Southern and Jewish
New histories of Southern Jews close a troubling identity gap.
A Biblical People in the Bible Belt: The Jewish Community of Memphis, Tennessee, 1840s-1960s
By Selma S. Lewis
Mercer University Press, 245 pp.
The Jewish Confederates
By Robert N. Rosen
University of South Carolina Press, 517 pp.
I spent much of college--writing term papers, scribbling poetry, even starting an obligatory angst-ridden sophomore-year novel--exploring what I melodramatically thought of as theirreconcilable conflict
between being Southern and being Jewish. No kosher-keeping Jew, for instance, could participate in the vigorous and never-ending Southern debate about which bar-be-que joint served up the best pulled-pork sandwiches. More specifically, I wondered, "how can I be of the Bible belt if I read the wrong Bible?
The fact is, there have been Jews in the South as long as there have been Europeans, though professional historians have not paid much attention to them. Scholars of American Jewry tend to focus on Northern cities, where there were larger Jewish communities, and scholars of Southern religion usually study evangelicals, who have dominated the Southern religious landscape since the mid-18th century. Most books on the history of Jews in the South were written by interested layfolk, not trained academic historians, so pointy-headed ivory tower types (like me) have often dismissed their efforts as charming but unhelpful.
A few recent books, however, are humbling. In "A Biblical People of the Bible Belt," Selma S. Lewis charts the Jewish community of Memphis. She suggests that Memphis' Jews thrived, building businesses, relief associations, bustling synagogues. There was prejudice, sure, and violence in other Southern states (like Georgia's 1915 lynching of Leo Frank) worried Jewish Memphisians. But on the whole, Memphis' Jews flourished, in part because black folks in Memphis, not Jews, bore the brunt of prejudice.
The book occasionally descends into tautology, offering as explanations the very things that need to be explained. Lewis claims, for example, that Jews had a good time of it because Memphis' political boss, Edward Crump, was uniquely open to Judaism, appointing Jews to high posts in city government and generally fostering "tolerance toward religious minorities." Lewis never explains--or, it seems, thinks to ask--why this was so, or why such a Jewish-friendly politician could rise to power in early 20th-century Memphis.