Wan­der­ing Dix­ie: Dis­patch­es from the Lost Jew­ish South

  • Review
By – July 6, 2020

For Sue Eisenfeld’s moth­er, the con­cept of south­ern Jews” was almost an oxy­moron, and the idea that Jews could be Con­fed­er­ates was unthink­able. Jews were left­ists, refugee immi­grants to the north­east in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. If Jews went to the South, it was for civ­il rights march­es or vot­er reg­is­tra­tion drives.

But when Eisen­feld moved from her native Philadel­phia to Vir­ginia — and, impelled by her inter­est in his­to­ry, began going to Civ­il War reen­act­ments, muse­ums, and old ceme­ter­ies — she came across a series of grave­stones for ante­bel­lum Jews. Appar­ent­ly, Jews did live in the South, and had done so for a very long time. What was this about? With so much of Judaism based on the con­cept of social jus­tice, why would any Jew will­ing­ly remain in a region steeped in injustice?

To get some answers, Eisen­feld planned a series of road trips to a vari­ety of his­toric sites in the South. She took guid­ed tours of Rosen­wald schools, peanut fac­to­ries, build­ings that used to be syn­a­gogues or Jew­ish-owned busi­ness­es. She went to ceme­ter­ies, notic­ing how they were often divid­ed into white, Black, and Jew­ish sec­tions; whether or not non-Jew­ish spous­es were buried along­side their Jew­ish part­ners became a mea­sure of assim­i­la­tion. Indeed, Eisen­feld demon­strates that con­form­ing to the dom­i­nant cul­ture meant sur­vival and pros­per­i­ty for south­ern Jews. Not only were shrimp and ham sta­ples on most of her Jew­ish hosts’ tables — Eisen­feld also learns that the tem­ple in Hele­na, Arkansas used to serve a big lun­cheon on Yom Kippur!

Of course, it’s easy to laugh about kashrut vio­la­tions, espe­cial­ly when hard­er ques­tions abound. In Sel­ma, Eisen­feld dis­cov­ers Jews who did not care for the inter­fer­ence of north­ern Jews, since it often threat­ened their sense of secu­ri­ty. Case in point: that famous Sel­ma march was joined by rab­bis from all over the coun­try … except the South. Eisen­feld also toured the man­sions of Jew­ish Charleston plan­ta­tion own­ers, ask­ing, how many Jews owned slaves? How many Jews joined the Con­fed­er­ate Army and fought for the South’s right to own slaves? Where do south­ern Jews stand on the cur­rent debate sur­round­ing Con­fed­er­ate monuments?

What par­tic­u­lar­ly stands out about Eisenfeld’s sto­ry is her abil­i­ty to hear what peo­ple are real­ly telling her, even when it’s dis­turb­ing. She has good instincts for when she’s being shown a white­washed expe­ri­ence” rather than an authen­tic one, like on her vis­it to a very white Delta jook joint. She is also non-judg­men­tal when she’s ask­ing ques­tions or sketch­ing in his­to­ry that peo­ple shouldn’t need to be remind­ed about, like the back­ground on the Sel­ma march.

Eisen­feld lets her­self be changed by what she learns on her jour­ney. She starts reg­is­ter­ing vot­ers where she lives and dri­ving peo­ple to the polls, and she adapts a social jus­tice Hag­gadah for her family’s seder. Wan­der­ing Dix­ie is not only a fas­ci­nat­ing read; it’s also a mod­el of engaged scholarship.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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