Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
Last January, our office (the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, or ISJL) received an email from someone who worked for a television show and wanted images of Jews in mid-century Oklahoma. I responded with a handful of photos from the archive and a few suggestions for additional resources. We get interesting requests pretty often, so while I had a pretty good guess about what the show might be, I also forgot about it within a month or so.
Then, about two weeks ago, the third season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel came out. We received a Twitter notification almost immediately.
The second episode of the new season features a whole Jewish Oklahoma plotline, it turns out, and it didn’t just come up in one social media exchange. Friends have been bringing it up all week, and the page hits for the Oklahoma section of the ISJL Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities have jumped dramatically since the new season was released. Since I don’t usually watch Maisel, I took the time to check out the episode, and I’m prepared to offer my take as a certified southern Jewish historian.
First, however, a bit of synopsis. The Oklahoma story centers on Rose Weissman (mother of the eponymous Midge Maisel) who has returned to her family’s home in the fictional town of Providence, Oklahoma. We first see Rose riding in the back of a chauffeured car looking tense, although the shot is set to the mellow western sounds of “The Everlasting Hills of Oklahoma” by The Sons of the Pioneers. The camera pulls back through the windshield and over the roof of the car before panning right to reveal a vast, dry grassland populated by American bison. The car stops at an intersection, where a bison bull peers at Rose through her window. Rose soon arrives at the familial mansion, a two-story, terra-cotta-roofed home. The camera again pulls back from the action, this time revealing that the mansion sits at the edge of an oil field. Pumpjacks and oil derricks stretch to the horizon.
Rose’s family, the Lehmans, are oilfield Jews, headed by her brother Oscar. The Lehman clan—all men—speak with a drawl, sport westernwear, and make fun of Rose’s husband Abe for having once fallen down a set of stairs. They also wear yarmulkes under their cowboy hats. The scenes also reveal that the family oil company was founded by Rose and Oscar’s grandmother, who is buried in the oilfield.
So the first question is whether the basic premise makes sense. Were there really Jewish oilmen in 1960 Oklahoma? And the answer to that question is “yes.”
In Tulsa, Jewish immigrants Lionel Aaronson and Sam Rabinowitz (later Sam Travis) founded the Pure Oil Company in 1908. As the ISJL Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities notes, Sam and his brother David built “twin Italian revival mansions on adjoining lots in Tulsa.” Along with a swimming pool and tennis court, each house boasted a mikvah (ritual bath) “so the families could observe the traditional Jewish practices of purification.” Often, Oklahoma Jews owned scrap metal businesses that dealt in pipe and other oil industry supplies, and this line of work led a number of them to become involved in oil production. In addition to Tulsa, Jews owned or worked for oil companies in many other Oklahoma cities, including Seminole, Oklahoma City, and Ponca City.
While the story is broadly plausible, a few of the Jewish and Jewish historical elements struck me as off-base. First, Rose and her brothers, likely born near the turn of the century, would almost certainly have belonged to the business’s second (rather than third) generation. Having a matriarch found the business was an effective choice and would have been possible, even if unlikely, but the years just don’t line up well generationally.
Second, even though the Rabinowitz/Travis brothers demonstrate the surprising tenacity of Jewish observance outside larger cities, I just can’t buy the yarmulkes under the cowboy hats. A more believable nod to the family’s traditionality might have been for Rose and the chauffeur to have arrived at the mansion with a trunk-full of kosher meats on ice in the back, since they wouldn’t have been locally available.
Obviously, this is a somewhat cartoony vision of “the West,” starting with the very first shots. While much of Oklahoma matches the flat, dry grasslands portrayed on the show, the eastern portion of the state is not nearly so arid. (Tulsa receives the same amount of annual rainfall as St. Louis.) And free roaming bison? Since the early 20th century, Oklahoma’s bison population has lived exclusively on public preserves and private ranches. The mid-century remnants of the once great southern herd were unlikely to wander over and peer into a car window. Then there’s the mansion. It makes sense, visually and narratively, to collapse the residential space into the landscape of extractive industry, but the point of a mansion is to show off wealth to other rich people, not to the workers whose labor makes that wealth possible. A proper tycoon lives in town and keeps a rustic lodge near the oilfields!
So now that I’ve proven myself a joyless pedant, here’s why it might matter: American Jews have used the idea of the frontier west as a way to negotiate questions of national and religious identity for more than a century. (See David S. Koffman’s recent monograph The Jews’ Indian for more on that.) The masculine, self-sufficient pioneer of settler-colonial myth has long stood in contrast to stereotypes of (male) Jews as intellectual, effeminate, and/or weak. Maisel’s oilfield Jews play on this discourse when they self-consciously adopt markers of western authenticity, repeatedly belittle Abe (the East Coast academic) for a physical mishap years in the past, and take a patriarchal attitude toward Rose as a female member of the family.
The episode even introduces a critique of the Lehman men’s supposed masculinity by portraying Oscar as a superfluous observer of the oilfield’s actual labor, despite the trappings of frontier manhood. That critique falls flat, however, because it relies on, and therefore re-inscribes, the assumption of Jewish hypo-masculinity. The Lehman men’s gender and regional chauvinism stem from their failure, as Jews, to emulate western masculinity, rather than from the emptiness of the frontier myth itself. Of course, it would be asking a lot for Maisel to unpack all of that in a single episode B-plot.
Overall, the best thing about the episode is the questions that it raised. We’ve already fielded a few since it went live, and any conversation about the history of Jewish life in the South is one we’re eager to have. If the show, this post, or anything else has sparked your interest in the history of Jews in Oklahoma, or anywhere in our region, visit the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, tag us in your social media conversations, and share this internship posting with any interested young Maisel fans who want to learn about southern Jewish history up-close-and-personal this summer.