Historians of Southern Jewish culture fit roughly into two camps: those who believe that the Jewish experience in the South was fundamentally different from the Jewish experience in the North, and those who argue that similarities overwhelm differences. The Forward interviewed one representative from each camp. Mark I. Greenberg, co-editor of “Jewish Roots in Southern Soil” (Brandeis University Press, 2006) thinks that, for scholarly purposes, it’s more fruitful to explore the differences between Southern and Northern Jews. On the opposing side is Mark Bauman, editor of “Dixie Diaspora” (University of Alabama Press, 2006). Greenberg and Bauman were interviewed separately, but their answers are printed side by side.
Juliet Lapidos: Historically speaking, has the Southern Jewish experience been fundamentally different from the Northern Jewish experience?
Mark Bauman: If you define Northern Jews as New York Jews, then there are major differences. In New York, Eastern European Jews worked in sweatshops and the needle industries. They brought over socialism and labor union activities. Pretty much everywhere else, Jews did not become part of this industrial work force. Jews in California and Oregon, for example, did not become factory workers.
If we discount New York exceptionalism, however, we find that the similarities overwhelm differences. There are significant commonalities between Jews living in small towns in the South, small towns in the North, and small towns in the West.
Outside of New York City, whether we’re talking about southern Georgia, southern Pennsylvania, or parts of upstate New York, Jews adapted in comparable ways. Jews started out as peddlers, then became small shop owners, then the small shops became department stores. The children or grandchildren of the department store owners became professionals.
It’s tempting to argue that the Mississippi Jewish experience was distinctive, or somehow completely at odds with the Northern Jewish experience, because there were so few Jews in Mississippi. But look at the Dakotas, or Alaska — talk about minority culture!
What’s important is that when we compare Jews in the South with Jews in the North, we stick to roughly similar environments. It’s okay to compare Atlanta with Chicago, but it’s not okay to compare Mississippi with Chicago, because then it’s impossible to tell if the obvious differences are the result of region or of something else — rural environment vs. urban environment, for example.
Mark Greenberg: It’s important not to overemphasize the role of region in the overall experience of any community, Jewish or otherwise. The size of the community, the community’s location relative to larger metropolitan centers and the community’s location relative to major transportation networks are all significant contributing factors. If we take, for example, a Jewish community in Iowa of approximately 150 Jews and compare it to a Jewish community in northern Alabama of the same size, there would be important similarities. In fact, similarities might be 80% of the story. But then there’s the other 20% — the differences.
I believe that the South is unique in American history, and I believe that the Jewish experience in the South is unique, too. One key factor that makes the South different from the North is race. It’s not necessarily the case that Jewish behavior toward African Americans has been different in different regions, but sometimes the same behavior has vastly different implications. For example, during the 1940s and 1950s, Jewish merchants in the North and in the South may have extended credit to African American customers. But in the South, that had a different meaning than in the North.
Through the lens of race relations, the South is truly unique not only when compared to the North but when compared to all other regions. My work is primarily focused on the 19th century, and I’m interested in Jews who owned slaves and fought on the side of the Confederacy to preserve slavery and to preserve the right of Southern states to define their own destiny. And I’m interested in the Southern Jews who adopted what we would call the honor ethic, which would include things like dueling.
Do these facts make the entire Southern Jewish experience different from the entire Northern Jewish experience? No, but these facts do suggest that there are important differences.
JL: Did antisemitism result in regional differences?
MB: Jews were accepted in the South; they fit in and contributed to Southern culture. If you compare the experiences of Jews in the South and blacks in the South, Jews had it much better — no question.
Of course, not everything was rosy and beautiful. I would say that in the South, Jews were tolerated rather than accepted. They always had a sense of precariousness, marginality. There was always a fear that there could be some sort of antisemitic outburst. At times, Jews were used as scapegoats.
Yet I’m not sure if this atmosphere of tolerance rather than acceptance is different from the North. In fact, it’s probably reflective of national history — it isn’t distinctive.
MG: In general, I’d say that, historically speaking, antisemitism in the South has been less serious and less severe than in the North. Relative acceptance of Jews in the South has largely been the result of high levels of Christian fundamentalism. Christian fundamentalists tie Jews to the Second Coming, and to the ancient Israelites, and to the story of Jesus and his life. And in those fundamentalist traditions, the Jews have a special place, which may not be one of full equality but is at least one of historical significance. There’s no story of Jesus without Jews, and there’s no Second Coming without Israel.
JL: Did slavery or the civil rights movement result in any clear Southern-Northern differences?
MB: By and large, Jews in the South fought for the Confederacy, and Southern Jews owned slaves. Furthermore, Jews reacted to the civil rights movement very differently in the South and the North. If Southern Jews participated, they worked behind the scenes, usually through ministerial associations. Northern Jews, in contrast, often came south for demonstrations and marched in the front lines.
So one might be tempted to say, ‘Yes, slavery and civil rights truly set Jews apart.’ Yet we shouldn’t jump to any bold conclusions. And we shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming that Jews in the South were reactionary whereas Jews in the North were liberal. When slavery was widespread in the North, Jews owned slaves. When busing hit Chicago, Boston, and New York, many Jews opposed it. They were okay with integration in the abstract, in the South, but when they had to confront the issue as teachers and parents, they were uncomfortable.
MG: [One] key factor that accounts for regional differences is what the historian C. Vann Woodward has called the “burden of Southern history.” This “burden” is the history of invasion, of slavery, of racism, of segregation, of reconstruction, of occupation. All people who have a Southern heritage share the burden of the Civil War and its aftermath.
This burden leads Southern Jews to self-identity differently from Northern Jews. In some fundamental way, Southern Jews think they are distinct. Let’s say you brought together a group of Southern Jews whose families had been in the South for several generations. And let’s say you posed the question, “How many of you believe that the Southern Jewish experience is somehow unique?” A lot of hands would go up.
This story "South vs. North" was written by Juliet Lapidos.