Selma S. Lewis. A Biblical People in the Bible Belt: The Jewish Community of Memphis, Tennessee, 1840s-1960s. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1998. pp. xvi + 245.
In a recently published essay, historian Gary Zola identifies four reasons to study southern Jewish history: “utilitarian justifications” (finding patterns to be applied broadly), an “inspirational rationale,” a “pedagogical rationale” (informing others about the subject), and one he suggests is personal; the comfort of seeing oneself or loved ones in the material. In her book A Biblical People in the Bible Belt, Selma Lewis clearly attempts to address all four reasons. However, though written by an author both inspired by and (indirectly) invested in the material, this work never explores the larger significance of the subject, and in the end proves to be of limited pedagogical value.
Lewis presents the history of the
"Lewis seems afraid to acknowledge anything negative, making the book uncritical, and at times even hagiographic."
Memphis Jewish community from its founding through the Civil Rights era. Hoping to examine this Jewish community “as part of the record of the growth and development of the city of Memphis” (p. xi), Lewis chronicles its periods of growth from migration and immigration, and its interaction with local and national non-Jewish communities. She describes the community’s reactions to anti-Semitism, economic depression, world war, and yellow fever epidemics (which decreased the city’s Jewish population by almost 85%), and ends at the city’s darkest hour, the King assassination, and the ecumenical reaction by the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. By the end, it is clear that this Jewish community was integrated into the economic and cultural life of Memphis, and because of that, enjoyed a relatively secure and prosperous existence.
However, the book lacks both a theoretical framework and interpretive skepticism. Despite the author’s claims that “this book is not intended to be a compendium of names of members of the Jewish community” (p. xi), it often reads like a list of names and committees rather than a description of the “places [from which] they came, when they arrived, and where and how they lived” (p. x). Chapters are filled with the entire Jewish membership of community organizations, and though some of the anecdotes from personal interviews are colorful, they are often distracting and rarely provide insight into the topics discussed. The significance of the community members’ religious and social lives are rarely examined in the material presented.
The division of chapters provides no help; they often end with claims begging for explanation. “In Memphis, the lines of separation blurred between Orthodox and Reform Jews” (p. 176). How? Why? Was this something unique to Memphis or to the South? The literature on Judaism in southern communities is growing, and though one of the arguments in this literature is over the role of geography versus population density (is southern Judaism different because it is southern, or because it is small-town?), there can be no doubt that Judaism in Memphis is both different and yet similar to Judaism in other southern communities. Little connection is made to this literature, leaving this history of the Memphis Jewish community an isolated account taken almost entirely out of its larger cultural context.
Moreover, Lewis seems afraid to acknowledge anything negative, making the book uncritical, and at times even hagiographic. She identifies, yet never fully explores, a dominant leitmotif of southern Jewish existence, namely, the tense relationship between southern Jews and African Americans based on shared marginality. Lewis notes on several occasions that members of the Memphis Jewish community were relatively free from persecution because of the presence of African Americans who were the “scapegoats” (pp. xi, 46-47) for the prejudice generated in the non-Jewish community. However, she never examines the irony of the Jewish community’s involvement with the African American community in Memphis (at times both limited and expansive), either as merchants after the Civil War, or as tenuous partners in the Civil Rights era. Judaism in America, but particularly in the South, has always been well aware of its marginality; Lewis acknowledges this marginality, but never examines the ramifications of the relationships that resulted from it.
This book will be of greatest interest to residents of the Memphis Jewish community who wish to learn more about their history. In addition, despite a penchant for using secondary sources in odd contexts (even tracing the community back to the first century, BCE), Lewis has collected an assortment of interviews and primary materials that might be of interest to those studying Memphis history and culture more generally. However, for those more interested in the patterns of Judaism (or religion generally) in the American South, this work will have limited appeal.