become cotton planters in the Delta, and his parents soon followed: “There they met with unaffected kindness in an atmosphere hostile to bigotry.”  
Welcoming Atmosphere  
He describes his town’s graveyards to further explain the welcoming atmosphere: “For as long as I can remember, the Roman Catholic Church, the First Baptist Church, and the Synagogue have stood within a stone’s throw of one another. Over them all was the benison of God and the grateful shade, in summer, of leafy oaks and magnolias. Living, their communicants got on well together. Dead, they were buried in adjoining grounds where weeping willows and mockingbirds mimic song.”  
Walker Percy has created some of the most poignant representations of Jews in southern literature. In his novels Jews function as a quasi-religious symbol. For the Catholic Percy, the idea of Jewishness is preoccupying. He writes: “It may take a southern Jewish voice to articulate the fact, increasingly evident, that the modern world is in the grip of demonic powers.” He maintains that he makes “no claim to prophetic powers,” but Percy’s fiction does confer these powers on Jewishness. His characters tend to use Jewishness in general, and southern Jewishness in particular, as they search for their own spirituality.  
Binx Bolling, the New Orleans stockbroker protagonist in Percy’s The Moviegoer (1960), embarks on such a quest. He decides that Jews are his “first real clue”: “I am Jewish by instinct. We share the same exile. The fact is, however, I am more Jewish than the Jews I know, They are more at home than I am. I accept my exile.” Binx says that his southern Jewish neighbors bear this exile in the same way that the “Jews” in his broader formulation do: “Sidney is a short fresh-faced crinkle-haired boy with the bright beamish look Southern Jews sometimes have. There has always been a special cordiality between us.”  
Special Significance  
“Like Percy,” writes McGraw, “Robert Penn Warren assigns southern Jewishness special significance for non-Jewish characters. His novel Flood, he said in an interview, ‘begins to deal with the question ‘What is home?’ Ultimately home is not a place, it’s a state of spirit, it’s a state of feeling, a state of mind, a proper relationship to the world.’ The quest for home resonates in a southern Jewish character named Izzie (whose real name is notably Israel), as well as in the novel’s protagonist, Bradwell Tolliver. Izzie is long dead during the novel. His friend Brad returns to Fiddlersburg to move his grave, as government engineers prepare to flood the town and build a dam. Brad is ‘enough the true-born son of Fiddlersburg to carry the image of a Jew in his head as the archetypal image of all exoticism.’ Yet, as the novel progresses, images of home, region, and the South converge around Izzie, evoking a southern Jewishness that combines a quest for home with a search for spirituality. When the flood finally comes, and Brad realizes that ‘there is no country but the heart,’ he has Izzie to thank. A southern Jewish figure brings understanding and peace.”  
Jewish life in the South is now undergoing major change. In “The Fall and Rise of the Jewish South,” Stuart Rockoff, director of the history department at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life and the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, declares that, “The Mississippi Delta has fallen deeper into economic decline and many of its Jewish congregations have closed ... Large southern cities like Houston and Atlanta have attracted a growing number of Jews from around the country while small towns have witnessed an exodus of their Jewish population. It is the story of boom and bust, not as a cycle, but as concurrent and interrelated developments. In a seeming contradiction, the Jewish South has grown tremendously, while experiencing serious decline. The Jewish South has become less distinctive and yet has exhibited a growing interest in the nostalgic memory of plantations and peddler’s carts and the ubiquitous ‘Jew store.’ Though it has been transformed by the economic, demographic and religious changes brought on in the decades since 1945, the Jewish South continues to flourish.”  
Growth of Atlanta  
No place typifies the growth of the Jewish South better than Atlanta. A 1947 survey identified 6 Jewish congregations in the city; by 2004, there were 38 congregations in metropolitan Atlanta with one being founded every year. While the growing sunbelt cities reflect a remarkable increase in the number of Jews living in the South, other areas of the region have seen a significant reduction in their Jewish population. Perhaps the most telling symbol of this decline is the growing number of disbanded congregations. During the 1980s and 1990s, congregations in Wharton, Texas; Ardmore, Oklahoma; Blytheville, Arkansas; Clarksdale, Mississippi; Demopolis, Alabama and Weldon, North Carolina, among others, were forced to close their doors owing to dwindling membership.  
