Want some insights into a historian’s dilemma? It involves cultural identity. Geography. And NASCAR. (Well – sort of.)
The Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities now contains 250 community histories from 11 different southern states. As we get toward the end of our researching and writing, we are beginning to reach the edges of our territory, where the borders can get a little fuzzy. Covington and Newport, Kentucky, for example, are considered part of the south, but just across the river, Cincinnati, Ohio, is not.
Virginia, which will be completed and online this fall, presents an interesting case. Richmond, with Confederate statues lining Monument Avenue, remains culturally southern, while Alexandria feels little different from the suburb of any northern metropolis. Our encyclopedia history of Alexandria will tell the story of how the southern river port with a small Jewish congregation became enveloped by the expansion of Washington, D.C. after World War II. If one defines the south culturally and historically, rather than simply geographically, then Alexandria was once southern, but is no longer.
The shifting southern-ness of northern Virginia foreshadows the next big dilemma for the encyclopedia: Florida.
Originally, Florida wasn’t even included in the ISJL’s territory. But a few years ago, we took in the Sunshine State as our “12-state region” became the “13-state region.” We don’t serve the entire state, just the panhandle, which is sometimes affectionately called “Lower Alabama.” But after Virginia goes live in the near future, Florida is the last frontier for the encyclopedia. How much of Florida is southern, and which communities should we include in our encyclopedia?
When I give lectures about southern Jewish history, I usually cite recent population statistics, but I always exclude Florida. The main reason for this is that the explosion of the Jewish population of south Florida, fueled by retirees and northern transplants over the last several decades, has little to do with the history of Jews in the South. South Florida’s Jewish community has far more connections and cultural similarities with the Jewish community of New York than with Pensacola, Florida, let alone Greenville, Mississippi. The columnist Leonard Pitts, writing from Miami, once declared that south Florida was the only part of America where you have to go north to get to the South.
Also, far more Jews reside in south Florida than live in the entire South. When the last national Jewish population study included Florida as the South in its regional breakdown, we learned nothing about southern Jewish life, only south Florida Jewish life.
Once, when I was speaking to a group in Sarasota, I was nervous about so easily excluding Florida from the South. So I decided to ask my audience whether they consider themselves to be southerners. Only two people amongst a hundred or so raised their hands: one woman originally from Waco, Texas and a man from Georgia. The rest of the audience, all residents of Florida, had no identity as southerners. While this impromptu poll made me feel a little better about excluding Florida from my population figures, the problem of Florida and how we define the South has always gnawed at me.
Now it’s time to face this issue head on. Will I have to visit Key West and Miami Beach on my next research trip? Was Seinfeld’s portrayal of the Florida retirement community “Del Boca Vista” a humorous portrait of southern Jewish life? Were Morty and Helen Seinfeld southern Jews? I haven’t figured out the answers to these questions just yet, and would love to read your opinions on the subject. In the meantime, I am working on a theory about drawing the South’s border somewhere between Daytona Beach, home of the Daytona 500, and Orlando, home of Disney world. After all, the Walt Disney Company, run from a nice Jewish boy from New York seems Yankee – and what’s more southern than NASCAR?
Do you think of Florida when you think of “the South”? Why or why not?
This is another post from one of our terrific summer interns, Caroline Kahlenberg, who completed this piece for us as she completed her time with us. Many thanks, Caroline!
Last week, an article in The Forward caught my eye: “When Your Name Screams, ‘I’m Jewish!”
The author of the piece, Lenore Skenazy, wrote: “It’s an issue that Mila Kunis, Jonah Hill, and Lena Dunham never have to deal with, but Jerry Seinfeld, Jeff Goldblum, and Sarah Silverman have: an obviously Jewish last name… For the Goldsteins and Shapiros in life, there’s a Star of David hanging over every introduction.”
Historically, as we know, many Jews tried to dismantle this invisible but palpable Star of David by changing their last names to something less “obviously Jewish.” Hollywood Jews, in particular, have been known to do this: Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas. Jonathan Leibowitz switched to Jon Stewart. In the same tradition, Natalie Herschlag—paradoxically, very well known for her Israeli identity—became Natalie Portman.
Why the name changes? In large part, they were an attempt by Jews to “pass” as “real Americans” in a country rife with anti-Semitism, both latent and blatant.
“Passing” was often seen as a good career move, whether in Hollywood or New York. In 1948, one anonymous Jewish New Yorker explained this rationale in an Atlantic article titled “I Changed My Name.” The anonymous author, who legally switched from a ‘forthrightly Jewish moniker’ to a ‘more universal one,’ wrote:
“I’ve let my new name open doors. I’ve already found things easier, my entrée smoothed, the new way… In giving up my old name I had nothing but a headache to lose.”
Two months later, David L. Cohn of Greenville, Mississippi wrote an impassioned response to this piece in the same publication—this time, titled “I’ve Kept My Name.”
