Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina

Article excerpt

Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina. By Leonard Rogoff. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. 432 pp.

The past twenty years have seen the appearance of books describing the Jews of fifteen different states, an emerging American Guide Series of American Jewry. While some of these treat essential communities like California and Florida, most give us insight into Jewish populations off the beaten track--Michigan, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and Texas, for example--where Jewish life adheres, sometimes oddly, to local and regional customs while still displaying the outlines common to all American Jews. Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina by Leonard Rogoff, an historian at the Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina, which cosponsored the book and a series of related documentary projects, is among the best of this growing genre. It is thorough, insightful, rich in detail, lavishly illustrated, and readable, and it provides a model of how to weave local history into the broader patterns of national and international Jewish experience.

North Carolina spent most of its history in the shadows of its larger and more prosperous neighbors, lacking the landed gentry, abundant cash crops, urban capitals, and extensive reliance on slavery that characterized Virginia and South Carolina. Long after the American Revolution, its colonial status persisted, as it remained an outpost of larger, better developed states. The same is true of its tiny Jewish community. Typical is Rogoff's observation that "It]he most significant Jew in North Carolina's early history never resided there"; he was a Newport merchant who dispatched shipments of goods to the North Carolina coast (12). Early Jewish residents were often salesmen employed by commercial firms in cities elsewhere--Richmond, Charleston, Baltimore--and usually stayed only briefly, while most Jewish tradesmen passed straight through on their way to more active ports. With railroads, the reliance on distant cities only deepened. In 1850, some 80 percent of Wilmington's Jewish merchants were "agents" of New York and Philadelphia distributors (53). Jews were essential to North Carolinian commerce, but that commerce was among the weakest in the country.

Industrialization stirred North Carolina from the doldrums, and in the 1830s it began a rapid expansion that would eventually make it the South's most industrialized state. Here, too, Jews were at the forefront. Mordecais and Lazaruses served as bank and railroad executives, and, after the Civil War, Jews provided both management and labor to the state's burgeoning cotton, tobacco, and furniture mills. Gentile manufacturers, notably Durham's cigarette magnate James Duke, tried to import immigrant workers from the North--the state's first dose of eastern European Jewry--but most left when production was mechanized. Jewish capitalists held on to thrive, and North Carolina became a bastion of Jewish upward mobility. Not every business succeeded, however. The Nachamsons' movie house in Dover was forced to close because the projector blew out the town's lighting system.

As the Jewish population grew and prospered, Jewish institutional life took hold, but slowly. The state lacked an active congregation until 1872. …