Southern Jewish Memories

— by Hannah Lee

Already 38 years in print, Eli N. Evans’s The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South has garnered high praise by the late Israeli statesman and author, Abba Eban, who wrote of Evans: “the Jews of the South have found their poet laureate.”  Humbly identifying himself as “the grandson of a peddler,” Evans began his lecture at The National Museum of American Jewish History on October 16th by noting that being raised as a Southerner and a Jew were unique experiences that shaped his sense of self and of home.  In describing his boyhood in Durham, North Carolina, he said “I grew up like every other Southern boy– with a bicycle in the neighborhood and football, basketball, and picking honeysuckle in the spring.”

How Jews arrived in the South are recorded in diverse, colorful family lore, including an elderly man in a small town who confessed: “The horse died.” Evans’s grandfather told his grandson that “I got off the train when the money ran out.”  Historical happenstance and geography played a role, too, including King Charles II’s appointment of Lord Anthony Ashley-Cooper to rule over the Carolinas.  Lord Ashley invited his friend and advisor, the British philosopher (and physician) John Locke to draft a constitution for the colony.  From the beginning, Jews were free to worship, trade, own land, serve in the militia, leave property to their heirs, and most important, to vote, making Charleston the first community in the modern world to grant Jews that right.  Another reason was based on the important discovery of thermal navigation, which “enabled them to cross the Atlantic and when the ship reached the Gulf Stream, to sail right down to the growing port of Charleston.”

Jews thrived in the Southern states after the American Revolution.  George Washington’s devotion to religious tolerance as a natural right stemmed from the writings of Locke.  Evans noted that Jews worked for the good of their communities, because “they believed that the better the community was for everyone, the better it was for Jews.”  In 1800, there were more Jews– 500 strong– living in Charleston, South Carolina, than anywhere else in the United States, more even than the 400 Jews living in New York City.  They were deeply involved in Southern society.  In 1840, when dedicating a Reform temple, a rabbi proclaimed: “this city is our Jerusalem; this land our Palestine, and this temple is our Temple and we shall defend it.”  But others were deeply Zionistic– Evans’ grandmother founded the first Hadassah chapter in the South in the early 1900’s, and his mother served on the national board for 40 years, traveling the South to raise money for the new State of Israel.

Like many Jews in the South, including the Neiman-Marcus family, Evans’s grandfather had his origins as a peddler. Evans interviewed the black writer and poet Alice Walker who recalled that her grandmother called a Jewish peddler, “the rolling storeman.” Southern blacks and Jews were on friendly terms.  One Jewish peddler even stored his kosher dishes with his black customers till he returned the next season. “Peddling succeeded as a start-up job for new immigrants in Europe as it did in the South and across America,” said Evans.

His family took pride in being openly Jewish, living by the motto that “People will judge all Jews by the few Jews they meet.” So, in the South, “they had to be extra nice, extra friendly to their neighbors, and upstanding in their business dealings.”  Evans’s father served as mayor of Durham for 12 years from 1951 to 1962 and in his campaign material, he listed his philanthropic work for Jewish causes, including his 10 years as statewide chairman of the United Jewish Appeal and as president of his synagogue.  Why?  He told his son: “people down here respect church work.”  Evans related the story of one Jewish owner of a furniture shop who sold items on credit to sharecroppers, who would pay him at the end of a harvest season.  One year, a customer showed up on Yom Kippur to make his payment, and when the storekeeper refused to take the money offered him (deferring until the next spring), the story of his religious ardor spread across town, touting him as “a holy man.”  Evans said “he credited that event as enabling him and his family to develop loyal and trusting customers and eventually, one of the most successful furniture businesses in the state.” A later story of a Jewish storekeeper who was extremely respectful of his black customers- hiring black clerks, allowing customers to try on clothes, buy on credit– was upset when his store was picketed during the civil rights movement.  His wife interrupted him: “but how would you have felt to have been the only business in town not picketed?”

The relations of Jews with Christians were complex, because along with anti-Semitism (the Ku Klux Klan first appeared in the South in 1860’s), there was philo-Semitism, a deep respect for Jews as the People of the Book.  Evans noted that evangelical Christians are the fastest growing denomination in the South, now comprising 25% of all Christians, and “in town after town I speak in, I am told they are the best and most ardent supporters of Israel.”  Evans told the anecdote of a non-Jewish woman who was a newspaper reporter in Alabama who said she had read his book and wanted to hear him speak because “my mother sent me to Hebrew day school at age 10 because she wanted me to have the same education as Jesus.”

