Eli Evans discusses his book on the Jewish experience.
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GUEST: Eli Evans
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And when today’s guest was here some years back, I noted even then that there is something almost blessed, something surely wonderfully comforting, about almost anything akin to permanence in our evermore rapidly changing universe … about, if you will, standing the test of time.
Indeed, I often permit myself the luxury of thinking just that about The Open Mind, which itself – let alone its host – is now quite so long in the tooth.
And surely Eli Evans must allow himself to kvell more than just a little that his wonderfully evocative memoir, “The Provincials … A Personal History of Jews in the South” has aged so well over more than three decades now as to have become a veritable American classic, even as the University of North Carolina Press expands and publishes it again in 2005 to mark the 350th year of Jews coming to America.
Now, when asked what makes his book so relevant to today’s world, my guest has written:
“Jews are different and have always been ‘the other’ in almost every country they have lived in.
“In the South, they stand apart from the overwhelming religious presence that dominates Southern culture.
“In a twenty-first century American political environment, where religious beliefs, values and practices define the cultural divide between sections of the country, the experience of growing up Jewish in the Bible Belt can offer important insights into the soul of the South.”
And so in turn, I want to ask Eli Evans whether since he first wrote “The Provincials” those many years ago, “standing apart” – as he calls it – from the overwhelming religious presence that dominates Southern culture has become, perhaps, an even greater burden for “the other”.
EVANS: Well, I have to say, when I was writing this book in the late sixties … ah, I, you know, traveled 7,000 miles across the South interviewing member … not just members of the Jewish community, but also non-Jews as well because I had this theory that people … Jews … are shaped by the ethos they grow up in. And the ethos of small town Jews or medium sized Jews and now everyone is one of an overwhelming Christian presence.
But I would have never dreamed, really, that 30 years later that the politics of all this … the assertion of all this … the television impact of televangelism and so forth would have taken things to the point that it now is. Ironically, it’s also a very good time for Jews to be living in the South.
HEFFNER: How so?
EVANS: Well, it has to do with the passing of a certain kind of Christian extremism that’s represented by the Klan. They don’t burn crosses in people’s yards anymore. There is not the kind of intimidation and church bombings and synagogue bombings that one sensed and experienced in, in the sixties and in those days when I was traveling. Things have changed profoundly that way.
Secondly, there has always been in the South, Dick, a kind of, what I like to call reverence for Jews, a kind of feeling about Jews as Biblical people. It’s one of the great ironies of growing up Jewish, it’s one of the things that I wrote extensively about in my book because I believe that Jews grow up with a very special Southern Jewish consciousness and part of that is an awareness of this idea.
Let me give you a couple of examples. My father, as you know, was Mayor of Durham for 12 years … Durham, North Carolina where I grew up. And, when he ran, he put on his poster “President, Beth-El Synagogue, 10 years”, “President, State Campaign United Jewish Appeal, 10 years”, “Chairman, Bonds for Israel, 10 years”. And years later when I interviewed him for this, for this book, I was blessed in a way, that my Grandmother had left a diary of the immigrant experience in the South and I interviewed my parents and told my own story, alternating with the story of Jews in the South, which is the pattern of the book, and possibly the key to its longevity.
I asked my Dad why it is he did that, after all, his name was Evans and he could have “passed”. But he said to me, something very profound. He said, “First of all, I didn’t want to ‘pass’, if they were going to vote for me, I wanted them to know that I was Jewish right away.” But he said, “And the other side of it was that people down here respect church work”. That idea resonates through Southern Jewish history.
Item: 1858, something like that, in Little Rock …Jewish community is beginning to blossom there, pre-Civil War. Jews are arriving and don’t quite know … they’d never encountered anything like the provincialism of Christian churches at that time; didn’t know what to do, and soon realized that everyone was asking the same question … “what church do you belong to?” And so they began their synagogue right away. They set up a congregation and started.
It wasn’t that way everywhere, but it’s just such an interesting story that leapt out at me as I did my research. Secondly, my grandfather had a little store in Eastern North Carolina and my grandmother writes about farmers bringing their children into their story to be “blessed” as she put it in the original Hebrew.
They also came, another man … I remember that I talked to had, had given a sharecropper items from his story … you know typically the pattern for Jews in the South was, you arrived as an immigrant as my grandfather did, you peddled, you made a little money, enough to buy a horse, you made a little money, enough to buy a wagon, and pretty soon the farmers started coming to town and you then opened stores. I always tell people that the story of Jews in the South are the stories of fathers who built businesses for their sons, who did not want them.
HEFFNER: Including you and your brother.
EVANS: It’s absolutely true. And that paradigm really is, is universal. Jews in the South wanted to have, to give their children roots.
