Discussions of American Jewish life have tended to focus onmajor cities. While such places are important, our understanding of theevolution and the nature of Jewish life is greatly handicapped when weoverlook life, culture and institutions in smaller towns like the“triple digit Jewish communities” Weissbach studied, and in regions likethe South, the subject of McGraw’s book. Since Jewish life in the Southwas especially concentrated in small towns, the content of the booksoverlaps even though their perspectives and methodologies differ.
Our view of Jews as an urban people concentrated in a fewlarge cities is relatively recent. Many European Jews lived in ruralareas until the late 19th century, and the number of Jews in small townsin the U.S. less than 50 years ago was not inconsiderable. A largenumber of the Jewish students I encountered 40 years ago as a graduateteaching assistant at the University of Pennsylvania came from smalltowns, and were attending the University’s Wharton School of Business inpreparation to work in family businesses, often dry goods or jewelrystores. Indeed, a study conducted in the mid-20th century of 168 Jewishcommunities with populations less than 1,000 people revealed that twothirds of employed Jews were “owners and managers of businesses,” eightin ten of whom were in retail or wholesale businesses.
Weissbach’s Jewish Life in Small-Town America does afine job of drawing on voluminous historical and demographic data,including data from manuscript censuses, to study life in 490 smalltowns. The book describes nearly a dozen ‘patterns’ in thesecommunities, including patterns of culture, organizational life, familylife, livelihood, class, stability and mobility. Weissbach elaborates onthe complex and ambiguous position of Jews in these places: they werefar more integrated into the life of their towns than Jews in largecities were, but remained outsiders. Their position was especiallydistinctive in the South, where Jews tended to be more trusted thanwhite gentiles. Some patterns were not so different in small towns andcities: the sequence of organizational development was the same and theyall had synagogues, benevolent societies and burial societies. A majordifference was the sense of generational discontinuity. Whereas inGermany and other parts of Europe families could trace back theirancestors for hundreds of years in the small towns where they lived,there was much more transience in the United States. Eli Evans pointedout in a documentary film called Delta Jews, quoted in McGraw’sbook, that “The story of Jews in the South is that of fathers who builtbusinesses for the sons who did not want them.” This observation has abroader significance: Weissbach points out that small-town Jewish lifein America was typically a one or two generation affair. He points outthat “It was not only the continual arrival of people from elsewhere,however, that kept the blend of individuals and families in America’ssmall Jewish communities almost constantly in flux. Just as importantfor the dynamic demographic history of these settlements was theconstant departure of Jewish residents. In many cases, even individualswho were counted among the founders of their communities or among theirmost prominent members did not remain in their towns permanently.” Thisresulted in the disappearance of about half of the communities hestudied and the integration or absorption of others, like Englewood, NewJersey, into larger metropolitan areas.
These communities were settled in part by ‘chain migration’where residents served as magnets, attracting relatives and closefriends to an area. Other people were sent by the Industrial RemovalOffice, in an effort to reduce poverty by reducing the concentration ofJews in large cities. In the first two decades of the 20th century, theIRO placed 75,000 people; fully half of the nearly 500 towns discussedin this book received residents through this program.
McGraw’s Two Covenants draws on a different type ofevidence, literature by and about Southern Jews. Utilizing the conceptsand tools of postmodern literary analysis, McGraw is interested in thehybridity of Southern Jews, the sense of being an ‘Other’ in an area ofthe country whose life and culture was marked by so many complexitiesand contradictions, especially with regard to the status of AfricanAmericans. Some of her examples are interesting and important — the workof Alfred Uhry who wrote Driving Miss Daisy, and Lillian Hellman,as well as the lesser known but nonetheless emblematic writer, DavidCohn. Other examples, such as a chapter analyzing the significance ofthe ownership of Monticello by two Southern Jews who spent most of theirtime in the North, are not as strong.
Both books point to a need to further explore an importantdimension of American Jewish life. They raise important and provocativequestions and map out issues that merit future study.