Journal of Southern Religion

Eli N. Evans, The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South. Rev. Ed. New York: Free Press, 1997. 391 pp.

      In 1976 a group of scholars and interested laypersons met in Richmond, Virginia, to inaugurate a Southern Jewish Historical Society. There had been a previous incarnation of such an entity, but after a few years it had withered and died. Now there appeared to be a new interest developing in the topic, and much of the credit could go to the publication in 1973 of Eli Evans' The Provincials.

"Evans was the first to try to draw some generalizations about the Jewish experience in the South as a whole."

     Evans' book was—and is—rather unique. It is not a "scholarly" tome in the sense that all sources are identified and annotated. That there was a great deal of research is indisputable, but much of the material is anecdotal in nature and developed out of extensive oral interviews that Evans conducted at the behest of Willie Morris, then the editor of Harper's Magazine. What made the book interesting to the reader was the interspersing of broad chapters with personal reminiscences of the Evans-Nachamson family, and the very prominent role it played not only in the Jewish communities of North Carolina but in the larger society as well. Mutt Evans was the first Jewish mayor of Durham, and did much to guide that town peacefully through the early years of desegregation. His mother Sara was an early Zionist and went throughout the South raising members and funds for Hadassah.

     What made Evans' book so important was that there was practically nothing written on the Jews of the South at the time other than a few—very few—narrow monographs dealing with specific communities. In addition there were also the efforts of amateur historians who wrote about their own experiences, or the histories of their local congregations. Evans was the first to try to draw some generalizations about the Jewish experience in the South as a whole, even while admitting that Jewish life in Mississippi or Alabama was far different than that in Virginia or North Carolina, and that the older German Reform Jews (who then still dominated Jewish life in southern communities) had different stories to tell than those of the more recently arrived eastern Europeans. Above all else, however, Evans' book won deserved praise for his lucid style, folksy yet never condescending. Here was a southerner inviting the rest of us to go on a trip with him, to meet the provincials, the southern cousins, who had been ignored in the mainstream of American Jewish history and who had stories to tell just as interesting and just as important as those who lived on New York's Lower East Side. For those of us who were northerners (or in my case a Yankee recently transplanted to the South) the book was an eye-opener, sort of like discovering there was a whole big branch of one's family that you had never known existed.

     Since 1973 there has been a wave of new research resulting in books and articles on Jewish communities in the South, and I think a good deal of the credit ought to go to Evans. (One should not forget the Southern Jewish Historical Society, which in its second incarnation is doing very well). But one must also say that little of that research shows up in the new edition of The Provincials.

     The updated version differs from the earlier one in that it now has a foreword by Willie Morris, and four additional chapters. Of these, only one, "Atlanta 2000," deals with the changes that have taken place in southern Jewry in the past-quarter century, and it would be difficult to draw any large-scale conclusions from it. Trying to extrapolate to the entire South from the Atlanta experience would be like trying to extrapolate to the entire United States from Los Angeles.

     The best part of the additional material is the three chapters he has written on his family—the deaths of his mother and father, a family reunion, and what is happening to generations within the extended Evans-Nachamson clan. These are personal, touching, and of a piece with the earlier writings. Evans is blessed with an ability to take his experiences and those of his family and make us care about them.

     The Provincials is still a good book, but its place in the historiography of southern Jewry is different than it was in the mid-1970s. Scholars now have a far richer vein of published materials to draw upon, dealing not only with southern Jewish communities but with changes in the South as a whole and comparisons with has been happening to other Jewish communities in the North, Mid-west and West. Some of Evans' stories are priceless, and his interviews can never be replicated because that generation which he interviewed in the early 1970s is now gone.

     Would I suggest buying the revised edition? Yes, because anyone caught up in the family saga will want to know the end. We will want to have one more visit with the mayor of Durham and his wife, and to say good-bye to them. But instead of being the only book on the shelf, Evans must now make room for many more. Knowing Eli, I think that idea pleases him.

Melvin I. Urofsky, Virginia Commonwealth University

© 1998 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

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