What is clear from these essays is exactly how much a part of the American South its Jewish community has been. An essay by Professor Stephen J. Whitfield makes the point that, “... businessmen constituted the heart of southern Jewry, and their destiny got entwined with the history of the region. Thomas Jefferson bought supplies for Monticello from David Isaacs’ dry good store on Main Street in Charlottesville, Virginia. His coreligionists included the Lesem family, which owned a dry goods store in antebellum Hannibal, Missouri where Samuel Clemens — the future Mark Twain grew up. Early in the 20th century, Pancho Villa was not only a temporary lodger above the El Paso, Texas store of the family of Haymon Krupp; the rebel bandido also crossed the border to purchase troop supplies and uniforms from other Jewish merchants in the city ... Members of the reborn Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan did not bother to boycott Jewish retailers on Main Street. Who else would have sold Klansmen their denims, their shoes, and even their sheets. When Elvis Presley decided to outfit himself in an outre black style, the couturier to the king was Bernie Lansky on Beale St. in Memphis, where the rocker had grown up so destitute that his parents could neither afford a telephone nor always pay their water bill. Both services were kindly provided by their neighbors, the rabbi of Beth El Emeth Congregation, Alfred Fruchter, and his wife Jeanette, In Americus, Georgia, a once and future president, Jimmy Carter, bought his suits from A. Cohen & Sons.”  
Life in the Delta  
Craig Claiborne, long time food editor of The New York Times, was born in Sunflower (population fewer than 500) and was raised in Indianola, Mississippi. He recalls having “numerous friends who were Jews,” thanks to a mother who thought that such families were classier than Gentiles and that Jews took greater “pleasure in conversation and tale-telling.” He says he was “initiated into the joys of matzoh balls, gefilte fish, matzoh brie and so on” in the Mississippi Delta rather than in New York City.  
There is much more in this book. Jennifer Stollman describes the work of Jewish writers before and during the Civil War. Emily Bingham, who spent ten years analyzing more than 10,000 letters of three generations of the Mordecai family, provides a rare picture of the interior complexities and souls in turmoil of Jewish women in one North Carolina family in the 18th and 19th centuries. Mark Greenberg describes the practices of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews in 18th century Savannah. Dale Rosengarten offers surprising insights into objects such as candlesticks, photographs, and heirlooms from the old country that became symbolic of a generation and of deep sentimental value, as much for the stories remembered as for the objects themselves.  
Eli Evans believes that the latest wave of southern Jews will adapt, “will find their American, Jewish and Southern identities becoming intertwined like a challah.” On the other hand, Evans suspects, an acute awareness of distinctiveness is bound to weaken: “Southerners in the 21st century will be more like other Americans, and Jews in the South will be more like other Jews.” This, of course, is part of a larger transition of the American South which has caused some critics to ask whether, indeed, there is any longer really such an identifiable region as “the South,” or whether the homogenization of the American society has largely altered it forever.  
Durable Community  
In Stephen Whitfield’s view, “All traces of the past that has shaped Dixie so decisively are not so easily obliterated. Old times there are not entirely forgotten — however much memories dim and however much only slivers of the past ever get salvaged no historian of southern Jewry should echo the phrase heard in junior high schools these days: it’s so over. But evidence continues to mount that, while the particularity of a mercantile and village way of life is dying, southern Jewry itself is not. And while eternity is not one of the options either, this durable community may be around till the Messiah comes, or (in the regional idiom) till the last dog dies.”  
Pamela S. Nadell, professor of history at American University, believes that with Jewish Roots in Southern Soil “the history of Jews in the South has finally come of age. Boldly asserting the power of place, it demonstrates Southern Jews negotiating complicated identities across time and space. The result ... is a claim for this particular and unique American identity.”  
The southern landscape itself is an important touchstone. Playwright and essayist Lillian Hellman, who grew up in a Jewish family in New Orleans, sees southern topography as a focal point of her identity. She writes: “There’s nothing like the look of Southern land, or there’s no way for me to get over thinking so. It’s home to me still.” Even when she discusses southern literature, the land becomes a powerful symbol. “William Faulkner’s Popeye is the South I knew, full of vines and elephant ear leaves, heavy with swamp air, home and frightening land.”  
Completely Acculturated  
The Jews of the South were so completely acculturated that they shared in the fate of their region during every point in history. They were divided, as were their non-Jewish neighbors, over questions of race, civil rights and their place in the larger American society. Some distinguished themselves as advocates of equality for men and women of all races. Others did not. This book contains a rich variety of ideas and observations and a variety of perspectives. It presents a comprehensive view of a part of American Jewish history which has, for too long, been ignored.  
It makes clear that for many American Jews through the centuries, the South was indeed a welcoming home.

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