At the ISJL, we’re often asked about all things “Southern” and “Jewish” – so it was no surprise that we received several inquiries regarding a recent article posted on JTA, headlined “Jewish newcomers bring optimism, but can they revive small towns in the South?”
Several of our staff members were interviewed for or contributed to the piece, but the question in the headline is still being asked of all of us.
My take? I think newcomers to any small town – the South, or elsewhere – can bring excitement, fresh ideas, and hopefully full participation in the Jewish community. There is certainly hope that with newcomers comes a better chance of long-term survival; this belief even inspired one group to offer Jewish newcomers $50,000 to move to Dothan, Alabama. We welcome newcomers, we see the optimism new residents can bring, but in the end, can bringing in new folks revive a community in the long term? That remains to be seen.
We are a transient society; people move around the country for any number of reasons: a new job, retirement, to be near family. It is wonderful when newcomers come into any community, bringing new ideas to share and making their mark in the community. It’s often hard to know, at first, if “newcomers” will become permanent members of the community for the long haul, especially in small towns. And if newcomers have children, will those children choose to stay in these small towns, or leave, as so many native-to-small-town-children have done over the years when they became adults?
In our daily work at the ISJL, we honor and work with Jewish communities large and small. If a community has one child in religious school or several hundred, whether they own a historic building or rent worship space in a church, no matter if their weekly Shabbat services draw 10 or 100 people, every Jew counts. No matter where they live. The ISJL helps connect these smaller population centers to the larger Jewish community, as well as to other small Jewish communities who are experiencing similar issues – diminishing population and resources.
Some of our staff are newcomers, but the organization is here to stay.
The truth is that some of these small towns in the South will no longer have a Jewish presence in the next 10 to 20 years. But the point is, however many Jews are in a community and however long they remain there, they deserve rich Jewish lives. So we will continue to provide support and resources to these communities as long as there is any Jewish presence at all – and when the last Jew in any given small Southern town is gone, we will continue to honor the memory of that community through the history collected on our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities.
So the question remains: Can Jewish newcomers revive small towns in the South? In the short term, absolutely; in the long term, we don’t know. But no matter what, we will support the efforts of those old and new, transient or settled.
What do you think?
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.
By Education Fellow Rachel Blume
“Office was destroyed. Walking to hospital with Mom. Can’t find your brother.”
I received this text message from my father just after 5:00pm on April 27, 2011, after an EF4 tornado ripped through the heart of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, my hometown. This storm caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage, killed more than 50 people, and left both physical and emotional scars on countless others.
At the time, I was finishing my last week of graduate school and packing up my apartment in Atlanta, which had been my home for the previous 6 years. I had accepted a position as an ISJL Education Fellow and was preparing to move to Jackson, Mississippi. Now, as my time here comes to a close and I prepare for my next transition, I’m amazed at how quickly two years have come and gone. I also find myself recalling the natural disaster that I will always associate with my move to Jackson.
When I tried to call my dad or text back, nothing would go through. The tornado had taken out all of the cell towers, and it was nearly impossible to get a signal in town. I was unable to contact either my parents or my brother. I felt completely helpless. I was over 200 miles away and couldn’t reach anyone.
When I was finally able to make it home roughly 72 hours later, nothing could’ve prepared me for the sight of what used to be my parent’s law firm, my second home.
The remains of my parents’ old building.They were inside when the tornado hit and survived by sheltering themselves between shelving units in a storage room. Their firm is up and running again in a brand new facility.
Though both the experience of nearly losing my parents and the the destruction that I witnessed in Tuscaloosa were unnerving and even traumatic, the outpouring of support from the greater community to my family was a revelation. Numerous people showed up to aid in the clean-up process, and those that couldn’t physically help sent meals or found other ways to show their concern. I’d never experienced that type of love and support from such a large number of people.
The most important lesson I have taken from those events is how a community can become like family. Prior to this, I had taken a passive role, not only in my Jewish community, but also in the community at large. While an interest in connecting with and supporting Jewish congregations had already led me to take the job with the ISJL, the collective response that I witnessed in the aftermath of the tornado further inspired me to work for the betterment of the communities—Jewish or otherwise—in which I live.
I carried this motivation with me to all of the communities I worked with during my two years as an Education Fellow. I have been lucky enough, not only to contribute to these communities, but also to benefit from them. Seeing the camaraderie and closeness of our communities has encouraged me to continue as an active participant moving forward.
In the next few weeks, my time at the ISJL will end, and I will move into the next phase of my life, attending law school in Houston, Texas. While I’m thankful that my family has not gone through another natural disaster, I know that the lessons I learned from the last one will serve me well through my new transition.