Jewish Roots in Southern Soil: A New History

By Malone, Bobbie | Shofar, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Jewish Roots in Southern Soil: A New History


Malone, Bobbie, Shofar


Jewish Roots in Southern Soil: A New History, edited by Marcie Cohen Ferris and Mark I. Greenberg. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press, 2006. 368 pp. $29.95.

In Jewish Roots in Southern Soil, Marcie Cohen Ferris and Mark I. Greenberg introduce readers to eighteen scholarly essays, including one by each of the editors, which provide rich insights into varying aspects of the Southern Jewish experience. The essays cover a wide swath of American history that begins in the colonial period and culminates in the present. Eli Evans wrote an enthusiastic foreword to the volume, welcoming the recent scholarship that explores the complex interweaving of identity and region from such diverse temporal and historical points. Evans' own and still essential The Provincial: A Personal History of Jews in the South, originally published in 1973, focused attention on America's "other" Jews - those beyond the orbit of the nation's already welldocumented metropolitan communities of the East and West Coasts and the Midwest. Ferris and Greenberg emphasize this regional deficit when they cite Gary Zola, who labeled the South a "Jewishly disadvantaged region." Yet, for all its demographic disadvantages that mitigated against cultural persistence. Southern Jewish life has been dynamic since the early years of the Souths existence. Over the past three hundred years, the region's Jews both created and sustained an evolving sense of identity, achieved within the inflexible parameters dictated by evangelical Protestantism and the presence of an African American underclass. In a real sense, all the regions Jews were Jews by choice: they chose to remain Jewish and to remain Southern and to try to craft a meaningful subculture that would be perceived as "white" to their white nonJewish counterparts and worthy of respect as a religion of standing.

The essays in this volume provide a tempting array for anyone interested in the intersection of region and religious culture. For those who are still surprised to know that Jews live below the Mason- Dixon line, Mark Greenberg's study of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews in early Savannah, Emily Bingham's analysis of the Mordecai family's ricocheting from Orthodoxy to Christianity in North Carolina and beyond that state before 1865, Jennifer Stollman's exploration of the region's Jewish women writers during the same period, and Robert Rosen's interpretation of Jewish Confederates give us a strong dose of the depth and breadth of Southern Jewish rootedness.

Historians of the region continue to ponder whether southern Jews are closer to their Southern gentile counterparts or to their Jewish landsmen elsewhere. In her study of peddlers, Hasia Diner provocatively argues for transnational Jewish continuity over regional specificity. But other authors in the volume make a case for the particulars that the heavy burden of Southernness has played in shaping for Jews a specifically regional identity. Gaty Zola's look at the nation's six oldest congregations is really fascinating. Three were Northern (New York, Newport, and Philadelphia), and three were Southern (Charleston, Savannah, and Richmond). AU were originally traditional. The three Southern congregations were Reform before the end of the nineteenth century, and the three Northern congregations are Orthodox even today!

The black- white dichotomy - one of the Southern history's most identifiable burdens - and the way it has intersected with Southern Jewish identity and behavior is a central component of several essays. …

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