Last week, I had the unique experience of driving to Demopolis, Alabama, (the recent subject of a Forward article about disappearing Jewish communities—read my response as well) to speak about the history of one prominent Jew who was born there: Arthur Mayer. An important film industry innovator, Arthur didn’t spend very long in Demopolis. His father died just three months after his birth in 1886, and his mother moved with her infant to New York City. Yet the Southern Literary Trail, based in Alabama, claims Mayer as a native son, and they asked me to come speak about his career in the movie business and his roots in Demopolis.
Arthur’s uncle Morris Mayer came to the small Alabama town just after the Civil War in 1866. Like so many other Jewish immigrants who came South during that era, Mayer opened a dry goods store. Morris’s brothers Simon and Ludwig joined him in Demopolis in the 1870s. By one historian’s account, the Mayer brothers owned the most successful retail business in West Alabama. In 1897, they constructed a magnificent three-story brick building to house their thriving business. Tragically, Simon never saw this grand edifice, dying in 1886. Soon after Simon’s death, his wife and children left Alabama, leaving their relatives to run the business. Arthur Mayer grew up with his grandparents in New York City, and later said, “the smartest thing I ever did in my life was I left Demopolis at the age of three months.”
Mayer ended up working in the burgeoning film industry during the early 20th century. While he worked for such moguls as Samuel Goldwyn and Adolph Zukor, Mayer came from a very different background. The men who created the modern film industry were almost to a man immigrant Jews. Men like Goldwyn, Zukor, Louis B. Mayer (no relation to Arthur), and the Warner Brothers craved respectability, and wanted to leave their immigrant past behind. According to Neil Gabler, in his book An Empire of Their Own, “they wanted to be regarded as Americans, not Jews. They wanted to reinvent themselves here as new men.” They left any vestiges of the old world behind. The best example of this was Louis B. Mayer, who was born in Russia, though he claimed he had forgotten where and when. Later, he would embrace the 4th of July as his birthday.
Arthur Mayer was different. He was American born (albeit to immigrant parents). He didn’t enter the film industry after working in the glove or fur business. Mayer went to Harvard, where he majored in history and English literature at a time when Jewish students were subject to a restrictive quota. After graduating, he used his connections to get a meeting with a leading banker in New York, who sent a letter of introduction to Sam Goldwyn, who hired Mayer right away. It’s somewhat ironic that Mayer used his elite, Harvard network to get a job in the upstart Jewish film industry.
The most famous book about southern Jews is entitled The Provincials, written by Eli Evans. The idea of the southern Jew as provincial is a powerful one, and has helped mark southern Jews as distinct from Jews who lived in a place like New York. But the term “provincial” did not apply to Arthur Mayer, though perhaps it did to men like Zukor and Goldwyn, who came from Europe and often spoke in accented English. In his memoir, Merely Colossal, Mayer relates several wonderful stories about these men, playing up their malapropism, or as Mayer wittily calls it, their “trenchant misstatements.” Goldwyn was known for saying things like “include me out,” or “a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” Mayer tells the story of how Goldwyn was trying to produce a film based on the play “The Captive,” but was warned it would be controversial because one its main characters was a lesbian. Goldwyn retorted, “we’ll get around that, we’ll just make her an American.”
Mayer later went to work as head of publicity, advertising, and promotion for Adolph Zukor at Paramount. Mayer was a great salesman, though he sometimes got into trouble with his boss for his advertising campaigns. Once, Mayer tried to advertise the first film starring Mae West by using the word “lusty” on the poster. His efforts to convince Zukor that he meant the word in terms of “lust for life” not its sexual connotations were unsuccessful, even though English was not Zukor’s native language. Perhaps the alluring picture of Mae West on the poster undercut Mayer’s argument.
Later, Mayer became the operator of the Rialto Theater in Times Square in New York City, where he specialized in showing what he called the “three M’s”: mystery, mayhem, and murder. They were called “B Movies,” because they didn’t have A-level stars or directors. When Mayer got the film reels at the Rialto, he couldn’t change the cast or the movie itself, but, using his salesman instincts, he could change the name of the movie on the outside marquee to attract more customers. To the bland title “A Son Comes Home,” Mayer added the phrase “From Gangland.” “Fit for a King,” became “Murder Fit For a King.”
Mayer is an interesting figure. He was not just the king of B movies, but he also became one of the first and most important importers of fine European films. Most notable was the Italian film The Bicycle Thief, which was recently ranked as the 6th greatest film of all time by the film magazine Sight and Sound. Although he often lost money on these foreign films, Mayer believed in them as art and continued to bring them over, helping to create the American market for foreign films.
Arthur Mayer was a hybrid of lowbrow and highbrow culture. He was also native southerner who epitomized northeastern, Ivy League educated sophistication. And yet, Mayer was a Jew working in an overwhelmingly Jewish industry. While his story differs from those of the more famous men he worked for, people like Goldwyn and Zukor, Arthur Mayer is an important figure in his own right, who deserves to be remembered.
Every few years, national reporters rediscover the phenomenon of the “disappearing southern
Jew.” This week, Seth Berkman of the Forward newspaper published a thoughtful, well-written article headlined “Southern Jews a Dying Breed as Small-Town Communities Dwindle Fast.”
