Regionalism: The Significance of Place in American Jewish Life

By Ferris, William R. | American Jewish History, June 2007 | Go to article overview
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Regionalism: The Significance of Place in American Jewish Life


Ferris, William R., American Jewish History


"For as Geography without History seemeth a carkasse without motion so History without Geography wandreth as a Vagrant without a certaine habitation."

--Captain John Smith, 1624 (1)

The following is a transcript of a roundtable session held at the 2006 Biennial Scholars' Conference on American Jewish History in Charleston, South Carolina, June 5, 2006.

Introduction, William R. Ferris:

It's exciting to see some of our nation's leading figures gathered here who are authorities on both Jewish studies and regional studies, and to consider the intersection of those worlds and their implications. My earlier work at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, especially the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture that we produced, dealt in significant ways with the contributions of Jewish families and their history. (2) Later, at the National Endowment for the Humanities, a special initiative on regional humanities centers while I served as Chairman, also embraced the contributions of Jewish families and their history.

For over a century, scholars have studied American regions, and their work collectively forms an important context for Jewish studies in America. At the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill a century ago, Howard Odom and his colleagues explored the American South, and today UNC houses over 15 million items organized in more than 4,600 collections on the region. These include rich materials on southern Jews, including the Mordecai family, Gertrude Weil, Moses Cohen, Allard Lowenstein, as well as another collection that I just discovered a few moments ago talking with Alan Kraut about his latest book, Goldberger's War. (3) This study of Dr. Joseph Goldberger and his attempt to wipe out poverty and disease in the South, especially the disease of pellagra, draws upon resources that are part of Southern Historical Collections at UNC. The College of Charleston's Jewish Studies Program, headed by Martin Perlmutter, and the Jewish Heritage Collection, headed by Dale Rosengarten, provide uniquely rich research opportunities on the history of Jewish families in Charleston and South Carolina. It is appropriate that Charleston, the home of one of the earliest Jewish congregations in the nation, Beth Elohim, also boasts an impressive new Jewish Studies Center.

Jewish studies, I would argue, can only gain and grow by building ties with regional studies and with the broader field of American studies. The pioneering work of Eli Evans in The Provincials (1973), of Macy Hart and Stuart Rockoff at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, and of Leonard Rogoff at the Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina, exemplifies the impressive resources that focus on Jewish life in the American South. Equivalent resources exist and are growing in other parts of our nation. So, it's not a question of if, but of how we build these bridges between regional studies and Jewish studies. To argue otherwise is a disservice to Jewish studies and weakens our field as we try to understand how the Jewish experience and the American experience have bonded for over three hundred years.

I would argue that there is a symbiotic relationship between Jews and their regions. Jews have been shaped by their regions in profound ways, and in equally profound ways they have defined the regions in which they live. To explore that idea in ways that I think will be especially important as we begin our meeting this week, we've gathered the best minds that we could locate and convince to come here.

Deborah Dash Moore:

We owe much of historical interest in regionalism to the legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner published his classic essay on "The Significance of the Section in American History" in 1925, a decade after his influential essay on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," and the former derives much of its insight from the latter. Turner's discussion of the "section" shares a sense of what has been lost with the closing of the frontier and the rise of industrial cities, but it also looks forward.

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