That Pride of Race and Char­ac­ter: The Roots of Jew­ish Benev­o­lence in the Jim Crow South

Car­o­line E. Light

  • Review
By – March 12, 2015

Tzeda­ka, the Hebrew word for char­i­ty, also means right­eous­ness or jus­tice. In Judaism, this out­look trans­lates into the idea that giv­ing to the poor is not viewed as a gen­er­ous act but sim­ply an act of jus­tice and right­eous­ness — the per­for­mance of a duty, giv­ing the poor their due. Car­o­line E. Light’s well-researched book, That Pride of Race and Char­ac­ter: The Roots of Jew­ish Benev­o­lence in the Jim Crow South, delves into the ori­gins and devel­op­ment of the Hebrew Orphan Homes in Atlanta and New Orleans. The depic­tions of how these acts of char­i­ty were imple­ment­ed by the direc­tors, staff, and ben­e­fi­cia­ries who lived there are a fas­ci­nat­ing win­dow into Amer­i­can his­to­ry trained on two unique cities dur­ing times of great change. The insti­tu­tions were cre­at­ed in response to post-Civ­il War dev­as­ta­tion and the simul­ta­ne­ous influx of East­ern Euro­pean immi­grants. Infor­ma­tion and sto­ries in the book come from the con­fi­den­tial records of these insti­tu­tions as well as oral his­to­ries. Light’s descrip­tions of some of the inmates who resided in the Orphan Homes and the sin­gle moth­ers who were sub­si­dized dur­ing the Depres­sion are hope­ful but often wrench­ing, for exam­ple, the Blaustein sib­lings Sal­ly, Annie, Jacob, and Oscar, who found refuge in the Atlanta insti­tu­tion after their moth­er died in child­birth in a small Geor­gia town. Their immi­grant father and oth­er mem­bers of their town were expect­ed to help sup­port the chil­dren at the Orphan’s Home with dona­tions but inter­ac­tions were lim­it­ed as the man did not attain the finan­cial sta­tus the direc­tors deemed wor­thy of their charges. Start­ed by wealthy Jews of Ger­man descent, the insti­tu­tions reflect­ed the high-mind­ed aspi­ra­tions of the white-iden­ti­fied South­ern Jews. Light ana­lyzes choic­es and that his­to­ry through the lens of the era’s ideas of gen­der, race, and the pol­i­tics of South­ern cul­tur­al cap­i­tal. Explo­rations of the help, or lack there­of, extend­ed to South­ern agunot (aban­doned wives) are espe­cial­ly gripping.

Discussion Questions