Coalfield Jews: An Appalachian History

Article excerpt

Coalfield Jews: An Appalachian History * Deborah R. Weiner * Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006 * x, 236 pp. * $60.00 cloth; $25.00 paper

"It does not, somehow, seem possible that Jews really belonged in this place," writes Deborah R. Weiner of the coalfields of Appalachia, but in Coalfield Jews she demonstrates subtly and yet convincingly that Jews built successful communities in the coalfields by negotiating a precarious balance between tradition and assimilation (p. 6). Weiner, research historian and family history coordinator at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore, proposes to "unsettle commonly held views of both Appalachia and the American Jewish experience" (p. 2). She succeeds. In a study that weaves together numerous historical threads and individual stories, Weiner offers a vibrant narrative of Jewish life in the eleven counties of southern West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, and southeastern Kentucky that are the focus of Coalfield Jews. Moreover, she provides an incisive analysis of the dynamics of Jewish life in Appalachia that reveals much about the struggle of all residents of Appalachia to retain their identity. Jewish communities, it turns out, filled a niche within a niche, supplying consumer goods to a region that was supplying resources to the nation.

The first generation of Jewish immigrants to Central Appalachia began their journeys in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, where the modernizing forces of capitalism had already begun to destabilize traditional Jewish life. Like most immigrants, they arrived in America poor and with only a rudimentary understanding of the predominant American culture. However, as Weiner asserts, Jews had already experienced life as native aliens while in Europe. They had adapted when necessary to the demands of the dominant culture while maintaining their identity within their minority communities, and with little alternative they had filled economic, social, and occupational roles that often involved communicating across cultures. In America, familial networks and occupational patterns extending back to Europe led Jewish immigrants to seek out the same niche as commercial middlemen that they had occupied in Eastern Europe. …