East European immigrants and the image of Jews in the small-town South.

Author:Weissbach, Lee Shai
Position:Special Issue: Directions in Southern Jewish History, Part One

In accounts of the Jewish experience in the smaller cities and towns of the South, the story of immigrants from Eastern Europe has received far less attention that it deserves. Rather, it has been the story of Jewish pioneers from the states of Central Europe that has figured most prominently in shaping the image of small-town Southern Jewry. To some extent, this is understandable, for it was the so-called German Jews who founded the best-known smaller Jewish communities of the South in the mid-nineteenth century, and it was they who constituted almost the entire population of these communities for several decades. To cite but one example, in 1880 individuals from Central European places of birth such as Bavaria, Prussia, or Alsace headed 33 of the 43 identifiable Jewish households in Alexandria, Louisiana, while American-born children of Central European parents headed another six. By contrast, Russian-born Jews headed only three of Alexandria's identifiable Jewish households, while a Sephardic Jew from the island of St. Thomas headed another.(1)

German Jews have dominated the image of small-town Southern Jewry not only because they arrived early but also because, sensing that they could be highly integrated into American society without totally abandoning their Judaism, they eagerly adopted an Americanized lifestyle and moved into the mainstream of local activity. Throughout the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Jews of Central European background were playing prominent roles in the public life of small towns throughout the South, even as Jews from Eastern Europe, steeped in the culture of the shtetl, were beginning to arrive in their midst. In Lexington, Kentucky, for example, German Jews headed both chambers of the city council at one point in the 1880s, and in 1890 the Munich-born president of congregation Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick, Georgia, also presided over the city's Board of Alderman. In 1900 Jacob Trieber, who was born near Breslau in Germany and settled in Helena, Arkansas, became the first Jew appointed to a federal judgeship, and by the turn of the century Mississippi had seen at least seven different Jewish mayors of small towns, all undoubtedly of Central European origin. By 1917 two members of the German-Jewish congregation Anshe Emeth in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, had been elected mayor of their town.(2)

In business, also, German Jews achieved a high profile. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, department stores founded by Jews from Central Europe were among the most important mercantile establishments in one small Southern town after another. Examples include S. Waxelbaum and Son in Macon, Georgia; J. Weisman and Company in Marshall, Texas; Weil Brothers and Bauer in Alexandria, Louisiana; Heinemann's Department Store in Jonesboro, Arkansas; M. M. Ullman and Company in Natchez, Mississippi; Simon Switzer's The Valley in Vicksburg; and Winner and Klein in Meridian.(3)

Just as the stories of German-Jewish pioneers and notables have been fundamental in shaping the image of small-town Southern Jewry, so too has the Reform movement. This is because the oldest congregations in the South's small communities tended to adopt Reform Judaism quite early in the movement's history and because these congregations, founded and supported by rapidly acculturating Central Europeans, frequently dominated local Jewish life for many decades.

The ubiquity of Reform congregations in the small towns of the South around the turn of the century is indeed quite striking. A survey of the 81 towns in the South that had total populations of under 50,000 and Jewish populations of at least 100 but less than 1,000 around 1907 reveals that in 44 of these towns there was a synagogue affiliated with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (since 1873 the umbrella organization of Reform Judaism) and that in another 15 towns there was an unaffiliated synagogue that can be identified with Reform on the basis of its practices or its name (the Greensboro Hebrew Reformed Congregation in North Carolina, for example).(4) In other words, around the turn of the century Reform congregations were present in 73 per cent of the South's most significant small-town Jewish centers. Furthermore, even as East European Jews were arriving in the small towns of the South and beginning to organize their own institutions, in over half of the triple-digit Jewish communities of the region, the local Reform congregation was the only one in town.

