Marcie Cohen Ferris and Mark I. Greenberg, eds. Jewish Roots in Southern Soil: A New History. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England. xiv, plus 368 Pages. ISBN 10:1-58465-589-5. Reviewed by Leonard Dinnerstein for the Journal of Southern Religion.

Jewish Roots in Southern Soil is an honest and scholarly collection of essays exploring both the background and contemporary nature of southern Jewry. Despite the nuanced and subtle arguments of some of the finest historians who study either American and/or southern Jewish history, the title of the book is a misnomer because it deals less with Jewish "roots" than it does with Jewish "experiences" in the region. Today the roots of an overwhelming majority of Jews living in the South are either in the North or in Eastern Europe. Looking for Jewish descendants of antebellum Jews in the 21st century is more difficult than finding a needle in a haystack. Contemporary southerners who trace their roots in the region to one or more colonial or antebellum Jewish families are comfortably ensconced in one of the region's Protestant denominations. While the easily readable essays do not dwell on this point, together they make that observation clear.

"For southern Jews . . . the most important qualification for a Rabbi was his ability to command respect from Christians and their clergymen."  

That third and subsequent generations of Jews began moving away from their heritage is often noted but never deeply examined. It is obvious, however, that Jews in the South who sought acceptance mimicked the ways of the regional culture. In the only, and excellent, essay on Jewish religion Gary Zola describes how and why Reform Judaism developed in the South between the 1820s and 1840s. At the time, younger Jewish men in Charleston believed that only by altering their religious practices  would they be able to "counter the assertions that they were alien residents" (179). To that end they favored eliminating separate seating for women as well as head coverings and prayer shawls for men during religious ceremonies. Moreover they sought only one-day celebrations of Jewish holidays, the substitution of an abbreviated prayer book in the English language, an organ, a mixed choir, and a weekly sermon in English from the Rabbis. Some of these religious leaders would later style themselves as "Jewish ministers," wear black shirts and/or jackets with a white collar encircling their necks, and hold religious services on Sundays. For southern Jews, however, the most important qualification for a Rabbi was his ability to command respect from Christians and their clergymen.

Several of the articles in this book are clear about Jewish marginality in the region and Jewish anxiety about their status. Jennifer Stollman notes in her article on southern Jewish women writers that "because of the prevalence of Christianity in the early Republic, Jews were viewed with some degree of suspicion" (73). In the antebellum era, they often failed to mention the extent of American anti-Semitism "and, instead, presented a sanitized picture of tolerance and acceptance of Jews" (76). Similarly Elliot Rosen, whose focus is the patriotic fervor of Confederate Jews, explains that they "had a special burden during the war. They had to prove that Jews could fight.  One of the tenets of nineteenth-century anti-Semitism was that the Jews were disloyal, unpatriotic, and cowardly." (115). In another excellent piece Eric Goldstein describes how and why southern Jews during the Jim Crow era (late nineteenth century through the 1960s) "conformed to prevailing racial mores much more diligently than in any other region of the country. To do otherwise would have been disastrous for their social status" (150).

Some of the essays are broad and ambitious. Hasia Diner examines peddlers in a global setting. Marcie Cohen Ferris details the intermingling of southern and Jewish food ways, which, in some sense, helped to overcome some of their cultural differences. And Dale Rosengarten shows how similar many southern and Jewish women were in their attitudes towards various artifacts including candle sticks, cutlery, and home made quilts, and how these shared interests eased the path of acculturation. (Rosengarten also devotes perhaps one third of her essay to showing how loyal Jews were to the Confederacy.)  Stuart Rockoff has a strong essay on the economic and demographic changes in the South since 1945 while Stephen Whitfield, always a delight to read, ties all of the varying strands, tidbits, and analyses together in the book's final piece, "Jewish Fates, Altered States."  These last two articles also enrich our understanding of the life-transforming events that Jews in the South have experienced during the past half century.

Taken together, all of the essays provide a superb overview of life for Jews in the southern part of the United States from the colonial era to the present.  But an always present sub theme shows the turmoil and conflicts endured and/or submerged so that they could live a relatively peaceful and harmonious life.

Leonard Dinnerstein
Professor Emeritus
University of Arizona

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