The Hand of Esau


Mary Stanton.  The Hand of Esau: Montgomery’s Jewish Community and the Bus Boycott.  River Publishing: Montgomery, Alabama, 2006.  194 pages.  ISBN 13: 978-1-57966-041-3.  Reviewed by Charles R. Westmoreland, Jr. for the Journal of Southern Religion

Martin Luther King, Jr. hoped that, as oft-persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, Jews would rally to the cause of civil rights.  Support did come from the national level, but down south, the story was different.  According to King, “the local Jewish leadership has been silent,” hoping to “bury their heads and repeat that it is not a Jewish problem.”  The matter was simple to King.  The struggle for racial equality was a fight between justice and injustice.  He implored Montgomery Jews and other southern Jews “to join with us on the side of justice” (20-21). 

In The Hand of Esau: Montgomery’s Jewish Community and the Bus Boycott, Mary Stanton claims that she will examine how Montgomery Jews responded to King’s challenge, especially as it pertained to the bus boycott of 1955 and 1956.  She vows to understand “how a marginal community in a racially polarized society struggled to find its way as a mammoth clash of wills played out over a transportation strike” (13).  Unfortunately, only 29 of the book’s 170 pages deals with the boycott.  In fact, much of that discussion covers the general history of the boycott, not the Jewish community’s response.  When she does examine their reactions to the boycott, she focuses almost exclusively on one rabbi with only sparing references to the wider Jewish response.  Despite providing a good general historical overview of Montgomery’s Jewish community, The Hand of Esau fails to deliver on the promise of its title and its foreword.

"Though most Montgomery Jews did not own slaves, a few of the more elite Jewish families ranked among the region's slaveholders."  


The emergence of Montgomery’s Jewish community paralleled the rise of King Cotton and Montgomery’s new status as state capitol in 1846.  Henry and Josiah Weil embodied the burgeoning Jewish community in Montgomery.  The Bavarian brothers left for Alabama in 1838 and, by 1850, had become thriving cotton merchants.  Montgomery Jews became numerous enough to establish a congregation, Kahl Montgomery, in the spring of 1849.  Saturday services even attracted the city’s “curious gentiles who wanted to witness the ritual practices of God’s chosen people” (25).  In return, Montgomery Jews made local Protestants feel welcome.  Despite living in a predominantly Protestant city, antebellum Jews found Montgomery to be a welcome relief from Old World oppression.  Along the way, the descendants of Hebrew slaves made no real critique about the slavery in their midst.  Though most Montgomery Jews did not own slaves, a few of the more elite Jewish families ranked among the region’s slaveholders.  They were outsiders who, through hard work, resourcefulness, and good timing, managed to find their way to the inside of antebellum southern life.

From the Civil War to the civil rights era, Montgomery’s Jewish community found itself on the ins and outs of Montgomery’s white power structure.  During the Civil War, Montgomery’s Jewish population of 1,000 both served in the Confederacy and expressed ambivalence about the cause for southern independence.  Henry Weil, for instance, was a friend of Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin.  Despite their common Jewish ancestry, Benjamin and Weil did not see eye-to-eye on secession and war.  Weil came out as an opponent of secession, yet still maintained his influential status as a merchant and community leader.  Mordecai Moses’s successful bid for mayor in 1875 marked the pinnacle of Jewish political influence and assimilation in Montgomery.  A devoted Southern Democrat, Moses earned the endorsement of the Montgomery Advertiser as “the candidate of the white men of Montgomery...both Jew and Gentile” (33).  Internal congregational disputes,  the virulent anti-Semitism of a revitalized Ku Klux Klan, and controversies such as the Scottsboro case brought forth considerable tension in the early twentieth century.

