- Jewish Roots in Southern Soil A New History
In the introduction to the anthology Jewish Roots in Southern Soil: A New History editors Marcie Cohen Ferris and Mark Greenberg begin defensively: "For more than a century historians have wrestled with the question, why study southern Jewish history?" Such opening gambits are commonplace in studies of southern Jewry. Ferris and Greenberg respond with a familiar litany: Charleston hosted the nation's largest Jewish community in the early 1800s, and American Reform Judaism was born there; Jews served the Confederacy loyally; Jewish merchants helped create a New South. Today, Jewish numbers in the Sunbelt are burgeoning. After the publication of Eli Evans's pathbreaking The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South and the founding of the Southern Jewish Historical Society in 1976 came waves of exhibits, archives, conferences, documentaries, local studies, regional societies, heritage museums, and a journal, Southern Jewish History. North Carolina, Emory, Virginia, and Duke universities have offered courses. The editors conclude, "The study of southern Jewish life has now come of age."
Ferris and Greenberg's subtitle, "A New History," describes their perspective as well as the book's chronology. Interest in southern Jewry rose in the 1960s and 1970s with the advent of social history—the writing of ethnic and regional minority voices into the American narrative. The thirteen contributors here include both young and established historians. The essays begin with the forty-one Jews who sailed to Savannah in 1733 and end with the hundreds of thousands in Miami today. The perspectives encompass race, feminism, folklore, religion, immigration, literature, demography, economics, and material culture. The essays tend to [End Page 107] be overviews, which condense the authors' dissertations or book-length studies. Certifying it all as kosher, Eli Evans provides the foreword.
One issue pervades the various approaches. In 1996 historian Mark Bauman argued in The Southerner as American: Jewish Style that the southern Jewish experience was a national rather than a uniquely regional story. He claimed that the experience of Dixie's Jews largely followed a familiar diaspora narrative of immigrant acculturation. To the contrary, Ferris and Greenberg see the southern Jewish experience as a "distinctive expression of American Jewish life," and Ferris opens her essay on "Dining in the Dixie Diaspora" by declaring, "I am a southerner."
Partisans will find ample evidence to support either position as well as efforts to transcend the debate. Hasia Diner sees peddling in a global context as a nearly universal Jewish trade, which lacks "a uniquely southern narrative." Emily Bingham describes the antebellum Mordecai family of North Carolina as children of the Enlightenment, and their blending of identities—familial, southern, Jewish, and American—was not a loss through assimilation but a "cultural evolution."
In contrast, Gary Zola argues for "the unique character of Jewish religious life in the American South." Tracing the religious histories of northern and southern synagogues from 1789 to the twentieth century, he observes that Newport, New York, and Philadelphia remained true to traditional Judaism while Savannah, Charleston, and Richmond evolved to Reform. Dale Rosengarten sees evidence in Jewish material culture that Jews integrated into elite southern society. Clive Webb also notes an "assimilationist impulse" in southern Jews that led them to behave cautiously during the Civil Rights era while northern Jews committed to the struggle.
Other essays point to permeable boundaries. Those first Savannah Jews, Greenberg notes, were a multinational mix of Germans and Portuguese who sailed from England. In Georgia Ashkenazi Jews shared a religion with Sephardic Jews, but they were closer in language and nationality to German-speaking Christians. Jennifer Stollman finds a distinctly female southern Jewish literary tradition, but the poetry that she cites suggests the writers owe more to Alexander Pope than to the rabbis. In their cuisine, Ferris observes that southern Jews both "merged" and "separated" their varying cultures. Bipolar does not begin to describe the disorder, ambiguity, or contradiction of southern Jewish identity.
The anthology is thorough if not exhaustive, and the essays invite...