by Dina Weinstein
Memoirs, diaries, and collections tell the Southern Jewish story.
It’s an experience that has gained popularity based on the classics of this field: The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry depict Atlanta Jewry; the personal and sweeping The Provincials by North Carolina native Eli Evans, recounts a unique Southern Jewish consciousness; and The Jew Store, Stella Suberman’s 1998 memoir tells of her immigrant Russian father’s dry goods store in Tennessee in the 1920s.
But it is a narrative that many people are not aware of.
“A lot of Jews associate Jewish history with New York or their community,” said historian Dr. Mark K. Bauman, the newly named co-editor of the Judaic Studies series at the University of Alabama Press.
The growing market for Southern Jewish stories has been fed by and popularized in recounting folk ways by American Studies scholar Marcie Cohen Ferris’s Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South and growing scholarship on the region.
“People tend to see the Southern Jewish story as exotic,” said Bauman, who is a New York-born Southern transplant. “But you can’t explain American Jewish history without Southern Jewish history.”
Even though the Heart of Dixie isn’t known as a center of Jewish life, The University of Alabama Press’s Jewish series has a strong foundation. And now Bauman brings years of experience on this subject matter. He is editor of the Southern Jewish Historical Society’s annual journal and a retired professor of history at Atlanta Metropolitan College. He has researched the complex Southern Jewish experience as editor of The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s and as editor and contributor to Dixie Diaspora: An Anthology of Southern Jewish History. Both books were put out by ‘Bama press.
The South’s claim to Jewry boasts notable but little known accolades. Bauman cites the first Jew came to North Carolina decades before the first Jew came to New Amsterdam. In the 1800s, South Carolina was home to the largest Jewish community in the US. The first Jews to serve in the US Senate were born in the South. These firsts raise questions about Jews’ role in American history and identity. Since those times, Jews have looked to the South for economic opportunity. In the earlier part of the last century Jews settled the South as peddlers and merchants. Now, retirees look South for a comfortable place to live out their sunset years. Academics are drawn to Southern college towns for opportunity. The Bentonville, Arkansas Jewish community is booming due to the Walmart headquarters in that town.
The last Southern Jewish Historical Society meeting in Birmingham, Alabama focused on Jews and the civil rights era. Presentations to the 150 attendees ranged widely geographically from Alabama to Texas to Florida and the Carolinas. Perspectives detailed the experiences of communal leaders, students, merchants, rabbis, and housewives.
“A lot of this stuff is just plain interesting,” said Adam Mendelsohn, assistant professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston and co-editor of the Judaic Studies Series at the University of Alabama Press.
Mendelsohn entered the field as a student from South Africa in the States, interested in the parallels between how Jews in the South and those in his homeland handled racial discrimination and civil rights. He co-edited (with Jonathan D. Sarna) the book Jews and the Civil War: A Reader.
For years, the University of Alabama Press consistently published Judaic Studies works under the direction of Leon J. Weinberger, a Tuscaloosa-based academic who edited dozens of books and anthologies. Under Weinberger, the press specialized in Eastern European history, poetry in translation, the nineteenth- and twentieth-century immigrant experience, and collections of essays by important Jewish philosophers. The Press is proud that it is the longest running series emphasizing the history of Jews and Judaism in the American South. It has been publishing works of scholarship in a wide range of subjects, themes, and interests, among them the history and culture of Jews and Judaism in America, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, as well as Holocaust history. Weinberg (z"l) died in 2011.
Previous titles in the series include A Place of Our Own: The Rise of Reform Jewish Camping, Argentina and the Jews, Bulgaria's Synagogue Poets, Early Synagogue Poets in the Balkans, A Hebrew Chronicle from Prague, C. 1615, Jewish Poets in Crete, The Sephardic Jews of Bordeaux, Sephardim in the Americas, and This Happy Land: The Jews of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston.
“We want to continue to have that kind of breadth,” said Dan Waterman, University of Alabama Press Editor-in-Chief. He says attending conferences like the Southern Jewish Historical Society helps him connect with both potential authors and consumers. The passion of the scholars for the subject, he says is remarkable.
The booming interest in the field, Bauman and Mendelsohn say, is due to the interesting tales and the work of vibrant institutions in the South including the Jackson, Mississippi-based Institute for Southern Jewish Life and the Southern Jewish Historical Society. Non-academic presses like Arcadia Publishing are honing in on this history. University of North Carolina Press, Louisiana State University Press, and Texas Christian University are also publishing books on Southern Jewish life. Like the Southern Jewish Historical Society conference, interest in this topic is generated by general readers, academics, transplants to the South, those who reside there and the many Jews who have migrated away from the small towns.
“The more places that publish these stories the better,” said Mendelsohn. “It will only improve the quality of the research. The increase of scholars in the field will only raise the bar.”
The Jews & Judaism: History and Culture series under Bauman and Mendelsohn will continue to be more than just stories of the Jewish South, focusing in on American and world Jewish history including the Holocaust. Their editorial advisory board, experts from throughout the US as well as from Canada, Great Britain, Israel, and Poland, was formed to help guide the series and solicit ground breaking manuscripts from around the world.
“There’s an opportunity to branch out to publish all other dimensions of Jewish history,” said Mendelsohn.
The first three titles they are cultivating are diverse.
A forthcoming book in the series by Texas-based historian Bryan Stone is an annotated memoir that follows the author through life in several European countries, through yeshivot, and into the rabbinate and teaching. He finally moves to a small Texas town where he is a proponent of Orthodoxy and Zionism.
Another forthcoming title is a primary documents manuscript on a major figure in national and international Zionism who is outspoken on numerous other issues as well.
A book by University of Memphis-based professor Steve Tabachnik focuses on Jewish identity and belief in the graphic novel.
Ruth Guttman is putting out a Holocaust memoir with the press.
“The growing interest in the Southern Jewish experience does reflect the normalization of the South,” said Mendelsohn. “But also an interest in all things Southern. And a growing acceptance and a de-mystification of the Southern Jewish experience.”
Dina Weinstein is a Miami, Florida-based journalist currently researching Jews in St. Augustine, Florida during the 1960s era civil rights struggle there with a grant from the Southern Jewish Historical Society. She mentors young journalists as an adviser at the Miami Dade College student newspaper The Reporter. Weinstein has taught journalism and mass communications at a number of colleges including Miami Dade College. She is a Boston native and a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Boston University School for the Arts.