Detailing his own experience with an overtly Jewish name, Cohn wrote, “Gentiles, knowing me to be a Jew, have all my life taken me into their hearts and homes… In Greenville, neither I nor any of my co-religionists, to my knowledge, suffered any indignity or lack of opportunity because of being Jewish.”
Now, before I started my internship at the ISJL, I would have been shocked that such a response came out of Greenville, Mississippi—in the heart of the Delta, which many consider “the most southern place on earth.” Rather, I would’ve guessed that a Mississippi Jew would be the one writing about his experience with anti-Semitism, while the New Yorker would respond as Cohn did. Instead, back in 1948 – the opposite was true.
And after a summer researching the history of these small Southern communities, I’ve come to learn that Southern Jews—while certainly not immune to anti-Semitism—were typically quite respected in their communities as civic and business leaders. And, perhaps because of this, they frequently and proudly used their “obviously Jewish” names for their stores—for instance, advertising the high quality of shoes at “Weinbergs” or cosmetic bargains at “Rosenzweig’s.”
In fact, Southern Jews so frequently employed their conspicuously Jewish names in business that one of the tricks we use to guide our research—in addition to Stuart’s High Holidays research method —is simply driving down a town’s main street looking out for (often faded) Jewish store names on buildings, such as “Goldsmith’s” in Alexandria, VA or “Klotz’s” in Staunton, VA. We also sift through City Directories searching for Jewish-named businesses—of which there were many.
Of course, as historians, we have to carefully cross-check using census records, congregation memberships, and Jewish organization lists, because some “Jewish-sounding” last names, such as my own—Kahlenberg—actually have no Jewish roots at all. Still, it’s a surprisingly effective method, since a) Jews most commonly settled as merchants in the South, and b) often used their last names for businesses.
To be sure, Jewish store names are not unique to the South: think Bloomingdale’s, Calvin Klein, or Katz’s Deli—all based in New York. However, it’s no coincidence, I’d argue, that David Cohn’s animated defense of his Jewish name came from a small southern community, where, it turns out, being a “Goldstein or Shapiro” often came with a certain appreciation and respect.
Nor is it a coincidence, I’d say, that one of the nation’s most successful—and conspicuously Jewish-named—businesses was founded exactly 40 years earlier in that same town of Greenville, Mississippi: Stein Mart. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
What do you think about the blessing or curse of having an “obviously Jewish name?” Share your thoughts in the comments below!
It’s something that makes most Jewish people cringe: that moment when, in the midst of some celebrity or political or financial scandal, it’s revealed that there’s a bad guy who happens to be Jewish. And now, quite publicly, this Jewish person has done wrong.
Let’s call them the “Bad News Jews.”
I was pretty young when I first realized that if you’re Jewish, and especially if you’re the only Jewish person someone knows, you will become a go-to-source on All Things Jewish. Not just around holiday times, but also when there’s someone Jewish in the news. Especially when the news is not good, and a fellow known-to-be-Jewish person is getting some bad press.
It was Monica Lewinsky who first taught me this.
I was in high school back when she was in the news. Despite the fact and context of that story, and the whole topic being, y’know, not exactly appropriate conversational material to dive into with a teenager, people would ask me what I thought about that situation. They would ask what I thought about her: Monica Lewinsky, who “sort of looked like me,” as I was told a couple of times. Like maybe, since we were both Jewish, I had some insider info on this hot mess (um, nope!); or I’d be more sympathetic to her plight (um, nope!); or at least I’d be more personally impacted by the story (um… nope… ish?).
That last parenthetical “nope-ish” is where it gets complicated. Because while it doesn’t have anything to do with us, and seems misguided when non-Jewish friends and family ask us specifically about these “Naughty Jews,” well, there is some truth to the fact that we cringe a bit harder when someone Jewish is revealed to be the bad guy in a news story. Even when we have no actual connection to the person, we feel embarrassed. Like it’s making “us” look bad. The same way we take pride in “our” Albert Einsteins, we cringe at “our” Anthony Weiners.
How do we respond to Bad News Jews? When people ask for our opinion, what do we say?
After years of being in this position, my response has become pretty standard. When someone asks me what I think “as a Jewish person,” I try (and sometimes fail) to not roll my eyes, and then lead off by saying that I don’t speak for “the Jews,” I can only speak for myself. A person, who happens to be Jewish, but whose opinions only represent me, and are not representative of all Jewish people. Just like, yes, that schmoe in the news is a person, who happens to be Jewish – but whose actions speak only for him/her, and are not representative of all Jewish people. In a small town, where the Jews are few – like the rural town where I grew up, and the small Southern city where I live now – it somehow seems both more remote and removed, and yet also all the more personal.
It’s a sound basic strategy, but it doesn’t always stop the questions. Or the cringing.
What’s your response when people ask for your “Jewish opinion” on bad news on fellow Jews?