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That Pride of Race and Character

The Roots of Jewish Benevolence in the Jim Crow South

Caroline E. Light

Publication Year: 2014

“It has ever been the boast of the Jewish people, that they support their own poor,” declared Kentucky attorney Benjamin Franklin Jonas in 1856. “Their reasons are partly founded in religious necessity, and partly in that pride of race and character which has supported them through so many ages of trial and vicissitude.” In That Pride of Race and Character, Caroline E. Light examines the American Jewish tradition of benevolence and charity and explores its southern roots.

Light provides a critical analysis of benevolence as it was inflected by regional ideals of race and gender, showing how a southern Jewish benevolent empire emerged in response to the combined pressures of post-Civil War devastation and the simultaneous influx of eastern European immigration. In an effort to combat the voices of anti-Semitism and nativism, established Jewish leaders developed a sophisticated and cutting-edge network of charities in the South to ensure that Jews took care of those considered “their own” while also proving themselves to be exemplary white citizens. Drawing from confidential case files and institutional records from various southern Jewish charities, the book relates how southern Jewish leaders and their immigrant clients negotiated the complexities of “fitting in” in a place and time of significant socio-political turbulence. Ultimately, the southern Jewish call to benevolence bore the particular imprint of the region’s racial mores and left behind a rich legacy.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

Over the years of researching and writing this book, I have incurred many debts and benefited from the tremendous generosity of friends, family, mentors, and colleagues. First and foremost, I want to thank Kathi Kern and Karla Goldman for their unambivalent benevolence, for inspiring this project, for fostering my interest in American Jewish...

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Introduction: Loving Kindness and Cultural Citizenship in the Jewish South

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pp. 1-23

Ralph A. Sonn, Bavarian-born superintendent of the Hebrew Orphans Home of Atlanta, addressed the Board of Trustees on New Year’s Eve, 1917, on the subject of aiding poor Jews within the institution’s five-state region. Opened in 1889 in the up-and-coming “Gate City” of the New South, the home was designed for needy Jewish children whose parents...

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1. “To the Hebrews the World Is Indebted”: The Southern Roots of American Jewish Benevolence

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pp. 24-54

The young nation’s first Hebrew Benevolent Society was established in Charleston, South Carolina, on the heels of the Revolutionary War, and the first Jewish orphan society followed shortly thereafter.1 The benevolent organizations that eventually provided institutional homes for all of the South’s Jewish orphans emerged in 1856 and 1889 in New Orleans...

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2. “For the Honor of the Jewish People”: Gender, Race, and Immigration

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pp. 55-80

When Simon Wolf, the Bavarian-born founder and president of Atlanta’s Hebrew Orphans Asylum, published The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen in 1895, the six-year-old institution was home to sixty-three children, the majority of them daughters and sons of immigrants.1 Trained as an attorney and devoting much of his career to...

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3. “Virtue, Rectitude and Loyalty to Our Faith”: Jewish Orphans and the Politics of Southern Cultural Capital

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pp. 81-122

In an interview conducted in 1991, Jacob Blaustein described how inmates of “the Home” were rotated through specific jobs, in addition to their daily chores. Jacob’s job was “taking care of the pantry” in which food staples were kept, organized, and dispensed. At meal times he “would dish out the food to the cook,” Fannie Young, whom he described...

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4. “A Very Delicate Problem”: The Plight of the Southern Agunah

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pp. 123-149

In 1914, several Jewish members of the Macon, Georgia, community appealed to the Atlanta Hebrew Orphans Home to accept custody of four children whose father had absconded to North Carolina.1 The letters they wrote to Superintendent Ralph Sonn reveal their concern that the children’s mother, Margaret Goldfarb, was ill equipped to raise her...

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5. “None of My Own People”: Subsidizing Jewish Motherhood in the Depression-Era South

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pp. 150-182

In the summer of 1935, almost six years after receiving her first subsidy check from the Hebrew Orphans Home of Atlanta to help support her two young daughters, the newly wed Rebecca Weiss Blakeney sat down to pen the last of the letters that would be included in her case file. Addressing Viola Wyle, the home’s director of subsidy cases, a...

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6. Sex, Race, and Consumption: Southern Sephardim and the Politics of Benevolence

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pp. 183-211

In the summer of 1929 the struggle of an immigrant agunah caught the attention of Atlanta’s benevolent leaders. It appeared that the woman’s husband had fled to Los Angeles one month prior, leaving her alone with five children, and their situation was becoming dire. But upon closer investigation, it became clear that the husband, Victor Ferrera, had...

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Conclusion: Loving Kindness and Its Legacies

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pp. 212-216

A few years ago, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion released a study, conducted by economist Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm, comparing the charitable giving of U.S. families representing various religious communities. Ottoni-Wilhelm concluded that Jewish families demonstrated exceptional generosity, and he explained the difference in part...


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pp. 217-256

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 257-272


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pp. 273-277

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About the Author

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p. 278-278

Caroline E. Light is Director of Undergraduate Studies at Harvard University’s Program in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. She has a doctorate in history and teaches courses in gender and ethnic studies; transnational feminist history; immigration; consumer culture; and intersections of citizenship, race, and...

E-ISBN-13: 9781479859542
E-ISBN-10: 1479859540
Print-ISBN-13: 9781479854530
Print-ISBN-10: 1479854530

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2014