For Sue Eisenfeld’s mother, the concept of “southern Jews” was almost an oxymoron, and the idea that Jews could be Confederates was unthinkable. Jews were leftists, refugee immigrants to the northeast in the late nineteenth century. If Jews went to the South, it was for civil rights marches or voter registration drives.
But when Eisenfeld moved from her native Philadelphia to Virginia — and, impelled by her interest in history, began going to Civil War reenactments, museums, and old cemeteries — she came across a series of gravestones for antebellum Jews. Apparently, Jews did live in the South, and had done so for a very long time. What was this about? With so much of Judaism based on the concept of social justice, why would any Jew willingly remain in a region steeped in injustice?
To get some answers, Eisenfeld planned a series of road trips to a variety of historic sites in the South. She took guided tours of Rosenwald schools, peanut factories, buildings that used to be synagogues or Jewish-owned businesses. She went to cemeteries, noticing how they were often divided into white, Black, and Jewish sections; whether or not non-Jewish spouses were buried alongside their Jewish partners became a measure of assimilation. Indeed, Eisenfeld demonstrates that conforming to the dominant culture meant survival and prosperity for southern Jews. Not only were shrimp and ham staples on most of her Jewish hosts’ tables — Eisenfeld also learns that the temple in Helena, Arkansas used to serve a big luncheon on Yom Kippur!
Of course, it’s easy to laugh about kashrut violations, especially when harder questions abound. In Selma, Eisenfeld discovers Jews who did not care for the interference of northern Jews, since it often threatened their sense of security. Case in point: that famous Selma march was joined by rabbis from all over the country … except the South. Eisenfeld also toured the mansions of Jewish Charleston plantation owners, asking, how many Jews owned slaves? How many Jews joined the Confederate Army and fought for the South’s right to own slaves? Where do southern Jews stand on the current debate surrounding Confederate monuments?
What particularly stands out about Eisenfeld’s story is her ability to hear what people are really telling her, even when it’s disturbing. She has good instincts for when she’s being shown a “whitewashed experience” rather than an authentic one, like on her visit to a very white Delta jook joint. She is also non-judgmental when she’s asking questions or sketching in history that people shouldn’t need to be reminded about, like the background on the Selma march.
Eisenfeld lets herself be changed by what she learns on her journey. She starts registering voters where she lives and driving people to the polls, and she adapts a social justice Haggadah for her family’s seder. Wandering Dixie is not only a fascinating read; it’s also a model of engaged scholarship.
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.