I have a complicated relationship with the South, to say the least, which is why I leapt at the chance to talk about Confederate Jews with Sue Eisenfeld, author of Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South, for Publishers Weekly.
Author Rediscovers a Nearly Forgotten Jewish South
Sue Eisenfeld finds it fascinating that when neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates shouted “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, they did so as they gathered around a statue of Thomas Jefferson that was created by Jewish sculptor Moses Ezekiel. The sculptor, in turn, was firmly on the Confederate side. There’s a lot to unpack in that scene—those who hate Jews rallying around a sculpture created by a Jew who was actually sympathetic to the Confederate cause. It is at this intersection of many prejudices, false historical assumptions, and the legacy of the Civil War that appeals to Eisenfeld. Read the entire feature at Publishers Weekly.
Sue’s experience of the South was different from mine, since she interviewed Jewish families that can trace their lineage back at least to the Civil War. Their ancestors were proud Confederates. She told me that she’s not judging the Jews of the Confederacy, since the norms of society were different. I’m not sure I give Confederate Jews the historical pass that she does, but I understand why she did it.
When I lived in the South, I was very much an outsider, the son and grandson of Hungarian Jewish Holocaust refugees. Years later, I remember my grandfather asking my dad how the heck we decided to live in Georgia, which is “full of anti-Semites.” I’ve written before about my experiences as a Jew in the South, including in the Jewish Daily Forward.
Not included in my PW piece was a dialogue I had with Sue about the Jews of Charlottesville during the neo-Nazi march in 2017. I had the feeling they were no sons and daughters of the Confederacy. In fact, the police—largely in favor of the Charlottesville marchers—failed horribly to protect the local synagogues during the rally. It was, in part, this knowledge (and probably anti-Southern prejudice) I have that prompted me to speak out just after Charlottesville at a local rally in my hometown of Traverse City, Michigan. Here’s part of what I said:
‘I’ve Seen This Before’ — My Speech at an anti-Nazi Vigil in Traverse City, Michigan
When the Holocaust deniers in the White House tell you that there are “many sides” to the story of Charlottesville. “Many sides” to the story of a group of Nazis, feeling so empowered by their president that they feel it is OK to slam a car into a group of anti-fascist protesters and murder a young, idealistic woman, Heather Heyer, who stood up for what was right, it is an invitation for more armed Nazi thugs in the streets, killing and beating the defenseless. How do I know? Through my murdered family, I have seen this before. Read the rest of my speech here.
So, I was probably even more shocked than Sue to find there were Confederate Jews, but her book does manage to provide context and, more importantly, to try to look forward rather than backward. “Seeing Jewish culture in the heart of the South might force readers to think about what she calls ‘the two touch points between African-American history and Jewish history in the South: slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.’ And that Jews, even if in some cases they were also considered second-class citizens, were still beneficiaries of institutional racism.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that Sue sees Jews as white and benefitting from white privilege, yet my own experience in the South was very different. There are no right or wrong answers, since all these things can be experienced at once. It’s part of the baggage involved with being a Jew. And, to be a Jew in the South, the baggage becomes heavier.