A Sense of Place: Jews, Blacks, and White Gentiles in the American South

By Goldfield, David | Southern Cultures, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

A Sense of Place: Jews, Blacks, and White Gentiles in the American South


Goldfield, David, Southern Cultures


As quintessential outsiders, Jews have developed a sixth sense in taking cues on public behavior from the host society. Over the centuries, their successful assimilation and at times even their survival have often depended on blending in with the Gentile population; they have had to balance the pursuit of their culture and religion with the necessity of maintaining a low profile. This tension between preservation and assimilation has lessened in recent decades in the United States, but it is still a part of Jewish life in the South. For the South remains the most conservative and evangelical Protestant region of the country, as well as the section in which rural culture has the strongest hold. Jewish religious, social, and settlement traditions are very different from those of the dominant culture, and Jewish success in the South prior to and even to some degree after the civil rights movement depended on minimizing these differences.

The Jewish "place" in southern life--their role as perceived by white and black Gentiles--has been a key factor in determining Jewish-Gentile relations in the South. As the historically dominant group in southern society, white Gentiles became accustomed to "placing" individuals as a way of ordering a chaotic and often violent region. Placing drew upon a long list of characteristics including race, family name, birthplace, religion, occupation, and education. Placing also depended on conformity to the customs of a given rural area, town, or city at a particular point in time. To know one's place and to act accordingly was important for getting along in the South, especially before the civil rights era.

Race remained a fundamental element in placing individuals. Although white southerners distinguished blacks by color, status, gender, and adherence to racial etiquette, African Americans occupied the lowest place in southern society regardless of other variables. White Gentiles usually viewed Jews as white, but Jews initially failed to meet most of the other criteria of placing. Once they established themselves, however, and proved their fealty to local customs, Jews began to move up on the place list, though seldom if ever to the topmost rung. Mobility for Jews was possible, even probable; for blacks, rare, if ever.

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A caveat here: Jewish southerners were and are a diverse lot, despite their relatively small numbers. Sephardim in the colonial era, German Jews in the nineteenth century, and Eastern European (mainly Russian) Jews thereafter brought distinctive traditions that did not always blend into one happy community. Denominational preferences--Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform--further divided southern Jewry. Southern white and black Gentiles also included distinct social, denominational, and ethnic groups. These variations qualify some of the generalizations in this essay. But, as journalists and historians have noted, although there are many Souths, there is also One South, a common set of assumptions revolving around race, religion, and, most important, history. An individual's place within southern society originates from those common assumptions.

AMBIVALENCE AND ASSIMILATION

At first glance, few groups seem more out of place in the South than Jews. Centuries of restrictions in Europe have made them an urban and mercantile people. Southerners have exalted rural life and looked with suspicion on cities and mercantile pursuits that they have associated with modernism, exploitation, and alien ideas. For the past century, the South has also been the nation's most evangelical Protestant region, and, consequently, southern Jews have been either prime targets for conversion or permanent outsiders. Finally, in a region where roots have meant a great deal, Jews were from nowhere. They were a people without a country, wandering the earth to find a home anywhere, yet at home nowhere, seemingly loyal only to themselves. …

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