Arts & Culture

The Protocols: Like Medieval Poland, the American South is Desperate for Jews

Well folks, my summer of traveling just ended with a brief visit to my ancestral home of Omaha, Nebraska.  Despite the fact that I was there for ostensibly professional reasons (I was honored to participate in the fantastic annual Omaha … Read More

By / September 24, 2008

Well folks, my summer of traveling just ended with a brief visit to my ancestral home of Omaha, Nebraska.  Despite the fact that I was there for ostensibly professional reasons (I was honored to participate in the fantastic annual Omaha Lit Fest, which is turning into quite a major event) the trip was fraught as usual with the ghosts of the past; despite the disconcerting presence of a new American Apparel, it’s still my hometown, and being there, I couldn’t help but reflect on my childhood and adolescence, and for probably the millionth time, what it was like growing up Jewish in a place where being Jewish is still at least semi-weird. I’ve written extensively about this (it’s so comfortable to revisit postions we’ve already taken, isn’t it?) and I’m not going to go into my personal experience here; if you’re interested, you can read my book.  But being home reminded me of a strange little news item I caught sight of a couple of weeks ago, and have since meant to call to your attention. Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services is offering Jewish families as much as $50,000 to relocate to Dothan, Alabama—a town of 58,000 known as the Peanut Capital of the World (although I think a few towns in Georgia might dare to differ).  It’s a kind of yiddische Homestead Act set smack in the cradle of Dixie, and the terms are simple: the families stay at least five years, become active in the local synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, and the money never has to be repaid.   Jews in the South are nothing new, and historically, were in some ways more visible and prominent than their co-religionists in the North.  The oldest continual Jewish community in the United States is in Charleston, South Carolina, where a group Portuguese Jews first settled 300 years ago.  Judah Benjamin, Secretary of State of the short-lived Confederate States of America was a Jew (a fact conveniently forgotten by so many of today’s good ol’ boys who proudly emblazon the Stars and Bars on the sides of their pick-up trucks and semi-automatic weapons); and during my stopover in the Memphis airport on my way back to New York, I counted as many yarmulkes as one might see in, if not New York, than certainly Chicago. 

Today, more Jews than ever—almost 400,000—are making their homes in the South, but they tend to be Northern transplants clustered in urban areas like Atlanta and Birmingham (rather than in the kinds of towns we Yankees are used to viewing in sepia toned movies, accompanied by haunting shots of live oaks draped in Spanish moss and the sound of somebody throatily humming the word “Jesus” over and over again off screen—a sure sign in the language of film that something bad, sinister, and racially tinged is about to happen.)  As a result, small-town synagogues are closing, and once close-knit communities have dissolved.  In the article I read, a woman named Thelma Nomberg, who grew up in nearby Ozark and was the only Jewish student in the region’s public schools in the 1940’s put it simply: “We are dying.” This is undoubtedly true and painful to the men and women watching their communities wither and disappear, and the Blumberg organization is to be commended for their attempt to recognize and revitalize the history and heritage of the Jewish South.

That said, I can’t help but feel that the city elders of Dothan, who have expressed enthusiasm about the plan, have slightly different motives here.   As someone who grew up in a rural state (admittedly not Southern, but a population of 58,000 is practically a megalopolis for some parts of Nebraska), I feel I can safely say that the death of small town America is hardly an exclusively Jewish problem.  Jews may have disappeared from small towns, but so have people.  As big-box retailers curtail and eventually murder local businesses, as factories shut down, as opportunities grow ever scarcer, talented and ambitious young people take flight, seeking their fortunes elsewhere, and never come back. 

They call it the brain drain.  Left behind are the elderly and those with few other options. To survive, such towns (and I’m not speaking of Dothan in particular, but depressed areas in general), require new residents with the skills and energy to attract business rather than drive it away, and in some cases, radically remake the fabric of the community. In the Midwest, a new influx of Latino immigrants has helped to correct some of the imbalance, bringing new vitality to stagnant areas, but in the conservative South where xenophobic fervor tends to run high, this option is perhaps seen as less tenable.   You need a middle class?  Bring in the Jews.  Any student of Jewish history might feel a faint quiver of recognition. In the twelfth century, when Jews were massacred and eventually expelled from England and France, the Polish prince Boleslaus III had an idea: why not invite them to Poland?  He was struggling to transform his country into a mercantile culture, Jews were educated and good with money and needed a place to live.  At the time, Lithuania, which comprised much of Poland was still officially a pagan state (it would remain so until 1386, when Poland offered its crown to the Lithuanian Grand Duke, and was the last country in Europe to Christianize); there would be no significant religious obstacle from its people.  Rich in resources and underdeveloped, Poland was ready and waiting for the beleaguered and brainy Hebrews.  
As they say in Fiddler on the Roof, it was a perfect match.  Over the next two hundred years, Jews flooded into Poland, almost exclusively forming the middle class—a liaison between the agrarian peasants and the cultured aristocracy.  The odd flare-up of anti-Semitic violence certainly occurred, but compared to the horrors Jews had endured in Crusades-mad Western Europe, these hardly seemed reason for pause.  In 1264, Boleslaus the Pious issued the Statute of Kalisz, which officially granted all Jews the freedom of worship, travel, and most importantly, trade.  Poland became the center of Jewish life in Europe, culminating under the beloved proto-liberal Casimir the Great (1303-1370) who expanded Jewish rights and protection to such an extent that he was known as “Casimir, King of the Serfs and Jews.”   Unfortunately, if you’ll remember, it went downhill, or we’d all be speaking Polish right now.   Thus far, Dothan has not proved nearly as attractive to urban Jews as medieval Poland, and unless the approximately seventeen gentiles in Great Neck lose their minds and start a riot against the Silvermans next door, this seems unlikely.  But the Jews who have settled in Dothan seem to find an extremely hospitable place.  As Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith of Temple Emanu-El points out: “The Northeast has a very warped perception of what the South is all about….the South is a wonderful place to be.  The people are warm and friendly.  There’s very little traffic, and best of all, there’s no snow.” Let’s just hope she’s singing the same tune 500 years from now.

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