My Southern Jewish Heritage

On the Open Road blog, I recently read a post by Southern author, Mary Glickman (Home in the Morning), in which she laments that African Americans and American Jews are no longer close, as they were in the 1960s, when Jewish activists were leaders in the civil rights movement. This phenomenon—mistrust, dislike, even hatred, that some influential American Black leaders had for Jews—has always been a puzzle to me. Just as the subtle differences between Northern and Southern Jews was a bit mysterious. 

My mother was a Southerner, and for all the years that she lived up North, there was a core of loyalty to her birthplace that remained, that would put her on the defensive whenever she heard criticism of the South and Southern attitudes. At the same time, she was quick to lash out in anger at her Southern relatives if they voiced opinions that were not entirely approving of the Northern civil rights workers. There was, and for all I know, still is, a fundamental lack of understanding between Northern and Southern Jews and their place in the American landscape.

When I was writing Shadow Mountain, my “southern” novel, I came up against the ignorance of their Southern brethren amongst Northern Jews in my editor, of all people. Some of the material she questioned or wanted me to cut from the manuscript was surprising. That Southern Jews would rise when the band played “Dixie” at a formal dance, as if it were a regional anthem?—that was not believable, she said. Well, I witnessed it in the 1950s at a dance in a New York ballroom given by an organization of Southern college students, mostly Jewish. I left that reference in the book, but foolishly, allowed her to cut other episodes of interracial harmony and conflict between African Americans and Southern Jews. It bothers me now that I succumbed to her editorial critiques, because it takes away from one of the serious themes, or back stories, of the novel.

I’ve always been fascinated by family backgrounds and ethnic stories. The great sweep of history and migrations seems more romantic to me than anything a writer could invent. History told through fiction is the highest form of literary endeavor. The Irish fiction of Edward Rutherford; the Jewish novels of Leon Uris; the signature works of James Michener—these are among my favorite books. In fact, I wonder if my sketchy knowledge of African history, à la Michener, is as accurate as it should be!

Years ago I read The Provincials, a book of essays about Southern Jews by Eli Evans, that resonated with my childhood memories of summers spent with my Southern relatives in Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville was a fairyland to me. The purity of the mountain air, the scents of juniper and magnolia, the gracious houses and pace of living, the nightime trips to the amusement park, the constant parties and good times, were enough to seduce any child. 

But there was a darker side. At an early age, I questioned the drinking fountains and park benches for “whites only,” and the segregated waiting rooms in the train stations. It was another land.

As the first child of the youngest, most favored daughter of the family, I was spoiled rotten by the end of each summer, and went through a period of decompression, once I was home again in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Like Eli Evan’s family, my mother’s folks owned retail stores, the legacy of the first immigrant member of the clan, who came from Eastern Europe to the South as a peddler. 

I would love to know his story, but it’s lost with past generations.

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