Eli N. Evans, The Provincials: A Personal
History of Jews in the South. Rev. Ed. New York: Free Press, 1997. 391
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
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
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
would be like trying to extrapolate to the entire United States from Los
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
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