We spoke to Sue Eisen­feld, author of Wan­der­ing Dix­ie: Dis­patch­es from the Lost Jew­ish South, on June 17th as part of our JBC Authors at the Table series — you can watch the thir­ty minute chat here. Check out below some ques­tions we did­n’t have time for and keep the con­ver­sa­tion going. See the whole line­up for JBC Authors at the Table.

What caused the demise of the South­ern Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties? Was there much inter­mar­riage dur­ing that time period?

Many of these small places saw their pop­u­la­tion dwin­dle in the last few gen­er­a­tions as peo­ple got bet­ter jobs in big­ger cities, or decid­ed that there were more oppor­tu­ni­ties or a bet­ter lifestyle else­where. That trend might have start­ed in some places in the ear­ly 1900s, but maybe a few decades lat­er in oth­er places. I have not read that inter­mar­riage per se was the cause of small-towns in the South los­ing their Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion, but it does seem that that’s been a trend across Amer­i­ca in general.

What is the syn­a­gogue in the cov­er of your book?

It is Tem­ple Mishkan Israel in Sel­ma, Alabama.

Does any­one here have an issue with the title? As a Jew­ish per­son who lives in Savan­nah, I find that it implies that there is not a thriv­ing Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the South today. Some small Jew­ish towns have lost pop­u­la­tions, true. But cer­tain­ly not all. And there are lost Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties else­where — Prairie states, etc.

True, there are still lots of strong Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in the South, espe­cial­ly in the larg­er towns and cities. And there are dwin­dling com­mu­ni­ties in the North and else­where. I hope in read­ing the book you’ll find that I do not sug­gest that all south­ern Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties are lost” or that there aren’t lost places elsewhere.

Reform Judaism has its roots in the Amer­i­can South in Charleston, South Car­oli­na. Can you unpack your find­ings about the his­to­ry of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty there and the con­struc­tion of the KKBE Greek Revival Reform temple?

I have two chap­ters in the book about Charleston. I hope you’ll read the book! It was my cul­mi­nat­ing big south­ern trip!

Regard­ing research, who did you look to to sup­ple­ment your trav­els and what did you find use­ful or not use­ful in your research?

I com­bined on-the-ground expe­ri­ences and obser­va­tions with inter­views with peo­ple on site — descen­dants of Jew­ish slave own­ers, descen­dants of Jew­ish Con­fed­er­ates, south­ern Jews who lived through the Civ­il Rights Era, and oth­er indi­vid­u­als. As well as inter­views with oth­ers on the phone, as well as pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary research: some archives, some books, some maps, etc. One of the places I enjoyed vis­it­ing the most was the Jew­ish Her­itage Col­lec­tion at the Col­lege of Charleston. I also learned a lot by trav­el­ing with the South­ern Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety. The Insti­tute of South­ern Jew­ish Life (ISJL) was also anoth­er incred­i­ble resource.