In the North, you know, if was “my son, the doctor”, “my son, the lawyer” and, and washerwomen and people taking in washing and doing labor work in buildings and cleaning up buildings and so forth to send their kids to college. That was the whole idea to send your kids to the university. That was also the case in the South, but it was a different motive and it was to give people roots. There’s a long story behind this, but I don’t want to diverse from the question that you asked.
HEFFNER: Well, the, the further question or to push that further is that I do understand because 30 years ago I read “The Provincials” and I do understand the role that identification with an ancient religion played; the positive role. And the story of people coming to your Father and asking him questions, or your grandfather …
EVANS: Right. Right.
HEFFNER: … about ancient Hebrew rites …
HEFFNER: … loom very important for those very religious people. But today …that’s why I raised the question.
EVANS: Well, you know, I … just as an aside … my grandfather actually told me a story of farmers coming in to ask him what was the percentage of alcohol in the wine …
HEFFNER: I thought that was so lovely …
EVANS: … what was the percentage of alcohol in the wine that Jesus drank at the last supper?
EVANS: He said 18 ½%. And they stormed out of the store to do battle with the temperance ladies that awaited …
EVANS: … them outside. You know, this is interesting because in a way things haven’t changed quite that much. I was interviewed on CNN when Joe Lieberman was nominated. And I then was interviewed on several hundred radio stations over the course of the campaign because I followed his campaign; I was particularly interested in what was happening in the South.
And what happened is that the evangelicals and Pentecostals, which are the fastest growing parts of Christianity in America and in the South, were awed by a Sabbath keeper running for office. And he … I actually talked with him about this and he was amazed at the experience as well because you know he takes the Shabbat off … and in his town and everybody in the town marches behind him to walk to synagogue. And he does that everywhere that he goes.
I actually maintain that it was only someone like Gore who had been to divinity school at Vanderbilt …
HEFFNER: Who understood.
EVANS: Who understood and understood that the … what all the Democrats feared … that a Jewish candidate, particularly an Orthodox Jewish candidate on the ticket was a disaster for the ticket. He may have lost the election, but that wasn’t the reason why. In fact, the pattern is that he was helped.
So that, so that something has happened to Christianity in the South over this period of time. It’s not … as well as to Judaism itself and I think it is this growing evangelical dimension of the … and Christian fundamentalism that has made the Jewish situation in the South, oddly, in some ways, a lot easier. It’s religion, it’s religion itself. If you’re religious, you’re okay.
The Rabbis in the South get their own moment on the morning radio broadcasts and so forth. They get their part of it. They hold … typically hold in these towns across the South a Seder during Passover, in which the whole community is invited. I’ve talked recently with several Rabbis who were head of the Ministerial Association in Louisiana towns … I mean it’s, it’s quite extraordinary. And, of course, the feeling for Israel.
HEFFNER: Do I gather from what you’ve just said, that your answer would be “yes” to the ancient question, that as I was growing up here in New York City …the question always was … great public issues … “is it good for the Jews?”.
HEFFNER: Are you suggesting that Lieberman’s nomination, campaign was good for the Jews?
EVANS: I think it was, overall.
HEFFNER: For this reason?
EVANS: For this reason, number one and for another reason about which he’s been widely criticized by, by people because he talked openly about religion as he campaigned … something that Kerry did not do this time and might have been well advised to do. But let’s leave that aside.
One of the most interesting things about Lieberman was his openness about religion in the South. And when I try to explain this to others, I say “What was he to do?” I mean here he was as the Jewish candidate … the first religiously Jewish, Orthodox Jewish candidate to run for a national office … I think it was incumbent on him to explain himself so that people would understand.
This was a profound mission … to me … and watching it. I have a 20 year old son and I remember calling him when … at the night of the Democratic nomination and I’d called him and I said, “I want you to really watch this, because something profound is really happening.” Which is that the Democratic Party is … he was at college at the time … the Democratic Party is nominating an Orthodox Jew for Vice President. And very openly Jewish. And he said to me, on the other end of the phone, “Dad, that is really cool”. You know. Yeah, I think it had a big impact on Jews, as well
HEFFNER: There were certainly a lot of Jews who felt contrary-wise.
EVANS: Very uneasy and it was, it was very generational, in my insight into it. Anyone of our generation would have to be uneasy about it. And there certainly was among convention politicians, who’d never dealt with an issue like this … I think it would be the same … it was the same when, when the Democratic Party nominated Ferraro, or when the … when there was a Black elected Mayor of Los Angeles and Mayor of New York. Or when a Catholic was elected President. My father helped run the Kennedy campaign in North Carolina in sixty. And they carried it for Kennedy in, in 1960 and he was always very proud of that. And one of the reasons was … that something was asked of religion in America, when America was born. Of … I want to talk about that history because it is relevant.
HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean.
