The author at the headstone of Isaac Lowenburg, Natchez, MS

Southern Jewish History: Start From The Bottom Up

Or, why we should study trends and not just "the big events"

A note from Dr. Josh Parshall: Over the past two months, I have had the pleasure of working with two exceptional summer history interns at the ISJL. In addition to helping me with research and writing for the forthcoming Florida section of the online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, we have each reflected on our work by answering the prompt “why study southern Jewish history?” So please enjoy these thoughts from Jacob Morrow-Spitzer, and keep an eye out for the other installments.

 

In his introductory article to the inaugural issue of the journal Southern Jewish History, Gary P. Zola poses the fundamental question: “Why study southern Jewish history?”

Zola’s response, in part, argues that the Jewish South “inevitably widens the scope of our American Jewish weltanschauung, our conception of and perspective on the nature of American Jewry.”[i]

At the core of his argument, Zola is correct. However, while he provides examples from southern Jewish history to qualify his claim (the first Jew “to die for American independence” came from South Carolina; the first Jew to serve in the United States senate hailed from Florida; the country’s first regional rabbinical association formed in southern states…[ii]), these moments do not define Jewry in the South, nor offer insight into a greater American or southern history.

His examples indicate that southern Jewish leaders contributed to a greater national history. But what happened between these major events that led to such momentous moments?

We cannot simply take singular top-down events like the death of Jewish revolutionaries or the elections of Jewish politicians to claim that southern Jewry is important. We must examine bottom-up trends of southern Jews and Jewish communities to construct new understandings of how the millions of southern Jews throughout history helped shape the region and the nation, and—perhaps more importantly—how the South, through its distinct economies, politics, social norms, religious sentiments, geographies and more, shaped its Jewish populations.

This mission of understanding southern Jewish history through a bottom-up approach has been on my mind for over a year now—just before taking on a history internship at the ISJL, I graduated from Tulane University, where I studied history and Jewish studies. My undergraduate thesis examined local Jewish politicians and communities in the South during Reconstruction and their roles in southern power dynamics and race relations.

One man I focused on was Isaac Lowenburg, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1850s and peddled his way through the interior of the country, living briefly in Cincinnati before settling in Natchez, Mississippi during the Civil War. Lowenburg’s story was common for Jewish immigrant men in the mid-19th century; Jews branched out into the nation to sell goods, searching for open markets and restocking their packs in urban centers. No matter where they sold, from Mississippi to my home state of Maine, peddling served as an entry point into class mobility. Importantly, these Jews adapted their religious, social, and business practices to the markets in which they sold. Lowenburg, for example, discovered that the post-war, cash-starved southern economy opened doors to things like credit sales, as well as entrepreneurial opportunities to bring railroads, electric street lights, and other Gilded Age technologies into Natchez.[iii]

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, Lowenburg became deeply entrenched in the southern cotton market and the New South plantation system. Again, he was not alone; this was how many Jews became wealthy in Mississippi and throughout the Deep South. Yet what if he had stayed in the Midwest, or gone elsewhere? How were mid-century Jewish immigrants in the South different from those who peddled into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to enter the lumber industry, or from those who crossed the expansive western frontier to profit off the gold market in California? How were they—and generations after them—shaped by those regions?

I would argue that by peddling, Jews were able to adapt and find success in nearly every corner of the country, and in particular, the South. And by studying the trends of countless traveling salesmen, we can gather exceptional insight into why southern Jewish history matters. It offers insight as to why many Jews like Lowenburg became wealthy or politically involved, and it provides a framework for understanding the South through the lens of a distinct minority group. We can see how Jewish adaptation to regional distinctions in the South shaped Jews differently from other parts of the nation.

Understanding how the South varies from any other region helps us better interpret the history of American Jewry and how it looks today—but we must gain this knowledge by starting from the bottom up.

—-

[i] Gary P. Zola, “Why Study Southern Jewish History” in Southern Jewish History, Vol. 1, 1998, pp. 1-22. Pg. 14.

[ii] Zola, “Why Study Southern Jewish History,” 15-16.

[iii] Award-winning scholars Shari Rabin and Hasia Diner reiterate this point, asserting that Jewish mobility allowed for peddlers and merchants to adapt and conform to the regions in which they sold. See Shari Rabin, Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 145-6; Hasia R. Diner, Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 54.

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