When historians write about social or political transformation, they often make a distinction between “change from above” and “change from below.” Change from above comes directly from the leadership—Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal is a good example. Change from below is brought about by the efforts of regular people, whether directly from their actions or as a result of pressures brought to bear on those in power. The Civil Rights Movement is an especially compelling example of this. In researching the Jewish history of Louisville, Kentucky, I found a fascinating instance of “change from below” that literally came from above.
Keneseth Israel was created in 1926 from the merger of Louisville’s two oldest Orthodox congregations, both of which had been established by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. By the mid-20th century, a new generation of members had begun to chafe under the requirements of strict Orthodoxy. After World War II, the younger members of the congregation, especially its women, began to push for mixed-gender seating. In 1950, a group of female members, who normally sat in the synagogue balcony, held “sit-down strikes” in the downstairs men’s section during services. During one of these demonstrations, the police were called to restore order, and some members threatened a court injunction to stop the protests. Keneseth Israel’s Rabbi Benjamin Brilliant supported the traditionalists and refused to continue services while women were sitting in the men’s section.
Finally, the board sought to strike a compromise by allowing women to sit on the main floor of the sanctuary separated from the men by a mechitza, though this solution did not satisfy the protestors. Finally, after Rabbi Brilliant left Keneseth Israel in 1952, the congregation voted to institute mixed seating in the middle section of the sanctuary, with separate sections for men and women at the sides. Over the years, the congregation would continue to struggle with how to balance traditional Judaism with the demands of the modern world. Later, Keneseth Israel affiliated with the Conservative Movement and become fully egalitarian.
It’s quite remarkable that thirteen years before Betty Friedan published of The Feminine Mystique, which helped spark the second wave of American feminism, the women of Keneseth Israel decided to challenge the gender inequality of their congregation in such a direct way. Their effort is a perfect example of how most social change comes from pressure from below, even if it actually comes from the balcony!
Since moving to Mississippi ten years ago, I have been continually struck by the state’s rich but complicated history. One of the most overused quotes down here is from William Faulkner: “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” Indeed, my state’s past still haunts and inspires Mississippians today. For many southern whites, the past evokes tangled feelings of both pride and shame. They wrestle with the question of whether they can celebrate the bravery of Confederate ancestors while acknowledging the central role of slavery in the Civil War. The imposition of Jim Crow after Reconstruction and the violence directed against southern blacks during the Civil Rights era remain difficult for many southern whites to face, many of whom insist that this ugly history is best forgotten. Yet the wounds of this dark past are not yet fully healed, and black and white southerners still struggle with how to move forward as a unified society.
Figuring out how Jews fit into this southern story has been a central focus of my career as a historian. Recently, a visit to Columbus, Georgia, got me thinking about how Jews have interacted with the South’s conflicted history. Columbus is home to an old Jewish community that goes back before the Civil War. One of its early Jewish residents was Raphael Moses, a lawyer who moved to Columbus in 1849. Wanting to join the ranks of southern planters, Moses bought a plantation on a hill outside the city, which he named Esquiline. By 1850, Moses already owned sixteen slaves, five of whom were children. Moses focused his plantation on growing peaches, and he became the first planter to sell the fruit outside of the state. By 1860, Moses had 47 slaves working on his plantation.
During the Civil War, Moses joined the Confederate army, but was too old to serve in combat. Instead, he became Confederate Commissary of Georgia, responsible for supplying and feeding 54,000 Confederate troops. He was close with General Robert E. Lee, and was with him at the Battle of Gettysburg. Three of Moses’ sons fought for the South; one died in the war. After emancipation, Moses was shocked when all but one of his slaves decided to leave Esquiline once they gained their freedom. Moses, like other slave owners, believed in the delusional and paternalistic notion that their slaves greatly appreciated their masters for caring for them over the years. Moses became a political leader after the war, serving in the state legislature during Reconstruction. When a political opponent raised his Jewishness as a disqualifying factor, Moses wrote a famous letter asserting his Jewish pride: “I feel it an honor to be of a race whom persecution cannot crush, whom prejudice has in vain endeavored to subdue.” The irony of a former slave owner decrying persecution and prejudice was apparently lost on Moses.
When I was in Columbus, I was very excited to learn that the Esquiline Cemetery, containing the graves of Moses and his family, was still there. The plantation is long gone. The grand home owned by Moses burned down in the early 20th century. Eventually, the family sold off the 1000-acre plantation, and now the cemetery is surrounded by a housing subdivision. Parking on a cul-de-sac filled with modest homes, my local guides led me through a clearing in the adjacent woods. After a short distance, we came upon the small cemetery, ringed by a chain-linked fence topped with barbed wire. Though many of the stones have been broken over the years, a heavy sense of history still infuses this small plot of ground.
Columbus Jews today are rightfully proud of Moses. He was one of the city’s most prominent citizens, and his advancements in the storage and shipping of peaches helped make the fruit one of Georgia’s most lucrative crops. He ascended the social ranks of plantation owners, proving that his Jewishness was no barrier to entry. He is evidence that Jews were loyal southerners, and were fully integrated within southern life and culture. And yet, it’s hard to embrace Moses fully. While the names of Moses and his ancestors are etched into stone in the Esquiline Cemetery and in history books, we don’t know the names of the slaves and their children who once called the plantation home. What were their lives like? How did they respond to the opportunities and challenges of freedom? These questions went through my head as I visited the graves at Esquiline.
This ambivalence and uneasiness with the past echoes a larger tension that still permeates southern life today. White southerners often have a complicated relationship with the region’s history. That southern Jews do as well is yet another indication of just how southern we are.
In celebration of the completion of the Kentucky section of our online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, we bring you another piece of Kentucky Jewish History.
Beginning in the early 20th century, a handful of Jews settled in the coal country of southeast Kentucky. Most of them owned stores that catered to the local coal miners. Over the years, miners squared off against the coal companies in a series of sometimes violent strikes and labor disputes. As these labor struggles became increasingly virulent, Jews were sometimes caught in the middle.
Polish immigrants Harry and Bina Appleman were one of these Jewish families who were drawn to Kentucky’s coal country, opening a general store in Evarts, Kentucky, thirteen miles from Harlan. After many local miners were fired for joining a union in 1931, the Applemans decided to help their families. They would feed 40 to 50 children each day during the standoff. During Passover, the Applemans ran an ad in the local newspaper stating that they would give away a railroad car full of flour to anyone in need “regardless of color and creed.” Each needy family would be given a 24-pound bag of flour. This donation was a significant expense for the Applemans, who had scrimped and saved the money which they now decided to use to help the needy miners. The Black Mountain Coal Corporation did not appreciate the Appleman’s largesse, and swore out a criminal complaint against the couple for criminal syndicalism. Although the charges were eventually dropped, the Applemans were targeted by company thugs, who shot into their home. Because of these threats, the Applemans left Evarts, moving to Brooklyn.
The Applemans’ story reminded me of the civil rights era, when southern Jews were often caught within the larger social turmoil. Many southern Jews tried to stay out of the conflict, but others, like the Applemans had done three decades earlier in Kentucky, made a courageous public stand at great personal risk.
As always, you can visit our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities for more information.