My Southern Jewish Grandma


Today’s tale of Southern Jewish family, history, and a meaningful road trip comes to us from our summer history intern, Gabe Weinstein, in the last of our “summer intern” series of posts. Thanks, Gabe, and all of our interns for the wonderful work and great reflections!

My Grandma Ethel lived in Cleveland, Ohio for over 50 years, but she never lost her Alabama drawl.

ethelThe drawl was her trademark. Her thing. Ethel immediately left the South after she graduated college in 1946. and never lived beneath the Mason Dixon line again. But a part of her heart always remained in northeastern Alabama.

There are over 250 Jewish communities in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. Grandma’s hometown, Piedmont, Alabama is not one of them. It’s easy to see why when you drive down Center Avenue. The storefronts that once housed dry goods stores and clothing stores sit empty, waiting patiently for new tenants that will never arrive.

Grandma Ethel’s family ended up in Piedmont for the same reasons thousands of Jewish families landed in small towns across the south. My great-grandfather George Kass had the opportunity to run a dry goods store. After a failed stint as a jewelry salesman in New York, George packed up the family and moved to Piedmont in the mid-1920s. The move made sense: prior to the New York stint, George had run a dry goods store in Cartersville, Georgia, and his wife Kate had family in Atlanta.

Grandma and my Aunt Louise never felt alienated growing up as Jews in Piedmont. Their friends always came over to socialize and they were always welcomed in their friend’s homes. There was one other Jewish family in town, the Steinbergs, who owned a clothing store next to my great-grandfather’s store and had been in town since 1912. But they were close with their non-Jewish neighbors, too: up until her death in August 2011, Grandma Ethel kept in touch with one of her closest childhood friends from Piedmont, Elizabeth Ellen, AKA “Sis.”

The hubs of Jewish life near Piedmont were Anniston and Gadsden, which both had synagogues. On Sundays the Kass family would head to the Rubinstein’s hotel in Anniston to meet up with other Jewish families from Anniston, Gadsden, Jacksonville and other small towns around the area. But Grandma’s Jewish oasis was 85 miles away in Atlanta at Ahavath Achim synagogue. She didn’t mind the three hour ride through country roads on Sunday mornings to religious school. It was a highlight of her week. Grandma was known for spending hours combing through the Ahavith Achim directory connecting with old friends and relatives when she would visit her daughter, my Aunt Sherry, decades later on trips to Atlanta.