Rabbi Benjamin Bernard Goldstein found out how difficult life could be for an Alabama Jew challenging white supremacy.  In 1928, Goldstein accepted the pulpit at Temple Beth Or, formerly Kahl Montgomery.  Beth Or congregants, especially fearful of economic reprisals from the Klan and other white supremacists, made it clear that the new rabbi should “leave the Negro question alone” (65).  The Reform congregation often spoke about the importance of social justice and reform, yet living in Alabama’s capitol demanded a great deal of resolve and courage to speak out against Jim Crow injustices.  Goldstein believed in the innocence of the Scottsboro Boys, the nine young blacks accused of raping two white women on a Southern Railway freight line near Scottsboro, Alabama.  Following their initial conviction and death sentences, Goldstein visited the young men on death row and pushed for a new trial and change of venue.  These actions did not rest well with those who sat in the Beth Or pews.  Although the Scottsboro convictions were eventually overturned, Beth Or president Ernest Mayer informed Goldstein that he must sever ties with the boys and their left-wing attorneys, as well as back off of efforts to organize Alabama sharecroppers.  Several anonymous Beth Or members agreed with Goldstein’s views, but refused to openly support him for fear of economic retaliation or, worse, violent attacks.  In the spring of 1933, Goldstein issued his resignation and left for New York, where he continued his work as a social activist.  As some white Christian ministers would learn during the civil rights era, rejecting the values and practices of Jim Crow came with a hefty price.  Most Jews were not willing to pay that price.

Seymour Atlas, rabbi for the Orthodox congregation at Agudath Israel during the 1950s, walked down the same path that Goldstein traveled two decades earlier.  Atlas found the white supremacy that pervaded the city and even his own congregation to be incompatible with “faith in the oneness of God” (135).  A developing relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr., ultimately strained his relationship with Agaduth Israel members.  Atlas tutored King in Hebrew and even spoke at Dexter Avenue Baptist.  He did not initially express public support for the boycott, though he came around and eventually prayed for the end to segregation on city busses.  After denouncing racial segregation in a sermon entitled “Social Integration,” Atlas was the target of a fierce backlash.  Agaduth Israel trustees now required Atlas to submit all sermons, articles, and speeches to them for approval.  A defiant Atlas objected to the trustees’ intrusion, stood firm in his opinions, and, ultimately resigned his position.  Following Atlas’s departure, the trustees required future rabbis to sign a pledge stating that they would not “discuss Negroes or the segregation issue in any manner, shape or form whatsoever” (136).  As Atlas and many others learned during the 1950s and 1960s, southern Jews were not in the vanguard of social change.  Quite often, they chose the security of their whiteness and economic status over social change in the Heart of Dixie.

"In essence, Stanton notes, the Jewish and Gentile communities of Montgomery and the South as a whole 'mirrored each other's weaknesses.'"  


As scholars of southern Jewry have shown, being a chosen person in the Bible Belt meant walking a fine line.  Montgomery Jews’ whiteness and willingness to assimilate into the city’s economic and political power structure came with numerous benefits.  Those benefits often outweighed the desire to stand up against racial discrimination.  Most did not rise to the levels of Goldstein and Atlas.  In essence, she notes, the Jewish and Gentile communities of Montgomery and the South as a whole “mirrored each other’s weaknesses.”  Like Jacob and Esau, “they were not only rivals, but sons of the same parents.  Indeed, they were twins” (170).  Perhaps the Montgomery Jewish Federation put it most succinctly in the aftermath of the 1954 Brown decision, “The White community in the South is generally opposed to desegregation and the Jewish community in the South is part of the White Community in the South” (21).

Readers interested in a broader survey of southern Jewish history will find value in Stanton’s work.  Stanton writes clearly and has conducted impressive research into local congregational history.  As she admits in her bibliography, Stanton has produced a work of “popular history.”  Therefore, those looking for an in-depth scholarly analysis of the civil rights era and a strong contribution to civil rights historiography, will leave with an empty feeling.  Her chapter on the bus boycott is confined to the struggles of Seymour Atlas, an important story to be sure but still an incomplete examination of Montgomery Jews and the boycott.  The Hand of Esau is further proof that one should not judge a book by a cover or its title.


Charles R. Westmoreland
Assistant Professor of History
Delta State University

Volume XII, Table of Contents


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