Jews in The South
If someone had told me I would take a pulpit, let alone retire, in the South I would have responded, “Impossible.” My only experience in the South had been the march in Selma where I faced a strange and hostile environment. Then, about twenty-five years ago, I insisted that my family include Asheville in a summer car trip. I’ve been singing Appalachian songs since my early teens and greatly admired singers like Doc Watson. I wanted to see where this music came from. Like so many who visit I fell in love with western North Carolina and said on that trip, “This is where I’d like to end up.” By some happy stroke of luck I came to Hendersonville.
Wherever I have lived I have studied its history and especially its Jewish history. I have learned something about the local Jewish history and also read about Jewish history in the South. This week-end I participated on the committee that hosted the annual conference of the Southern Jewish Historical Society. Papers were presented but the program included a lot about our local history, including a program on Hendersonville as the Southern Catskills. Jews have been spending summers here for well over a century. A great many businesses in downtown Asheville were owned by Jews and, of course, Main Street in Hendersonville had many Jewish shops and businesses for much of the 20th century.
Southern Jewish history is often surprising. During the Civil War, in proportion to their numbers, Jews were equally represented in the Union and the Confederate armies. I already knew about Judah P. Benjamin who had served as Jefferson Davis’ Secretary of War, Secretary of The Treasury, and Secretary of State (and turned down a nomination to be the first Jewish Supreme Court justice). It was General Grant who issued General Order 11 singling out Jews for black market trading in Tennessee. No such orders were issued by the Confederacy. One of the most important Jewish pro-slavery sermons was delivered by Rabbi Morris Raphall on January 4, 1861, months before Fort Sumter fell. He feared the break-up of the Union and said he was uncomfortable with the institution, but for the good of the nation he felt it necessary to let the slave states have their way. His congregants also had business concerns. New York was an important clothing manufacturing center and that depended on cotton from the South.
What many people do not know is that the largest Jewish city in the country was once Charleston SC and that Savannah GA, Baltimore MD, and New Orleans LA were all important Jewish communities. The first Reform congregation in America was in Charleston. Aside from Judah Benjamin, other prominent southern Jews were Mordechai Manuel Noah, the first Jewish ambassador, appointed by President Madison to represent America in the Kingdom of Tunis where he gained the freedom of many imprisoned Americans. David Levy Yulee was the first Jewish Senator as well as Florida’s first Senator. I must also mention Francis Salvador of Charleston. He is considered the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War.
When I first came here the housing market had not yet collapsed and I got many phone calls from northerners telling me they were considering moving here. Some were surprised there is a synagogue here. They asked about anti-Semitism (some, but much less than I experienced in the North), Jewish neighborhoods (no such thing here), and whether there is a Hebrew school (still only an idea and desire then, but we’re making progress now). These people had the same kinds of doubts I had before I got here. We know better.
I have lived and worked in several places, including three foreign countries. One thing I have learned along the way is that, to be happy in a new place, it is essential not to bring our preconceptions with us. Learning to adapt is necessary. I learned early on not to honk my horn except in an emergency situation. I learned that people are more willing to help strangers here than anywhere else I have lived. I learned that there people here are fascinated by Jews and respect us, especially those who are synagogue goers. Morris Kaplan, Sammy Williams, Francee Sherman, Don Michaelov and others of our community have been regarded as central figures in our county. I have done interfaith work my entire career, everywhere I have lived or worked. Nowhere have I been in more demand as a speaker, teacher and even preacher by Christians.
It turns out my prejudice against taking a pulpit in the South was misplaced and wrong. Meeting with Jews from all over the South at the history conference and at the Limmud weekend Phyllis and I attended a couple of months ago showed me that we should embrace this wonderful place we are living in