Religious fervor amongst the Jews were complicated by the forces of assimilation and the pressure not to be different from their Gentile neighbors.  One Jewish mother he interviewed in Mississippi recalled that “we never eat ham on Friday nights.”  However, other Jewish families, “like the one my wife came from,” he said,” ordered their kosher food each week from New Orleans.”  Another woman industriously decked her house with Christmas lights and decorations and asserted proudly “I didn’t want to be the only dark house on the street but we never entered [our address] in the town’s Christmas competition.”  Evans said he searched for the best example he could find of Southern Jewish humor.  He told the story of a Jewish storekeeper in a small town who was approached by the Christian elders to show solidarity for their Easter holiday.  Mr. Goldberg was chagrined but when Easter came, after sunrise services on a nearby hilltop, the mayor, all the churchgoers, and the leading families in the city gathered in the town square in front of his store.  The store had a new sign but it was draped with a parachute.  After an introduction from the mayor, at the appointed hour, the owner pulled the rope and there it was revealed in all its wonder for all to see: “Christ Has Risen but Goldberg’s prices remain the same.”

Evans spoke of the gristly lynching of Leo Frank in 1913 (the only American Jew ever lynched) which put a pall on Jewish life, inducing half the Jewish population to leave Atlanta over the next two years as the trial grew closer.  It was widely stated that “if a member of the German Jewish aristocracy could suffer such a terrible death, there was no hope for the newcomers from Eastern Europe.”  Fear spread throughout the South.  But when the Reform temple of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild was bombed in 1958, it galvanized a Christian campaign and an outpouring of support.  Janice Rothschild, his wife, referred to the Leo Frank case 45 years earlier when she wrote about the episode as “the bomb that healed.”  The sympathetic response of the churches of Atlanta launched the famous adage printed each day in the city newspaper calling Atlanta, “the City Too Busy to Hate.”

A number of Southern Jewish families took action to aid the Jews fleeing from the Holocaust in Europe.  Evans’s parents signed affidavits for more than 55 refugees, pledging assurances of a job, which enabled the Jews to obtain visas.  When Evans’s father died in 1997, the family received 750 letters, including the testimony of one man who eulogized the senior Evans for lending him money to buy his first house.  Thus, he wrote, the senior Evans “not only saved my life but he gave me a life in America.”

Evans stated that Israeli nationhood was fascinating to the Southern Christians, many of whom admired Moshe Dayan for his role in the Six-Day War, comparing him to the Confederate hero, General “Stonewall” Jackson. “They were playing out the metaphor of the Civil War,” said Evans, “imagining a small country surrounded by an alien force of Arabs.”  After 1948, Southern Congressmen such as Senator Richard Russell, Jr. of Georgia, who was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, supported arms for the fledgling state of  Israel as did Congressman Mendel Rivers of Charleston.

Evans noted that journalists and other commentators have predicted an erosion of the Jewish vote for the Democratic party but George Walker Bush garnered about the same percentage of Jewish votes as did his father, with about 24% of the Jewish vote.  Extensive polls have been conducted and reports have concluded that Jews were concerned about the Christian right’s growing influence in the Republican Party but most Jews have not moved as far to the right as have  much of the rest of America.  He also quoted Julian Bond, the former chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who said last week that  “Jews and blacks have always voted on the same side in national elections and will continue to do so.”

Atlanta has shown a steady arc of economic growth, growing from less than 16,500 Jews in 1970 to more than 120,000 Jews nowadays.  It hosted six synagogues in 1970 and now there are more than 38 religious institutions. Where are the Jews coming from?  Many have long come from the small towns in the South (whose independent stores have been wiped out by the expansion of Walmart and other mega-stores) and many are recent college graduates newly arrived from the north in search of job opportunities.  Evans predicts that Atlanta “is destined to become one of the great Jewish communities in this century,” already surpassing Washington and approaching Boston in population.

What was it like to grow up Jewish in the South?  Evans, who served for 25 years as President of the Charles H. Revson Foundation in New York City, answered his own question: “It is a lot like being Gentile in New York.”


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