- THAT PRIDE OF RACE AND CHARACTER: The Roots of Jewish Benevolence in the Jim Crow South by Caroline E. Light
In That Pride of Race and Character: The Roots of Jewish Benevolence in the Jim Crow South, Caroline Light argues that the Jewish tradition of gemilut hasadim (Hebrew for “bestowing loving-kindness”)—or the individual’s responsibility toward others—had a distinctive regional character in the South. Here she details how southern Jews after Reconstruction provided charity for the poor Jewish women and children among them. Light explains that social belonging was precarious for Jews in the South, so they created sophisticated “social uplift” organizations that stemmed threats to their collective identity. Few scholars in American Jewish history have explored this topic from a regional perspective, so the author looks south “to explore the ways in which region shaped a minoritized people’s pursuit of belonging” (2).
In this engaging book, Light argues that the situation for Jews in the South in this period was different than in the North. The need to take care of impoverished coreligionists existed within a particular combination of circumstances unique to the South: economic depression and escalating unemployment, specific and subtle understandings of race and racial identity, and fear of social exclusion. Poverty was a key touchstone in the South and marked someone as not quite white (the author quotes historian Gunja SenGupta). Light thus argues that benevolence played an important role in preventing the poverty and cultural backwardness that could mark some Jews as racially “other,” and potentially threaten Jewish communal citizenship. As a result, a common element of agency work was educating children and immigrants in the social and cultural racial norms of southern society during Jim Crow.
Light deftly lays out how the specific circumstances of the South played out between agency representatives and the people they helped: orphans, agunot (Hebrew for “deserted women”), and widows. Agency files reveal community beliefs and ideals at the time. Orphans homes saved children from the threats of poverty and conversion (in a Christian orphanage), but also taught them “lessons in racialized and gendered cultural citizenship” (122). Light explains, for example, that northern institutions encouraged female “graduates” to learn domestic arts in preparation for marriage by working in private homes. However, southern institutional leaders felt bound by the regional racial order—which characterized domestic labor as black women’s work—and discouraged such practices.
Women deserted by their husbands were perilously dependent in a region where white women required the protection of chivalrous white men. Light explores how southern Jews could not allow a double abandonment of deserted women (by their husbands and by their religious community), nor could the community neglect these women’s children. The community did not want it widely known that some Jewish men abandoned their wives and children, for fear that it would imply social illegitimacy for the entire Jewish community.
Case files also reveal the perspective of some of the clients the agencies tried to help, as well as the affectionate, complicated, and sometimes fraught relationship [End Page 169] between them. Subsidized mother Rebecca Weiss balked at giving up her maid, which the agency believed an unworthy use of the money they gave her. Light explains that for Weiss having an African American maid elevated her and her family above the “stigmatizing shame of charity” (182) into a more respectable social position by emphasizing their separation from southern ideas about blackness.
Using historical records (public speeches, newsletters, meeting minutes, annual reports) and social-worker case files of charitable organizations and “social uplift” societies, Light compellingly details the nuanced and varied ways that southern Jews—in all their cultural and regional diversity—navigated local strictures and mores in order both to maintain their Jewishness and to create a home in the South.
All views expressed herein are those of the reviewer, and are not necessarily those of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.