The Provin­cials: A Per­son­al His­to­ry of Jews in the South

Eli N. Evans
  • Review
By – August 13, 2012
In 1970, Eli N. Evans, a native of Durham, North Car­oli­na, liv­ing and work­ing in New York City, went South to research a series of mag­a­zine arti­cles. The result, three years lat­er, was The Provin­cials, the clas­sic study of South­ern Jews. 

Jews set­tled in the South before the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, but their num­bers were small. Liv­ing among a dis­tinct­ly Chris­t­ian major­i­ty, they adjust­ed social­ly and reli­gious­ly to the per­va­sive cul­ture even as they rose to finan­cial and civic leadership. 

Evans, then a foun­da­tion exec­u­tive, records this his­to­ry, inte­grat­ing the sto­ry of his own fam­i­ly into the larg­er sto­ry of the South­ern Jews. Based on broad research, exten­sive inter­views, and rec­ol­lec­tions rem­i­nis­cent of Dri­ving Miss Daisy and Car­o­line, or Change, The Provin­cials is a per­son­al as well as region­al por­trait, illu­mi­nat­ing the small busi­ness­es and large civic roles of these minor­i­ty Amer­i­cans, the supreme­ly clas­sic Reform Judaism of the high­ly assim­i­lat­ed Jews of Ger­man descent, the rela­tions between Jew­ish fam­i­lies and their African-Amer­i­can cus­tomers and maids. Through the 1970s, South­ern Jews, shad­owed by the Leo Frank case and iso­lat­ed from the large-scale East and Cen­tral Euro­pean immi­gra­tion, sought to main­tain their gen­er­al­ly com­fort­able place in a soci­ety marked by social strat­i­fi­ca­tion, racial ten­sion, and Bible Belt evangelism. 

In the 30 years since the orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion of The Provin­cials, much has changed in the South, and in 1995 Evans updat­ed the book with a new chap­ter on Atlanta, rep­re­sent­ing many of the changes, and a chap­ter clos­ing one part of his fam­i­ly his­to­ry. This newest edi­tion, mark­ing the 350th anniver­sary of Jew­ish life in the Unit­ed States, again updates Atlanta and clos­es and opens anoth­er chap­ter on Evans’ fam­i­ly. One sta­tis­ti­cal appen­dix has been added, but almost the entire body of the text dates to the orig­i­nal edi­tion, most notice­ably the chap­ter on New Orleans. There are no source notes or bib­li­og­ra­phy in this edi­tion. Appen­dices, index, photographs.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions