Cooking Fried Chicken on the Upper West Side

When ‘Shalom Y’all’ Meets ‘New Yawk City,’ Jews Find Complex Mix of Home and Longing

By Alicia Zuckerman

Published April 25, 2003, issue of April 25, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When Eli Evans’s wife, Judith, gave birth to their son, Josh, at the New York University Medical Center, Eli held a vial filled with North Carolina dirt in one hand and Judith’s hand in the other. “I did not want him to be born altogether a Yankee. I wanted him to feel some sort of call on himself,” said Evans, author of “The Provincials,” a landmark personal history about growing up Jewish in the South. “It’s hard raising a Southern kid in New York, but we’re trying.” Apparently “the dirt worked,” as the couple likes to joke. Josh, now a strapping 18-year-old, said he wants to go to college in the South.

Of the roughly 2 million Jews living in the New York metropolitan area, research yielded no statistics on how many are transplanted Southerners like Evans, a resident of the Big Apple for three decades — “It’s more than a handful. I just know that we seem [to be] everywhere,” he said — but they make up a distinct community, one that isn’t talked about much, except among one another. Interest in Southern Jewish life is growing — the documentary film “Shalom Y’all” has been making its way around the country, and the exhibition “A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life” is on display through July 20 at New York’s Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History. Yet being Southern and Jewish in New York is a complex mix of comfort and loneliness: In the South they’re the ones passing on the ribs at the barbecue; in the North they’re serving grits with the bagels at brunch.

Mort Persky, a retired newspaper and magazine editor, grew up in Aiken, S.C., where his father was the volunteer rabbi. He has lived on and off in New York for more than 40 years. “Jewish New Yorkers seem to regard being both Jewish and Southern as an oxymoron,” he said. It’s a sentiment echoed over and over by Southern Jews. Their presence in the North, in some sense their very existence, is often regarded as a novelty. Conventional wisdom dictates that sounding Jewish means sounding like a New Yorker (think Woody Allen and Mel Brooks), so sounding Southern runs in direct opposition to that.

At a party once, Persky was dragged around from group to group being asked to speak Yiddish with his Southern accent to amuse the other guests “I’m not sure I was real good sport about it,” he said, “because it wasn’t good-natured. It was mocking.”

The culture shock goes both ways. Persky remembers arriving at the New York Herald Tribune in 1962. “For the first time in my life, being Jewish was not the experience of being part of a minority,” he said, “and my whole body was totally attuned to being part of a minority.”

Even though when Southern Jews come to New York, they’re suddenly surrounded by other Jews in numbers far beyond what they could have known at home, in a sense, they’re still outsiders.

“There is a kind of existential loneliness of living in the city,” said Evans, in the lilting tones of his gentlemanly Southern drawl. “I found it very similar in an odd kind of way to being in a small town where you’re one of the few Jewish families. You’re one of the few Jewish Southerners here, and that’s a very unique identity. It’s more unique than people can imagine.”

Sixth-generation Memphis native Tova Mirvis, whose novel “The Ladies Auxiliary” is based on the Orthodox community in which she grew up, felt a sense of relief in coming to New York. In Memphis, there wasn’t a lot of room to question traditional Orthodox values, especially with regard to gender. But in New York, there are so many different schools of thought being explored within Judaism, she found being progressive and Orthodox didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. “The New York Jewish world is just so much more vibrant and has the numbers and diversity to do things that a smaller community, understandably, just couldn’t even begin to do,” she said.

Yet she still feels the tug of the South. She’s hired three baby sitters who are fellow Southern Jews, and even after 10 years of living in New York, whenever she’s traveling and someone asks where she’s from, she automatically answers, “Memphis.” Halfway through writing her latest novel (about a kosher restaurant), which she originally intended to set completely in New York, she felt compelled to work Memphis into the plot.

“Someone asked me recently how I feel about the fact that my kids won’t be Memphians. They won’t be






Find us on Facebook!
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.