Eisenfeld, Sue. “Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South”, Mad Creek Books, 2020.
Nine Southern States
Having been born and raised Jewish in the South, I have always been curious to read others’ experiences so I was very anxious to read Sue Eisenfeld’s “Wandering Dixie”. To write her book, Eisenfeld traveled to nine states to uncover the history of Jewish southerners and how it deals with the South’s complex, conflicted present. She discovered the unexpected ways that race, religion, and hidden histories intertwine. Sheexplores the small towns where Jewish people once lived and thrived including the site of her distant cousin and civil rights activist Andrew Goodman’s murder during 1964’s Freedom Summer. She spoke with the only Jews remaining in some of the “lost” places, from Selma to the Mississippi Delta to Natchitoches and visited areas where these is no Jewish community left. She followed her curiosity about Jewish Confederates and looked at early southern Jews’ participation in slavery. Her journey became one of revelation about this country’s fraught history as well as a personal reckoning with the true nature of America.
For many,the idea of “southern Jews” was almost an oxymoron, and the idea that Jews could bemembers of the Confederacy was something beyond the realm of thought. Jews were leftists, refugee immigrants to the northeast in the late nineteenth century. If they went to the South, it was to participate in civil rights marches or voter registration drives.
But when Eisenfeld later moved from her native Philadelphia to Virginia, she began attending Civil War reenactments, museums, and old cemeteries (out of her love for history) and she found gravestones for antebellum Jews. She learned that Jewsindeed lived in the South, and had done so for a very long time. Since so much of Judaism is based on the concept of social justice, why would a Jew live in a region that was filled with injustice of all kinds.
Looking for answers, she embarked on a journey of a series of road trips to a variety of historic sites in the South. She went to Rosenwald schools, peanut factories, buildings that used to be synagogues or Jewish-owned businesses. She visited cemeteries and noticed how they were often divided into white, Black, and Jewish sections and whether or not non-Jewish spouses were buried alongside their Jewish partners showed a measure of assimilation. Eisenfeld shows that conforming to the dominant culture meant survival and prosperity for southern Jews. She saw that Jews ate and served shrimp and ham staples and that the temple in Helena, Arkansas served a big luncheon on Yom Kippur.
In Selma, Alabama Eisenfeld found Jews who did not care for the interference of northern Jews, since this could threaten their sense of security. The famous Selma march was joined by rabbis from all over the country but not from the South. Eisenfeld toured the mansions of Jewish Charleston plantation owners, asking, how many Jews owned slaves adjoined the Confederate Army and fought for the South’s right to own slaves. She was curious to learn where do southern Jews stand on the current debate about Confederate monuments.
She listened and she heard well even when what was said disturbed her. She attempted to be non-judgmental when she asked questions or writes about history that people shouldn’t need to be reminded about but unfortunately she is not always successful. It is very difficult to be objective about Southern Jewry unless you are a Southern Jew.
Eisenfeld’s journey changed her and she started registering voters where she lives and driving people to the polls. She adapted a social justice Haggadah for her family’s Seder— just as my family did and she certainly could have found Jewish Southern families who engaged heavily in social justice had she looked further. She proves that more study is necessary before blanked statements can be made. I believe that her dependence on personal reflection influenced her writing to the point that in some cases, subjectivity was thrown out. This is where a scholar could have done some real work. Unfortunately, I did not find “a beautifully nuanced and moving portrait of acceptance and accountability” that another reviewer found. While her“stories provide many revealing tidbits for those who enjoy self-reflective historical writing”, this is not scholarship but personal opinion.
Indeed the prose is beautiful and highly readable but I found the reckoning to be unsatisfactory and too colored by the author’s own past and her having been raised as a non-observant Jew. I believe it is necessary to understand all aspects of Judaism before attempting to describe it to others.
What really bothered me and I state emphatically that I have nothing but ill-feelings for the President of this country is that the author used her book on Southern Jewry to express her dissatisfaction (to put it mildly) with the present administration. Here was a chance to do something new and interesting and it is a pity that Ms. Eisenfeld lost that edge because of personal rant.
By the way, The Jewish South is not lost and is alive and thriving. In the interest of BLM, it might be an idea to replace the word “Dixie” in the title.