by Dina Wein­stein

Mem­oirs, diaries, and col­lec­tions tell the South­ern Jew­ish story.

It’s an expe­ri­ence that has gained pop­u­lar­i­ty based on the clas­sics of this field: The Last Night of Bal­ly­hoo and Dri­ving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry depict Atlanta Jew­ry; the per­son­al and sweep­ing The Provin­cials by North Car­oli­na native Eli Evans, recounts a unique South­ern Jew­ish con­scious­ness; and The Jew Store, Stel­la Suberman’s 1998 mem­oir tells of her immi­grant Russ­ian father’s dry goods store in Ten­nessee in the 1920s. 

But it is a nar­ra­tive that many peo­ple are not aware of. 

A lot of Jews asso­ciate Jew­ish his­to­ry with New York or their com­munity,” said his­to­ri­an Dr. Mark K. Bau­man, the new­ly named co-edi­tor of the Juda­ic Stud­ies series at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma Press. 

The grow­ing mar­ket for South­ern Jew­ish sto­ries has been fed by and pop­u­lar­ized in recount­ing folk ways by Amer­i­can Stud­ies schol­ar Mar­cie Cohen Ferris’s Mat­zoh Ball Gum­bo: Culi­nary Tales of the Jew­ish South and grow­ing schol­ar­ship on the region. 

Peo­ple tend to see the South­ern Jew­ish sto­ry as exot­ic,” said Bau­man, who is a New York-born South­ern trans­plant. But you can’t explain Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry with­out South­ern Jew­ish history.” 

Even though the Heart of Dix­ie isn’t known as a cen­ter of Jew­ish life, The Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma Press’s Jew­ish series has a strong foun­da­tion. And now Bau­man brings years of expe­ri­ence on this sub­ject mat­ter. He is edi­tor of the South­ern Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Society’s annu­al jour­nal and a retired pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Atlanta Met­ro­pol­i­tan Col­lege. He has researched the com­plex South­ern Jew­ish expe­ri­ence as edi­tor of The Qui­et Voic­es: South­ern Rab­bis and Black Civ­il Rights, 1880s to 1990s and as edi­tor and con­trib­u­tor to Dix­ie Dias­po­ra: An Anthol­o­gy of South­ern Jew­ish His­to­ry. Both books were put out by Bama press. 

The South’s claim to Jew­ry boasts notable but lit­tle known acco­lades. Bau­man cites the first Jew came to North Car­oli­na decades before the first Jew came to New Ams­ter­dam. In the 1800s, South Car­oli­na was home to the largest Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the US. The first Jews to serve in the US Sen­ate were born in the South. These firsts raise ques­tions about Jews’ role in Amer­i­can his­to­ry and iden­ti­ty. Since those times, Jews have looked to the South for eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty. In the ear­li­er part of the last cen­tu­ry Jews set­tled the South as ped­dlers and mer­chants. Now, retirees look South for a com­fort­able place to live out their sun­set years. Aca­d­e­mics are drawn to South­ern col­lege towns for oppor­tu­ni­ty. The Ben­tonville, Arkansas Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty is boom­ing due to the Wal­mart head­quar­ters in that town. 

The last South­ern Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety meet­ing in Birm­ing­ham, Alaba­ma focused on Jews and the civ­il rights era. Pre­sen­ta­tions to the 150 atten­dees ranged wide­ly geo­graph­i­cal­ly from Alaba­ma to Texas to Flori­da and the Car­oli­nas. Per­spec­tives detailed the expe­ri­ences of com­mu­nal lead­ers, stu­dents, mer­chants, rab­bis, and housewives. 

A lot of this stuff is just plain inter­est­ing,” said Adam Mendel­sohn, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish Stud­ies at the Col­lege of Charleston and co-edi­tor of the Juda­ic Stud­ies Series at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma Press. 

Mendel­sohn entered the field as a stu­dent from South Africa in the States, inter­est­ed in the par­al­lels between how Jews in the South and those in his home­land han­dled racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and civ­il rights. He co-edit­ed (with Jonathan D. Sar­na) the book Jews and the Civ­il War: A Read­er.

For years, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma Press con­sis­tent­ly pub­lished Juda­ic Stud­ies works under the direc­tion of Leon J. Wein­berg­er, a Tuscaloosa-based aca­d­e­m­ic who edit­ed dozens of books and antholo­gies. Under Wein­berg­er, the press spe­cial­ized in East­ern Euro­pean his­to­ry, poet­ry in trans­la­tion, the nine­teenth- and twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry immi­grant expe­ri­ence, and col­lec­tions of essays by impor­tant Jew­ish philoso­phers. The Press is proud that it is the longest run­ning series empha­siz­ing the his­to­ry of Jews and Judaism in the Amer­i­can South. It has been pub­lish­ing works of schol­ar­ship in a wide range of sub­jects, themes, and inter­ests, among them the his­to­ry and cul­ture of Jews and Judaism in Amer­i­ca, East­ern Europe, and Latin Amer­i­ca, as well as Holo­caust his­to­ry. Wein­berg (z“l) died in 2011.

