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  • Toward an "Immigrant Turn" in Jewish Entrepreneurial History:A View from the New South
  • Marni Davis (bio)

I.J. Schwartz's Yiddish epic poem Kentoki (1925) depicts the Jewish immigrant experience in a setting atypical of its genre. Joshua, Schwartz's protagonist, is a Jewish peddler who wanders into a Kentucky town—one that's never named, but considering Schwartz's biography, is likely Lexington. He is tolerated, and sometimes welcomed, by his native-born customers—they even start to call him "Josh," a thoroughly American name. He establishes a scrapyard enterprise. He purchases property, which makes him feel "as if he had taken root deep in the earth." A wave of Lithuanian Jewish immigrant peddlers joins him, eventually enough to form a minyan, the quorum of ten men required for communal prayer. As their town grows, so do their businesses, and soon they are able to purchase a former Protestant church, vacated by whites who had abandoned the neighborhood to African Americans and Jews.1

Kentoki is a searing portrayal of the pressures upon a Jewish minority in a thoroughly Christian environment; of generational conflict, as the children of Jewish immigrants become southern; of black-Jewish relations, and the terrifying brutality of white supremacy. But Schwartz's poem also illustrates the importance of small business ownership to the process of Jewish immigrant acculturation in the urban South. First as a peddler, and then as "a shopkeeper among the local farmers, black and white," as Hasia Diner has written, commerce offered Jewish peddlers like Schwartz's entry to southern life.2

But when Schwartz describes the local commercial district, we learn that Jews are not the only immigrant businessmen in Joshua's Lexington: [End Page 429]

An Irishman opened a tavern at the corner,And nights became festiveWith lively shouts and banjo tunes…A shrewd Greek openedA smelly restaurant; an ItalianDisplayed the finest greens and fruit;And Lee Hu-Tchung, with long stiff braids,In a black blouse with tassels,Installed himself in the white window

And day and night he stood with a small iron,Pressing linens.3

Did these men also anchor their communities, like Joshua did? Did their families struggle to maintain continuity with their old ways as they became more southern? How did they respond to Jim Crow? One wishes for the Greek, Italian, or Cantonese version of Schwartz's poem, portraying the experiences of this diverse collection of immigrant entrepreneurs and suggesting how they paralleled or diverged from one another.

The ethnically heterogeneous business district described by Schwartz was familiar to American southerners in the early twentieth century. Though most historians of the New South ignore the presence of immigrants in the region, some, like Blaine Brownell, have claimed that "the impact of foreign born groups," especially in southern cities, "was often greater than their numbers suggested."4 Their economic activities, especially as proprietors of small retail and service businesses, magnified their impact on the urban South.

When historians do investigate immigrant entrepreneurship in the New South, they generally center their attention on Ashkenazi Jews, to the exclusion of other immigrant merchants.5 This historiographic [End Page 430] focus is partly a function of proportion: the majority of the South's foreign-born merchants were Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. A small but visible minority in every southern state, Jewish peddlers and shopkeepers were so frequently encountered throughout the region that some observers overstated their commercial ubiquity. "It is said, 'If there is a Jewish holiday, you cannot buy a pair of socks in this whole country,'" reported social scientist John Dollard of Depression-era Mississippi. This perception "illustrates how complete the control of retail dry-goods trade by Jews is supposed to be."6

Whether the majority of the South's foreign-born merchants were in fact Jewish, or their visibility as a commercially-oriented minority only made them seem omnipresent, it is certainly true that Jewish immigrants who settled in the South overwhelmingly made their living in the commercial sector. In a heavily agricultural region with limited employment opportunity in industrial manufacturing, as was the case in the South before World War II, self-employment was one of few...