I am quoted in it, and Berkman seems to have also used the ISJL’s online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities as the source for much of his historical background information. We were happy to help him, and appreciate any attention given to the plight of small Jewish communities, especially from the nation’s leading Jewish newspaper.
Synagogue building in Meridian, MS, sold in the 1990s; an ISJL visit in Dothan, AL, 2013
Despite the accuracy and quality of the article, it has admittedly ruffled a few feathers down here. While the decline of the Jewish community in places like Selma and Demopolis, Alabama, and in Lexington and Natchez, Mississippi is undeniable, the state of the Jewish South today is far more complicated than just closing synagogues in small towns coupled with tremendous growth in big cities like Atlanta.
I was just in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the Jewish community has grown by a factor of ten in the past fifty years. Boone, North Carolina recently saw the dedication of its first synagogue. The Jewish community in Dothan, Alabama has created an innovative program that has attracted several new Jewish families to the town, resulting in growth in the local congregation and religious school. Jewish life remains vibrant in medium-sized cities like Jackson, Mississippi; Huntsville, Alabama; Roanoke, Virginia; Macon, Georgia; and many others. The ISJL was founded in 2000 to serve the needs of southern Jewish communities, be they small, medium, large, or nearing extinction. I think it’s fair to say that our efforts have had a significant impact on Jewish life in the region.
The key to understanding the Jewish South today is a central trend: the movement of Jews out of the retail industry into corporate America and the professions. A new Jewish community recently sprouted in Bentonville, Arkansas because it is the corporate headquarters of Wal-Mart. Much of the growth in the Jewish communities of places like Charlottesville, or Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is due to the increasing number of Jewish faculty and administrators associated with the large universities there. Jackson has become the largest Jewish community in Mississippi in recent decades because it is the medical and legal center for the state. The Jewish dry goods merchants who once populated these southern communities have been replaced by executives, doctors, lawyers, and professors.
The dying out of southern Jewish communities is not a new phenomenon. I’ve written the histories of many southern congregations that closed over a century ago. It’s a trend that is neither uniquely southern, nor uniquely Jewish. Small town Jewish communities across the country have declined for similar reasons to the ones described in the Forward article. I recall reading a New York Times article several years ago about Lutheran churches in North Dakota that closed because their membership had dwindled.
Throughout its history, America has never stood still. Towns and regions have boomed and crashed. Jewish communities have been established and died out, usually tied to national trends. As ISJL president Macy B. Hart is fond of saying, “change is neither good nor bad, change is change.” My job as the historian of the ISJL is to ensure that despite these changes, these communities are not forgotten, that their part in the tapestry of American Jewish life is preserved for all to see and appreciate. We are grateful that the Forward has recognized their significance, and helped us in this endeavor.
Whenever I get ready to go on a long research trip, I put together a detailed itinerary, listing each library, synagogue, and cemetery I plan to visit, as well as the people I will interview or with whom I plan to meet. I make sure to add addresses, contact numbers, and hotel and rental car confirmation numbers. Once all this information is compiled, I start working on my favorite part of the trip: figuring out where I am going to eat each day.
It’s not unusual for me to spend twice as much time combing through reviews on Urbanspoon or Roadfood.com than reading through libraries’ online catalogs. Of course, I spend far more time in the archives than in restaurants, but one of the perks of my job is the chance to become an expert on regional southern cuisine. For me, this opportunity has become a serious responsibility!
Whenever I’m on the road, I try to find out about the unique regional specialties, from hot tamales in the Mississippi Delta or dry rubbed beef brisket in central Texas, to burgoo in western Kentucky. Once, when I was visiting Laredo and other Jewish communities along the Texas-Mexico border, I spent hours figuring out precisely which Mexican restaurants offered the most authentic and tastiest version of the local cuisine. I would hate to visit a town and miss the best place to eat.
But sometimes, I must take into account other considerations. When I recently traveled to western Kentucky, I was faced with the prospect of eating mutton barbecue for three days straight. Since I’ve entered my 40s, I knew that such a schedule would wreak havoc on my archive productivity (not to mention my digestive system!). So I mixed in an occasional salad and bought fruit at a local grocery store for healthy snacks. Finding green things to eat can be a challenge on the road.
One of the effects of the Immigration Act of 1965 – the most underrated federal law of the past 50 years, if you ask me – is the spread of Asian immigrants to cities and towns around the country. I have learned to scout out Asian restaurants in unusual places. I have had amazing Vietnamese pho in Oklahoma City and great pad thai in Paducah, Kentucky.
In preparation for a trip to Virginia two weeks ago, I was most excited to eat at Peter Chang’s, a new restaurant recently opened by the famous peripatetic master of Chinese cuisine, whose sudden disappearances and movements have been tracked by foodies across the country, including Calvin Trillin in the New Yorker magazine. Chang has recently opened restaurants in Charlottesville, Richmond, and Williamsburg – three cities I just happened to be visiting.
While I can assure you this was a coincidence, I’ll happily admit that his restaurants graced my itinerary three times over a four day stretch.
What are your favorite Southern specialties? What about out-of-region surprises?