Pre­vi­ous titles in the series include A Place of Our Own: The Rise of Reform Jew­ish Camp­ing, Argenti­na and the Jews, Bul­gar­i­a’s Syn­a­gogue Poets, Ear­ly Syn­a­gogue Poets in the Balka­ns, A Hebrew Chron­i­cle from Prague, C. 1615, Jew­ish Poets in Crete, The Sephardic Jews of Bor­deaux, Sephardim in the Amer­i­c­as, and This Hap­py Land: The Jews of Colo­nial and Ante­bel­lum Charleston.

We want to con­tin­ue to have that kind of breadth,” said Dan Water­man, Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma Press Edi­tor-in-Chief. He says attend­ing con­fer­ences like the South­ern Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety helps him con­nect with both poten­tial authors and con­sumers. The pas­sion of the schol­ars for the sub­ject, he says is remarkable. 

The boom­ing inter­est in the field, Bau­man and Mendel­sohn say, is due to the inter­est­ing tales and the work of vibrant insti­tu­tions in the South includ­ing the Jack­son, Mis­sis­sip­pi-based Insti­tute for South­ern Jew­ish Life and the South­ern Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety. Non-aca­d­e­m­ic press­es like Arca­dia Pub­lish­ing are hon­ing in on this his­to­ry. Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na Press, Louisiana State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, and Texas Chris­t­ian Uni­ver­si­ty are also pub­lish­ing books on South­ern Jew­ish life. Like the South­ern Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety con­fer­ence, inter­est in this top­ic is gen­er­at­ed by gen­er­al read­ers, aca­d­e­mics, trans­plants to the South, those who reside there and the many Jews who have migrat­ed away from the small towns. 

The more places that pub­lish these sto­ries the bet­ter,” said Men­delsohn. It will only improve the qual­i­ty of the research. The increase of schol­ars in the field will only raise the bar.”

The Jews & Judaism: His­to­ry and Cul­ture series under Bau­man and Mendel­sohn will con­tin­ue to be more than just sto­ries of the Jew­ish South, focus­ing in on Amer­i­can and world Jew­ish his­to­ry includ­ing the Holo­caust. Their edi­to­r­i­al advi­so­ry board, experts from through­out the US as well as from Cana­da, Great Britain, Israel, and Poland, was formed to help guide the series and solic­it ground break­ing man­u­scripts from around the world. 

There’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to branch out to pub­lish all oth­er dimen­sions of Jew­ish his­to­ry,” said Mendelsohn.

The first three titles they are cul­ti­vat­ing are diverse. 

A forth­com­ing book in the series by Texas-based his­to­ri­an Bryan Stone is an anno­tat­ed mem­oir that fol­lows the author through life in sev­er­al Euro­pean coun­tries, through yeshiv­ot, and into the rab­binate and teach­ing. He final­ly moves to a small Texas town where he is a pro­po­nent of Ortho­doxy and Zionism. 

Anoth­er forth­com­ing title is a pri­ma­ry doc­u­ments man­u­script on a major fig­ure in nation­al and inter­na­tion­al Zion­ism who is out­spo­ken on numer­ous oth­er issues as well.

A book by Uni­ver­si­ty of Mem­phis-based pro­fes­sor Steve Tabach­nik focus­es on Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and belief in the graph­ic novel.

Ruth Guttman is putting out a Holo­caust mem­oir with the press. 

The grow­ing inter­est in the South­ern Jew­ish expe­ri­ence does reflect the nor­mal­iza­tion of the South,” said Mendel­sohn. But also an inter­est in all things South­ern. And a grow­ing accep­tance and a de-mys­ti­fi­ca­tion of the South­ern Jew­ish experience.”

Dina Wein­stein is a Mia­mi, Flori­da-based jour­nal­ist cur­rent­ly research­ing Jews in St. Augus­tine, Flori­da dur­ing the 1960s era civ­il rights strug­gle there with a grant from the South­ern Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety. She men­tors young jour­nal­ists as an advis­er at the Mia­mi Dade Col­lege stu­dent news­pa­per The Reporter. Wein­stein has taught jour­nal­ism and mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions at a num­ber of col­leges includ­ing Mia­mi Dade Col­lege. She is a Boston native and a grad­u­ate of Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Grad­u­ate School of Jour­nal­ism and Boston Uni­ver­si­ty School for the Arts.