Book Review | Shedding Light on Forgotten Southern Jewish History

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book cover
(Courtesy of The Ohio State University Press)

Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South”

Sue Eisenfeld

The Ohio State University Press

Sue Eisenfeld had no idea Jewish Confederate soldiers existed until she stumbled upon a group of their graves in a Virginia cemetery. This discovery raised the question — why would Jews side with the South? — that turned into her travel memoir, “Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South.”

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Eisenfeld embarks on a journey to nine states to educate herself about Southern Jewish culture. She tracks down Jews whose lives and heritage challenge Northern Ashkenazi norms, from a peanut farmer in tiny Eufaula, Alabama, to a South Carolinian convert whose Sephardic ancestors were forced to become Catholic during the Spanish Inquisition.

These Southerners — often elderly, often the only Jews for miles around — relate their struggles to preserve empty synagogues and crumbling cemeteries while passing on stories of once-thriving Jewish neighborhoods and businesses throughout the South.

Eisenfeld’s greatest strength as a memoirist is her curiosity, which illuminates people and places that even an American history buff may never have encountered. These gems of Southern Jewish and African American history have been hidden thoroughly from the public eye by a combination of white supremacy, Northern indifference and the relentless march of time.

From the philanthropy of Julius Rosenwald, who funded nearly 5,000 rural schools for poor African American communities, to the Reconstruction-era South Carolinian governor Franklin Moses Jr., who supported the Freedmen’s Bureau, “in complete defiance of Southern white norms,” to the cruelty of Charleston slave master Marx E. Cohen, who built the first Reform Jewish temple in America using slave labor, Eisenfeld reveals how Jews’ diverse roles in Southern history ranged from inspiring to horrifying.

Some of the Southern Jews Eisenfeld interviews express anguish for the actions of their slave-owning ancestors. Others do not.

“Well, it was the mode of the day,” one Jewish woman replies when asked about her ancestors owning human beings.

To Eisenfeld, this is “a factual non-answer that silences me in my wish to hear some representative of my religion somehow atone, to quell the discomfort it makes me feel in knowing some of my own kind were involved with such an institution.”

Eisenfeld’s initial lack of awareness about the darkest aspects of American racial history, like the inhumane medical experiments conducted on African American syphilis patients at the Tuskegee Institute, can be frustrating for readers who benefited from history classes that covered the atrocities of slavery, segregation and lynching in great detail. It would likely be even more frustrating for African American audiences who experienced these horrors firsthand or through generational trauma.

However, she wields her sheltered perspective for important narrative and educational purposes, illustrating how those who consider themselves educated and cosmopolitan can suffer gaping holes in their knowledge of their own country.

“Wandering” is a book well-suited to our present pandemic, the closest thing to a road trip most readers will be able to experience for some time. Eisenfeld’s beautifully rendered experience of traveling to a place that feels utterly foreign, sampling new cuisine (fried matzah balls or sweet potato kugel anyone?) and expanding her awareness through local culture is one we will hopefully never take for granted again.

[email protected]; 215-832-0729

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