Car­oli­na Israelite: How Har­ry Gold­en Made Us Care About Jews, the South, and Civ­il Rights

  • Review
By – May 11, 2015

Car­oli­na Israelite is being pro­mot­ed as the defin­i­tive account of the life of Har­ry Gold­en, a humorist, essay­ist, lec­tur­er, and fre­quent guest on late night tele­vi­sion shows in the 1950s and 60s. He was a pop­u­lar cul­tur­al icon at a time when Jews entered the main­stream of Amer­i­can soci­ety. His life reflects the pos­i­tives and neg­a­tives of assim­i­la­tion. Kim­ber­ly Mar­lowe Hart­nett, a jour­nal­ist, charts Gold­en’s jour­ney from a poor immi­grant boy­hood on the Low­er East Side to his move South, where he was reborn as a celebri­ty. He became the edi­tor of a con­tro­ver­sial news­pa­per, The Car­oli­na Israelite, the author of best­sellers includ­ing Only in Amer­i­ca, and a con­trib­u­tor to nation­al magazines.

Hartnett’s exam­i­na­tion of this fig­ure is as much a social his­to­ry of the Civ­il Rights Move­ment in the South as a biog­ra­phy. Gold­en s arrival in Char­lotte, NC coin­cid­ed with the begin­ning of the move­ment in the South, in which he became an activist. Hartnett’s impres­sive research on both themes includes works by Tay­lor Branch, W.J.Cash, Eli Evans, and Jonathan D. Sar­na among many oth­ers. This is a study of the pub­lic fig­ure rather than the pri­vate man, but ear­ly chap­ters describe fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships and a mixed her­itage of Tal­mu­dic learn­ing and labor rad­i­cal­ism, and read­ers may glean oth­er per­son­al data from snip­pets scat­tered through­out. Hart­nett presents Gold­en as a charm­ing, tal­ent­ed rogue — how­ev­er, she lists his unat­trac­tive traits and actions: he was an absen­tee hus­band and father, a wom­an­iz­er, a heavy drinker, a debtor to fam­i­ly and busi­ness friends, a teller of false tales, and a schemer, always look­ing for the big score. A dubi­ous Wall Street ven­ture led to a jail term, a secret he car­ried with him to the South.

Gold­en’s com­mit­ment to Judaism, too, depend­ed on cir­cum­stances and his needs. He found his iden­ti­ty as an eth­nic Jew. Gold­en mar­ried a Roman Catholic, and their chil­dren were raised as Chris­tians. Although he fought against anti­semitism and sup­port­ed the State of Israel, Gold­en had lit­tle patience with South­ern Jews, whom he regard­ed as inher­i­tors of the prophet­ic tra­di­tion. He was angered by their silence dur­ing the deseg­re­ga­tion cri­sis. (Undoubt­ed­ly, they feared that Gold­en’s words might jeop­ar­dize their safe­ty and sta­tus.) Gold­en did praise the Catholic Church, the Evan­gel­i­cals, and the Black Church­es for the spir­i­tu­al strength which they brought to the movement.

Car­oli­na Israelite is a hefty vol­ume , and the nar­ra­tive does not always flow smooth­ly. Many digres­sions — some lengthy — relate to the Move­ment; oth­ers do not relate specif­i­cal­ly to Gold­en’s life. It is not clear that polit­i­cal and lit­er­ary per­son­al­i­ties men­tioned as friends of the sub­ject are any­thing more than pass­ing acquain­tances. Gold­en died in 1981, a for­got­ten man. Amer­i­ca had lost its taste for his nos­tal­gic, sen­ti­men­tal style and con­tent. He and oth­er grad­u­al­ists were co-opt­ed by African Amer­i­can nation­al­ism, which brought about groups like the Stu­dents Non-Vio­lent Com­mit­tee and the Black Pan­thers, which were some­times tinged with anti­semitism. Gold­en’s sup­port of Lyn­don John­son and the Viet­nam War put him at odds with the younger gen­er­a­tion. This title is appro­pri­ate for patient read­ers, look­ing for detailed infor­ma­tion. Unlike Gold­en’s body of work, it is not designed to enter­tain. Index.

Lib­by K. White is direc­tor of the Joseph Mey­er­hoff Library of Bal­ti­more Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty in Bal­ti­more, MD and gen­er­al edi­tor of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries Newsletter.

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