EVANS: In … I’m going to tell two stories here … one is in Charleston, where there were more Jews in 1800 than there were in any other city in America. And the reason was that John Locke had drafted the Constitution as a favor to the British and John Locke, of course, believed in the natural dignity of man. He was the godfather of Thomas Jefferson, the inspiration for the Founding Fathers.
So in the, in the Constitution for the City of Charleston, State of South Carolina, Jews could vote, they could own land, they could leave money to their heirs, they could go in business with gentiles and non-Jews. They could be in the militia. They could serve in public office. A whole range of questions that was new in history.
And a message went out … I mean, there’s been an exhibition of this, it’s been done in Charleston. And news began to trickle out all over the world that something new was happening in America. Because after all, you know, Peter Stuyvesent rejected … tried to reject the early Jewish arrivals in New York but it was not that case … that, that way in Charleston.
So Jews starting coming to Charleston, it was the port of entry then because of thermal navigation, you know, you follow your way down through the heat of the waters and measure it with a thermometer and you can find your way to Charleston. Later, other navigational tools made it easier to find New York and Boston. But in those days, that was the case.
And Charleston grew for another reason, too. That Jews had contacts in Amsterdam and London, in Europe … because there had been this expulsion from Spain in 1492, the same time America was discovered. And they were needed, they were considered assets to the community. That was new, too. And so this was a fantasy come true in America. Jews came to Charleston, were welcomed there, it was a place they flourished jewishly. And there are other parts of the story as well.
And the second part of the story is George Washington and the letter to Turo which is a really fascinating story because of the context. Washington had been inaugurated at that time, in New York, by the way, down at … down looking over what was someday to be the Statue of Liberty harbor. And he had to put on the stage at his inauguration a Catholic, a Jew and a Protestant minister. And they marched with him after the ceremony. I mean this is an unheard of idea. There was really very small numbers of Jews at that time in America.
He then went off with Thomas Jefferson to campaign for the Bill of Rights, right on the post inauguration. And he was in Rhode Island, and Rhode Island was a place that a Jewish community and a Turo synagogue had written him complaining that there were certain rights that Jews did not have. And he wrote a letter to the Turo synagogue that’s now celebrated every year.
I wrote it down, just to make sure I’d get it right. “To bigotry, no sanction. The US government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” He went on to say in a lesser celebrated phrase that tolerance was not something that one glass of people gave to another, but was something that everyone deserved as part of the natural rights of man. The natural rights of man was a powerful, powerful element. Also from John Locke.
So here we have the DNA of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington campaigning for the first time and on religious freedom … separation of church and state and campaigning against forces of bigotry in Rhode Island and writing a letter stating that that was their purpose.
HEFFNER: But, let me pick up what you mentioned about the separation of church and state because I was so much impressed a long time ago in, in reading “The Provincials” when you write about this episode in the early 1940s when American Jewish historian Jacob Marcus came to look at the private archives of a collector of Judaica in New York … A. S. W. Rosenbach(CHECK SPELLING), when he asked … and I think this is such a wonderful story … because you’re such a wonderful storyteller …
HEFFNER: When he asked if Rosenbach had any papers of significance to the Jews, Marcus was taken into a vault where Rosenbach pointed to an old yellowing document that had fallen to the floor … “this is the most important Jewish document I own”. And he picked it up and what was it? It was the Bill of Rights.
EVANS: It was an original copy of the Bill of Rights that was circulated during that campaign.
HEFFNER: Okay, but the question that occurs to me, because you go further in that page, referring to Jonathan Sarnoff of Brandeis University who had written how Jews have flourished in a free and pluralistic society where church and state are separated and where religion is entirely voluntary.
That, in fact, is why I asked you the first question that I asked you about … how goes it today? When the notion of separation of church and state is fighting what seems to many people a losing battle?
EVANS: Well, it’s … we know that freedom doesn’t come easy and that it’s an ever vigilant battle. I don’t know that these issues have really been put in a pure form to the American people in an election. You know the Iraqi War was a, was a kind of an issue that, that brought up questions beyond domestic issues, it really focused everyone’s mind and possibly rightfully so.
I’ve often said that the Republican Party makes a mistake in thinking that this election victory was a mandate to do all of the things that they now feel that they are free to do. Because there were so many issues in this election and a wartime president won an election. That’s not a … such a big surprise.
HEFFNER: But I’m not talking about Social Security. I’m not talking about environmental …
EVANS: I’m not talking about that either.
HEFFNER: I am talking about religion.
EVANS: I’m talking about … I’m talking about … I am concerned, as any American should be concerned about the separation of church and state issues. And all of the questions that are now … I think, coming to the forefront in America. These are complicated issues, but looking at it from a Southern Jewish point of view …
EVANS: … ahem … Jews, as I’ve said have always represented “the other” from the very beginning. And demanded of the society … they didn’t demand it … but the society gave a kind of pluralistic response. It always did. There are, of course, many people who have written excessively about anti-Semitism in the south; the synagogue bombings and so forth in Birmingham and in Atlanta, etc. But that’s not really the story of Jews in the South.
