“Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South” by Sue Eisenfeld— Nine Southern States

Eisenfeld, Sue. “Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South”,  Mad Creek Books, 2020.

Nine Southern States

Amos Lassen

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.

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