Jewish Roots in Southern Soil: A New History , by Marcie Ferris and Mark I. Greenberg, is an incredible and long overdue work of historical relevance to the Jewish community as a whole, and not just the Jewish community of the south. After visiting Congregation Mickve Israel, in Savannah, a few years back, my interest in southern Jews began to engage some of my reading. This book has fostered my interest further. The book is vividly detailed with thirteen intellectual and fascinating essays. Some historians feel there is no significant definition of “southern Jews”, and others feel there is definitely a defining factor that differentiates “southern Jews” from the general Jewish population.
In the first essay in the book, the Jewish community of the south was first founded in Savannah, Georgia, by forty-one Jews who sailed there in 1733. The southern Jews incorporated a more lenient practice, as far as food and other cultural experiences. Seafood was the primary staple, and the Jews incorporated it into their daily dining, as far as dining in public. In private it was often (but not always) a different matter. There was no way for the regulations of kashrut/Jewish dietary law to be conformed to within the community environment. Distance was a factor in adherence to the eating habits of southern Jews.
The first Jewish communities in the south chose the Reform movement. This is probably due to the many variances: food, demographics, economics, race, assimilation within the environment/cultural identities, respect from the other religious entities, etc.
Within the pages of the various essays, the reader is given a lot to ponder. Race, for instance, played a major role in the way Jews tried to assimilate. They felt akin to the African Americans within their community, due to the underlying prejudices that they both encountered. And, within that framework, food, once more, was also an integral factor, as the Jews began spreading their taste buds to incorporate southern African American fare into their dining. Recipes were even created in Jewish kitchens to satisfy the family at dinner time. The Jews felt a camaraderie with their African American neighbors and often spent time in each others’ homes.
Economics was a major issue for the Jewish immigrant. Upon arrival, the immigrant was faced with the difficulty of providing for themselves and/or their family. Many of the men, in fact a majority, started out as peddlers, roaming the countryside, buying wares and selling wares to the outlying communities. They did this for quite a while, and became friendly with their customers, even lodging with them as they went from town to town. After a while the peddler gained enough money to start a store in the town he resided in.
This is a primary factor in how the Jews became friendly and developed relationships with the African Americans. They often stayed overnight at one of their homes. They were welcomed there, respected, greeted with sincerity. There was a bond between them, one that crossed racial divides.
Life in the south, in my opinion, after reading Jewish Roots in Southern Soil, was definitely a cultural experience, unlike the Jewish communities in the northeastern states. The need to fit in, religiously and gain respect was a primary force for the Jews. Even the Rabbis had to learn to incorporate and alter some of the traditional practices in order to gain a place in the southern circle of life. Many traditions were abandoned in the synagogue, such as separate seating for women, not using prayer shawls during services, choirs, and even services in English. Social status was of prime importance, and the need to be recognized as a member of southern society caused Jews to set different examples for themselves.
The underlying antisemitism was rampant. Jews were often seen as uncooperative, weak, greedy. There was a lot they had to overcome, and in reality, they did not realistically overcome perceptions by others. There was a facade presented to them by the general population, and behind closed door the reality was a different story.
I learned a lot from reading this intense book of essays. History definitely has downplayed the southern Jewish community as being a culture in and of itself. It has downplayed what the Jewish individuals had to endure in order to assimilate and survive under extreme circumstances of the immigrant experience. They found themselves in a land so far removed from where they came from, culturally. Yet, they persevered and survived the obstacles set before them.
I highly recommend Jewish Roots in Southern Soil: A New History, by Marcie Ferris and Mark I. Greenberg, to everyone interested in Jewish history, and specifically the comparison of southern Jews to northeastern Jews. It is a book that will fill you with many thoughts to consider, and a book of historical importance.
January 3, 2013 – 21 Tevet, 5773
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