Leonard Rogoff. Homelands: Southern Jewish Identity in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001. x + 398 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8173-1055-4.
Reviewed by Stuart Rockoff (Institute of Southern Jewish Life)
Published on H-South (July, 2002)
Finding a Home in the Industrial South
Finding a Home in the Industrial South
How could Jews, who first came to Durham in significant numbers as peddlers and merchants in the 1890s, find a home in North Carolina, where identity was rooted in the agrarian past? In an area imbued with pride of heritage and place, Jews were remarkably transient. In 1998, of Durham's nineteen hundred Jewish families, only two had ancestors that lived in Durham in 1900. And yet, according to Leonard Rogoff's fine book, Homelands: Southern Jewish Identity in Durham and Chapel Hill, Jews successfully fit themselves into the culture of the South, while still preserving a distinct and thriving Jewish identity.
In some ways, Jews were well-suited for Southern life. Rogoff persuasively argues, for example, that practicing traditional Judaism fit well within the regional culture of religiosity. Jewish efforts to build a synagogue in town attracted the financial support of local gentiles and enabled Durham Jews to preserve their faith while also behaving like respectable, church-going Southerners. Rogoff also shows that Jewish merchants moving to Durham at the end of the nineteenth century were arriving at just the right time and place as "Jewish mercantilism harmonized with the New South entrepreneurial culture" (p. 64). Jewish immigrants, who had a lot of experience with both city-dwelling and commerce, flourished as Durham grew into an urban industrial center of the New South.
Even though Jews and Southerners had different histories, in a region obsessed with the past, Rogoff shows how local Jews laid claim to deep Southern roots, or at least what passed for them in the New South industrial town of Durham. He details the fascinating story of James Duke's bringing one hundred twenty-five Jewish immigrant cigarette rollers to Durham from New York City in 1881. After a series of labor disputes, Duke replaced these immigrants with local boys and girls, who proved to be much more controllable. By 1886, all but one of these Jews had left North Carolina. Although these immigrant tobacco workers left no Jewish institutions behind, later Durham Jews looked back and portrayed them as pioneering Southerners who founded the city's Jewish community. Rogoff suggests that identifying with these temporary nineteenth century settlers enabled twentieth century Durham Jews to assert their Southern roots in Durham's tobacco industry. Apparently, this strategy worked as Jews faced little significant anti-Semitism in Durham. Most famously, local Jew E. J. "Mutt" Evans served as mayor from 1951 to 1963, guiding the city during the turbulent period of the civil rights movement.
In fact, the story of Mutt Evans and civil rights highlights one of the weaknesses of the book. Evans was first elected due to the overwhelming electoral support of the city's black community. Yet while Rogoff briefly covers the issue of race in most chapters, he never systematically examines the role that race played in the development of a Southern Jewish identity. He mentions the fact that many Durham Jews owned black rental property as well as retail stores in the city's black neighborhood and that many black servants worked in Jewish homes, but never really explores the importance of these social and economic relations between blacks and Jews. He notes that local blacks complained about their treatment in Jewish-owned stores, but does not investigate the charge.
While Rogoff mentions the ambiguous racial status of Jews in the South, he fails to show how Jews negotiated this ambiguity and eventually achieved acceptance as white. The importance and complexity of this Jewish racial assimilation can be seen in the story of Benjamin Lovenstein, a Jewish lawyer who often represented black defendants in the first part of the twentieth century. While local whites took a dim view of Lovenstein's often spirited defense of accused African Americans, Lovenstein refused to defend one black client who insisted on bringing in a black lawyer as co-counsel. While Lovenstein was willing to fight for the rights of African Americans within an unjust legal system, he would not violate the norms of Jim Crow. An important part of becoming Southern was adapting to the racial mores of the region. While Rogoff hints at how Jews navigated this complex issue, he could have offered a more substantive account of how notions of race shaped Jewish assimilation in Durham.
Also, as with any community study, the historian must wrestle with the issue of how representative that community is. Rogoff suggests that Durham-Chapel Hill is a "prototype of the east European settlements" that arose throughout the New South (p. 3). Yet the student of Southern Jewish history is most struck by how unique Durham-Chapel Hill was. Unlike in other Southern towns, there was little or no pre-existing German Jewish community that had set the pattern of Jewish institutional life before later Eastern European Jews arrived. As a result, Yiddish culture and the Orthodox religious practices of these Eastern European Jewish immigrants persevered far longer in Durham than in other Southern Jewish communities. Rogoff describes an incident in 1940 in which a young member of the local Jewish Ladies Aid Society was shouted down for using English instead of Yiddish during a meeting. In most other Southern Jewish communities, the Yiddish language did not last much past the immigrant generation. Also, the status of Chapel Hill and Durham as college towns meant that a significant percentage of the local Jewish community were professors. Certainly, the fact that many area Jews were Northern-born academics made the Jewish community of Durham-Chapel Hill distinct from other Southern towns.
Nevertheless, Rogoff's book is an ambitious and insightful study of a small Southern Jewish community as it evolved along with the region. He uses an impressive array of sources, citing Dun and Company credit reports, naturalization records, and tax rolls to reconstruct the early history of Durham's Jewish community, and a large number of oral interviews to document more recent developments. He does an outstanding job of transcending commemorative local history to offer an academic analysis of the topic, while raising important larger issues in the fields of Southern history and American Jewish history.
Perhaps the most significant contribution of the book is Rogoff's discussion of the rise of the sunbelt. He traces the change in Durham's Jewish community as the town shifted from an industrial hub of the New South to become a sunbelt center of higher education and hi-tech. With the growing prominence of the Research Triangle, and especially Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill, Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking Jewish merchants were replaced by American-born Jewish doctors, engineers, and college professors, who belonged to the area's Reform Temple. This shift is perhaps the strongest argument for the essential Southern-ness of Durham Jews, who have gone from being key mercantile figures in the New South to important leaders of the sunbelt. Rogoff's excellent book makes a powerful argument that Southern Jews have changed just as much as the South itself.
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Stuart Rockoff. Review of Rogoff, Leonard, Homelands: Southern Jewish Identity in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
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