Coalfield Jews: An Appalachian History

By Bauman, Mark K. | Shofar, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Coalfield Jews: An Appalachian History


Bauman, Mark K., Shofar


Coalfield Jews: An Appalachian History, by Deborah R. Weiner. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006. 234 pp. $25.00.

In 2005 Lee Shai Weissbach published his magnum opus on Jews in what he called "triple -digit" communities (Jewish Life in Small-Town America: A History). He found remarkable similarities in their experiences across the country. The following year Deborah R. Weiner presented a much anticipated revision of her West Virginia University dissertation on the Jews in the coalfields of Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. Weiner's work offers a case study of Weissbach's findings with some important variations. Most of the towns Weiner studies had fewer than the hundred Jews requisite for Weissbach's classification. Whereas Weissbach suggested that few such communities could support congregations, let alone rabbis, Weiner's Appalachian Jews proved the exception, having formed 15 congregations, several of which employed rabbis for considerable lengths of time.

Both historians illustrate the importance of the environment in influencing the process of adjustment. Weiner refines the argument partly by discussing strong parallels with the boom towns of California and Wichita, Kansas, and by further breaking down the small town experience into boomtown, independent town, and county seat phenomenon.

Furthermore, she treats her subject as an intertwined duality. Hers is a history of the Appalachian coalfields as much as it is a history of small town Jewry. Thus the reader visualizes the Appalachian population as a mixture of immigrants and African Americans, besides uprooted mountain folk. Although the coal companies, their stores and elite, dominated, different groups forged their way into specific niches during an era when the area underwent an industrial/capitalist transformation. Few Jews entered the mines or actively participated in the industry. Rather they started as peddlers or small businesspeople, used family, landsleit, and religious connections, and entered the middle class. Nonetheless their lives, successes, and failures were dominated by the coal industry with its boom and bust cycles. Offering merchandise and credit, Jewish dry goods/department store owners brought competition to company stores, thereby facilitating consumer culture. Through their outside contacts and associations as Jews and businesspeople, they epitomized a cosmopolitan element that supported civic uplift, education, and culture, besides economic development. Weiner weaves some of the best socio-economic history of Jews since Harold Hyman's Oleander Odyssey, the saga of Texas' Kempner family and its business history, while simultaneously adding substantial nuance to Appalachian studies.

Participating within relatively fluid social structures, these Jews were largely accepted on their own terms as one minority among others. Few cases of antisemitism appeared, and they felt sufficiently confident to defend themselves against cases of insensitivity and to resort to litigation against Christians and fellow Jews. Still they were categorized as a distinct race, ethnic group, and/or religious entity, and were viewed and viewed themselves as "other." In one town Jews and African Americans dominated the local government. In times of conflict, as part of the middle class Jews were drawn to the side of the mine owners, but their sympathies and the fact that the miners were their customers pushed them in the opposite direction. In independent towns some Jews openly sided with the workers, whereas in the county seats they typically remained acquiescent. As noted repeatedly since Eli Evans' The Provincials (1973; rev. ed. 2005), the small town environment encouraged high rates of affiliation with congregations and creation of a public space for the synagogue. …

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