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 the irreconcilable 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.
On the whole, the book is a touch too celebratory--Lewis rehearses, for example, the familiar stereotypes of Jews acting boldly on behalf of black civil rights, despite growing scholarly research (most of it still sequestered in academic journals and dissertations) that, though there were a great many brave Jewish friends of civil rights, there were also Jewish segregationists. But "A Biblical People in the Bible Belt" is a good starting point for understanding one relatively large and prosperous Southern Jewish community.
"The Jewish Confederates" by Robert N. Rosen, a lawyer with an M.A. in history who has written several books about Charleston, is a fascinating exploration of the little-known world of Jewish Johnny Rebs. Unlike most shade-tree historians' efforts, "The Jewish Confederates" is satisfyingly analytical. Some Jewish Confederates, Rosen shows, hailed from the old, established Jewish communities (like Charleston), but many were recent immigrants who did not, at first blush, appear to have much stake in defending Southern slave society--their roots in that society were recent and tenuous, most didn't own slaves, and many had fled Russia and Poland because of conscription.
So why did they fight? Putting Southern Jews in the larger context of 19th-century Jewry around the world, Rosen argues that Jewish Confederates fought in order to overcome the idea that "'the Wandering Jew' was a citizen of no country, that they were cowards and they were disloyal."Rosen's insistence that Southern Jews "did not necessarily fight for slavery" raises unanswered questions: that most Jewish Confederates were not slave-owners does not necessarily mean that they were not fighting for slavery. Scholars have shown, for example, that yeomen in the Georgia upcountry had a stake in slavery and, indeed, were fighting to save the institution, even though they did not own slaves. Future students of Southern Jews during the Civil War might pick up where Rosen left off. Still, "The Jewish Confederates" is a richly nuanced volume, easily one of the best books in Southern Jewish history ever written.
These books may be just the beginning. Looking at current dissertations, readers can expect, among other books, a wonderful history of black-Jewish relations in the South (by Clive Webb), a close reading of the Mordecai family of North Carolina (by Emily Bingham Simms), and a study of Jews in the 18th-century British colonies (by Holly Snyder). Fiction readers have their choice of recent novels, too, from Tova Mirvis's "The Ladies' Auxiliary," which explores Memphis's Orthodox Jewish community, to Judy Goldman's "The Slow Way Back," about an intermarried Jewish radio host who comes into a cache of her foremothers' Yiddish letters.
In 1979, historian Melvin I. Urofsky, wrote that "just as the South is nowhere as monolithic in character as had been thought," so too the Southern Jewish experience is rich and complicated. Urofsky called for "the portrait of Southern Jewry that it so richly deserves." Twenty-two years later, authors are finally answering that call.