The story of Jews in the South is in this plodding everyday story of hardworking immigrants who found a place in America, and who were welcomed in these communities and began this part of this Southern, special Southern Jewish consciousness to be a part of their community. Across the South you see it everywhere. They head the museum boards, they head the libraries, they work for the public schools, they work for all the non-profit organizations … because they know, instinctively that a better community for everyone is a better community for them.
HEFFNER: Yet you would still say and write, I would imagine, that by and large, breaking the wall between church and state is not good for the Jews.
EVANS: It is not good for the Jews. And it comes up in many different contexts. People, many people have asked me, “well what do you have against the 10 Commandments being in every courthouse and on every lawn.” And you know, the answer to that is that we have the 10 Commandments over the Ark in every synagogue. But when it begins to get out into the public square, it starts to make people uneasy. Because we know that this excessive religiosity is one in which Jews will not fare well.
And this has been sort of right at the center of the Jewish belief and is one in which we’re going to have to be a continued voice.
HEFFNER: Don’t you have to explain that, though. Because when you talk about those farmers who visited your grandfather …
HEFFNER: … to find out the alcoholic content of Biblical wine, blessing wine …there was that connection …
HEFFNER: … and why is it not acceptable today?
EVANS: Well, you know, it still happens, Dick. I mean, I just talked to a man in Eastern North Carolina … I was mentioning him … didn’t finish the story. He, you know, sharecroppers take the crops when things are barren, when the crops come in they pay the store owner. They buy the feed, they buy the seeds, they buy the implements. The farmer comes to town on Yom Kippur to pay this man in Eastern North Carolina and he says he cannot accept the money. He says, “it’s the only day that I’m going to be here”. And he says “I cannot accept money on Yon Kippur”. So, puzzled, the man leaves, knowing that he has to come back.
The story spreads in the community and suddenly people begin to shop there because they’ve heard that there’s a holy man in town. And he tells the story with great relish. Jews in these towns support … my father … gave money to all the churches in town; to the black community because he know that the non-Jewish community would judge all the Jewish community by the few Jews that they knew. And I was raised with that in school, as well.
I’m getting back to, to answer the question. I think that, I think that in a way one of the problems is that a) television has taken over so that the voices of extremism are dominant voices in the society. One of the things that has really puzzled me is where the moderate protestant community spokesman have been in the middle of all this. They say and speak, but they don’t seem to be heard. Moderation is not as exciting. And that’s a problem for our country, not just a problem in this issue. It’s a problem on every issue.
But I think one of the things that I learned in growing up with the Christian community is that there are reasonable people; they make judgments of people as they … Jews and Christians in these small town are … have been close in terms of many of the questions that they had to face.
My father was re-elected six times, served for 12 years and many, many Jews were elected to public office in the South and it really was the same … in a way the same pattern of working for your community, of maturing into a public person. And of being asked to run for office in town after town across the South.
HEFFNER: As a storyteller, you tell stories of holy men, that man … you telling the story about who couldn’t accept pay on a High Holy day … a holy man. Are there fewer and fewer or more and more Holy Men among America’s Jews?
EVANS: Well, I think that we’re becoming suburbanized like every other part of the country and deeply affected by media, as every other part of the country is.
The truth is the South has changed dramatically for these same reasons … reason number one was the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 … there were something like 47 Black elected officials in 1965, there are now 3,900, something like that. The emergence of the Black vote, you know, it actually gave the country two moderate Governors who were elected to …President Clinton and Carter. And has changed the South’s politics, I think, profoundly. Even Strom Thurman had Blacks on his staff and, and was a much more moderate figure later in life than he was in the beginning.
HEFFNER: But the Jews …
EVANS: But back to your question … back to your question …
HEFFNER: In one minute …
EVANS: … back to your question. Yes, the, the community is changing, but there are just so many different ideas swirling around the Jewish community; there’s a renaissance going on, there’s a … there’s a kind of new spirit going on among Jews in the South, among young people in the South at the same time there’s greater and greater inter-marriage. I don’t where this is going to come out, but it’s going to be an exciting century for Jews, I think.
HEFFNER: You think at the end … more Holy Men?
EVANS: I’m not sure of more Holy Men. But I think there will be more and more people who … American Jewry and American life ask for restraint on all elements on these religions, they did from the very beginning. Catholicism has been changed and Protestantism has been changed. And Jews have been changed, too.
HEFFNER: Eli Evans, I thank you so much for joining me today and recommend again the reading of “The Provincials, A Personal History of Jews in the South”. A rather extraordinary book and I understand why you’re considered such a wonderful storyteller.
HEFFNER: Thanks for joining me.
EVANS: Thanks for inviting me.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.