In some states of the Deep South, Reform Judaism dominated even more dramatically. In Alabama, for instance, there were seven communities in the first decade of the twentieth century with Jewish populations of at least 100 but less than 1,000. Each of these communities was reported to have only a single congregation, and in six of them it was Reform. In the same period, every one of the seven triple-digit Jewish communities in Louisiana and every one of the eight in Mississippi had a Reform congregation, while only one triple-digit community in each of these states also had another congregation. The close association of small-town Southern Jewry with Reform was further reinforced by the very high proportion of Southern assemblies that constituted the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in the early decades of its existence; in 1907, when only about 14 per cent of all American Jewish congregations were in the South, a full 411 per cent of the congregations affiliated with the UAHC were in that region of the country.(5)

Still, the importance for small-town Southern Jewry of its German-Jewish pioneers and public figures, of its early Reform congregations, and of the highly Americanized lifestyle that these individuals and institutions have come to represent should not completely overshadow the fact that the arrival of East European immigrants in the small towns of the South had a great many consequences. The time has now come to examine the experience of these immigrants more fully and to consider the relationship of that experience to the image of small-town Jewish life in the South.

Among the most noticeable effects of the arrival of East European Jews was the growth of many of the South's smaller Jewish centers. In a few cases, the influx of East Europeans was so great that it raised the local Jewish population beyond the 1,000 mark and edged it into the ranks of what might be considered midsize Jewish centers. As Table I indicates, there were 114 Jewish communities in the South where the reported Jewish population was in triple digits in the late 1870s, just before the era of mass migration from Eastern Europe began, but where it had exceeded 1,000 by 1927. Generally speaking, the small communities that were transformed into more substantial Jewish centers were in cities that were themselves evolving into important urban hubs. On average the Jewish population of the towns listed in Table I increased almost twelvefold in the half century after 1880, to a mean of over 5,000 souls, while the total population of these towns grew almost eightfold.(8)

Table I Cities of the South with Triple-Digit Jewish Populations, c. 1878 and Jewish Populations over 1,000 in 1927

Jewish Pop. Total Pop. City St. c. 1878 1990 Montgomery AL 600 16,713 Little Rock AK 655 13,138 Jacksonville FL 130 7,650 Atlanta GA 525 37,409 Savannah GA 603 30,709 Shreveport LA 900 8,009 Charleston SC 700 49,984 Chattanooga TN 178 12,892 Dallas TX 260 10,358 Ft. Worth TX 116 6,663 Houston TX 461 16,513 San Antonio TX 301 20,550 Waco TX 158 7,295 Norfolk VA 500 21,966 Averages 435 18,561 Jewish Pop. Total Pop City 1927 1930 Montgomery 3,000 66,079 Little Rock 3,000 81,679 Jacksonville 4,000 129,549 Atlanta 11,000 270,366 Savannah 3,800 85,014 Shreveport 2,000 76,655 Charleston 2,100 62,265 Chattanooga 3,385 119,798 Dallas 7,500 260,475 Ft. Worth 2,100 163,447 Houston 11,000 292,352 San Antonio 8,000 231,542 Waco 11,500 52,848 Norfolk 7,800 129,710 Averages 5,013 144,414 Sources: For Jewish population c. 1879: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Statistics of the Jews of the United States (Philadelphia, 1880), passim. For Jewish population, 1927: American Jewish Year Book 30 (1918-29), pp. 180-196. For total population, 1880: United States Census Office, Compendium of The Tenth Census (June 1, 1880) (1883; rpt. New York, 1976), part I, 380-405. For total population, 1930: United States Bureau of the Census, Abstract of the Fifteenth Census of the United States (1933; rpt. New York, 1976), 26-33.

The significance of East European immigration for those Southern communities that attained Jewish populations of 1,000 or more in the early decades of the twentieth century has been recognized in accounts of their histories, as has the important role of East Europeans in the development of those Southern communities that were already major Jewish centers even before 1880 (Baltimore, Richmond, Louisville, Memphis, and New Orleans, for example).(7) Less often noticed, however, and much more significant for this discussion, is the fact that even in those Southern Jewish communities that remained quite modest in size well into the twentieth century, the coming of East Europeans often meant notable growth. To take but a few examples, the Jewish populations of Charlotte, North Carolina, and of Monroe, Louisiana, each stood at about 100 before the start of East European migration, but by 1927 Charlotte's Jewish population had risen to 400 and Monroe's to 500. In the same period the Jewish community of Augusta, Georgia, grew from 240 to 970, and that of Wheeling, West Virginia, grew from 300 to 750.

The available census materials reveal perhaps most accurately the exact role of East European immigrants in the demographic profiles of those Southern Jewish communities that remained relatively small throughout the first half of the twentieth century. In Lexington, Kentucky, for example, the Jewish population rose...

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