Haven in the Hollows

An Appalachian Diaspora kept its traditions alive, while picking up a few new ones from the neighbors

By Glenn C. Altschuler

Published January 05, 2007, issue of January 05, 2007.
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Coalfield Jews: An Appalachian History
By Deborah R. Weiner
University of Illinois Press, 264 pages, $60.

Neither religion nor Yiddishkeit played a significant role in the life of young Harry Schwachter. A prosperous merchant in Williamson, W.Va., during the early 20th century, Schwachter ate fried apples and country-cured ham every Sunday morning. He “crashed the society set” by giving dancing lessons, and he appeared in amateur theatricals in an act called “Schwachter and Crank.” But, like more than a few others, Schwachter’s sense of Jewish identity received a big boost from a little persecution: In the mid-1920s, a friend heard him speak in his native Hungarian and “apologized,” because “I allus thought you was a damn Jew!” Hurt and stunned, Schwachter threw himself into a campaign to build a synagogue for Williamson’s 130 Jews. When the cornerstone was laid, he told the gentiles in the crowd that the temple proved that “we did not come for the purpose of filling our bags and baggage, but rather to live with you, work with you, and serve with you to the end of time. A handful of Jewish people have found a veritable haven in this community.”

If not always “a veritable haven,” Appalachia was home to hundreds of Jews between the 1880s and 1930s. In “Coalfield Jews,” Deborah Weiner, research historian and family history coordinator at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, tells their story meticulously and movingly. Aside from the surprising setting, it is a familiar narrative of upward mobility along a bumpy path, Orthodox religious observance giving way to Reform and the struggle to assimilate while maintaining Jewish identity. Contrary to the image of the region as isolated, inward and hostile to strangers, Weiner shows that the boomtowns of Appalachia were receptive to Jews. And as they accommodated themselves to a Southern, Christian society, Jews managed to maintain close-knit communities for several generations.

In the late 19th century, the Jews of Appalachia exploited a dynamic economy and a growing population. Eighty-five percent of them found work in the retail trades, especially clothing, dry goods, liquor, real estate and movie theaters. Many progressed from peddler to proprietor. They were to accept small profit margins; employ their wives to reduce expenses; cater to underserved and excluded groups; rely on landsmen for help following fires, floods, recessions and Prohibition, and relocate to county seats when boomtowns busted. Jewish merchants competed effectively with the company stores established by coal operators by extending credit to other cash-strapped customers, who didn’t seem to mind that these merchants violated Sunday closing laws. “For the most part,” Weiner demonstrates, they found security, stability, and even prosperity in the coalfields.

Like their counterparts throughout the United States, the ambitious middle-class Jews of Appalachia found that “fitting in” sometimes clashed with religious practice and communal solidarity. They worked Saturday — and sometimes on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many found the task of keeping kosher difficult, expensive or no longer desirable. Jewish children trimmed Christmas trees or colored Easter eggs at the homes of their friends. The school day began and ended with Christian prayers. Peer influence prompted one Jewish girl to suggest that her family clasp hands around the dinner table and recite a Presbyterian benediction. Her grandfather, David Brown, diligently attended services at the First Presbyterian Church in Williamson. When the congregation sang hymns to Jesus, Brown assured his family, “I sing Moses or Abraham as loud as can be.”

But in the coalfields, assimilation and the perpetuation of Jewish traditions often complemented each other. Far from isolating Jews, Weiner astutely asserts, establishing their own congregations “helped them fit into a society in which religious affiliation was all important.” In the Christian South, as a Jewish man from Welch, W.Va., noted, “everybody belongs to a church.” Jewish congregants participated in interfaith initiatives, burnishing their credentials as responsible and pious neighbors.

The Jews of Appalachia, Weiner concludes, were remarkably successful in maintaining Jewish identity. Like Gideon in the Old Testament, resourceful and resolute leaders realized there was strength in small numbers. Since their communities could not sustain more than one synagogue, they compromised: Services were a mix of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. The Jews of Logan, W.Va., switched to Reform Judaism because their children were more attracted to it. Coalfield communities were among the smallest in the nation to create full-fledged congregations. Three synagogues had full-time rabbis, and six others employed itinerants sent by Hebrew Union College. Religious schools were started for as few as five children. And coalfield Jews sent their kids to Chattanooga, Tenn., Baltimore, and New York City for religious training — and to shop for a suitable mate.

To be sure, in Appalachia, as elsewhere, ethnicity assumed a larger role than religion in defining Jewish identity. But as late as the 1970s, researchers found that the Jews there did not “possess an uncertainty of belongingness.” The investigators exaggerated, just a bit. But as Weiner demonstrates, for more than half a century Jews played an integral role in the region’s development while remaining connected to their roots: “They were both Appalachian and Jewish.”

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.

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