Merchants: The Marrow of the Southern Jewish Experience

As early as 965, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great sought to extend the privilege of trading in wares, which would be tax-free, to “Judei et cetera mercatores.”  Thus, as early as the tenth century, to be a Jew and to be a merchant was synonymous1.  No wonder then that Southerners–both black and white–can be forgiven for suspecting that Jewry means business.  The enterprises that Jews established in the region must have seemed ubiquitous.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, patronized the dry-goods store that David Isaacs owned on the main street of Charlottesville.  Isaacs sold him groceries and provided the endlessly curious Sage of Monticello with pamphlets on Judaism.  Even before other Framers had ratified the Constitution, Daniel Boone was dealing with a pair of Richmond merchants, Jacob I. Cohen and Isaiah Isaacs, whose receipts were written in Yiddish.  Selling everything from frying pans to medicines to artificial flowers, the duo even hired Boone to survey some tracts.  The enterprise of Cohen and Isaacs was commonly called “the Jew store.”2  By the late nineteenth century, however, the names of such establishments became less generic, and tended to brandish the names of their proprietors; and in the first half of the twentieth century, no city seemed to be without an emporium that testified to its Jewish origins.  Such monuments to material desire and need could not be missed.  In Richmond, it was Thalhimer’s; in Baltimore, Hecht’s as well as Hutzler Brothers; in the nation’s capital, Garfinckel’s; in Memphis, Goldsmith’s; in Little Rock, Gus Blass; in St. Louis, the May Company; in Birmingham, Pizitz’s; in Dallas, Neiman-Marcus; in Houston, Sakowitz’s; in New Orleans, Godschaux’s; in Jacksonville, Cohen Brothers as well as Furchgott’s; in Savannah, Levy’s; in Atlanta, Rich’s.  Their Jewish provenance is almost as predictable as Italian towns that feature houses of worship that are Catholic.  In 1890 an immigrant from Prussia named Solomon Lipinsky (1856-1925) founded a fashion-conscious store in Asheville and gave the department store the fancy name of Bon Marché.  At the age of twenty-four, the most famous novelist that the city produced visited Paris.  Later Thomas Wolfe wrote to Lipinsky’s son Louis that “I could not get used to the fact that they had a Bon Marché, as well; I kept wondering what the hell they were doing with our name.”3

Far from such metropolises, anthropologists and sociologists who studied small Southern towns couldn’t help stumbling across Jews stocking inventory and seeking customers.  Take the most thoroughly rural state of the former Confederacy.  In the Natchez of Deep South (1941), “the wholesale merchants . . . who once rivaled the banks as credit agencies for planters were, with one exception, Jews.”  Had Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner and Mary R. Gardner examined Hattiesburg, they would have discovered that its downtown was no different.  During the 1930s and 1940s, Jews owned the six clothing stores and a shoe store, which were all located on the same side of the street.  In the Indianola of John Dollard’s Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937), the seven department stores on the main street were almost entirely owned by Jews.4  “If there is a Jewish holiday,” according to local wisdom, “you cannot buy a pair of socks in this whole country.”5  These frustrated customers presumably meant an annual Jewish holiday, because merchants could not have closed down on Saturdays and stayed in business.

One of Thomas Jefferson’s distant successors in the White House was Jimmy Carter, who wore suits bearing the following label: “Hart Schaffner & Marx, A. Cohen and Sons, Americus, Georgia.”6  (Perhaps Plains, Georgia was too tiny for an upscale men’s clothing store.)  Elvis Presley dressed less conservatively than President Carter, and in high school went to buy his outfits in the black section of Memphis, to Lansky Brothers’ store on Beale Street.  If Beale Street could talk, it would have revealed that pimps patronized Lansky Brothers.  Bernie Lansky’s standard greeting (“Hey, man, what you need today?”) led to the selection of the entertainer’s outlandish clothes, establishing an image that endured even after the exhaustion of the career.7  Photography can also substantiate the significance of Jewish retailing.  When the University of Alabama Press designed a cover for Mark K. Bauman’s scholarly anthology Dixie Diaspora (2006), it doesn’t show the façade of a synagogue, or the tombstones of a cemetery, or even a family lighting Sabbath candles.  The cover shows a store front advertising “Bargains Galore!”  Bill Aron’s exquisite book of portraits of Southern Jews, Shalom Y’all (2002), depicts several families of merchants, all of whom seem to exhibit a sense of pride in the businesses that they built.  The demands of retailing–its anxieties and its perils as well as its opportunities and its rewards–shaped Jewish life in the region more directly and more incessantly than the duties of religion.  For Southern Jewry the immediacy of the counter life undoubtedly mattered more than expectations of the afterlife.  Such stores constitute what the historian Pierre Nora termed the lieux de mémoire, the most reverberant markers that symbolize the spirit of the collective life.

Historians are never happier than when they can puncture myths and invalidate common belief.  Revisionism is generally rewarded in the profession.  But the impact of merchants in the Southern Jewish past is too pronounced to be contested, and too important to be ignored or forgotten.  If the JHSSC Jewish Merchant Project is correct in defining a merchant as “any individual selling goods,” then that category has embraced a huge swath of Southern Jewry.

Not that other ways of making a living were spurned.  After all, some famous Southern Jews did not become merchants.  For the sake of the argument, let’s confine ourselves to those with South Carolina connections.  Judah P. Benjamin, Esquire, grew up in Charleston before becoming a plantation owner and politician in Louisiana.  Born in Camden, Bernard Baruch was a financier in New York City and a kibitzer in Washington, D. C.  Ludwig Lewisohn, whom one cultural historian considers “by far the most prominent Jewish writer in interwar America,”8  became a novelist and polemicist after graduating from the College of Charleston.  Many boys growing up in the 1950s identified with Al Rosen, who was born in Spartanburg before becoming a star third baseman for the Cleveland Indians.  Starting out as an inventor and scientist before becoming an entrepreneur, Jerry Zucker was based in Charleston, where Reuben Morris Greenberg served as police chief.  Ben Shalom Bernanke grew up in Dillon before becoming a professor of economics at Princeton.  Though not merchants, they too constituted “a portion of the people.”  Some Southern Jews even became rabbis–even as the congregations that they served consisted largely of individuals selling goods.

Yet in May 1948, when twenty-eight scholars gathered to assess the state of American Jewish historiography, the presence of such businessmen was minimized.  Assistant professor Oscar Handlin, who chaired a gathering that included Hannah Arendt, Daniel Bell, Sidney Hook and Nathan Glazer, noted that “the conference devoted much time to evaluating the role of the Jews in the American labor movement.”9  Attention was rightly paid to individuals making goods–but not, evidently, to individuals selling goods.  Yet comparison can suggest how peculiar this particular minority was in the South, especially until roughly the moment when that conference in New York City was held.

Unlike other Southerners, Jews very rarely tilled the soil.  They didn’t plant taters and didn’t plant cotton, which ensured that they would not be easily forgotten.  Their surnames were, after all, painted and inscribed on the stores that dotted the region.  Nor did Southern Jews, unlike co-religionists in cities elsewhere, start their lives embedded in an industrial working class.  In the early twentieth century, for example, two out of three Jewish immigrants in New York City earned wages in the clothing industry.10  They were proletarians, for whom the New World all too often offered only the betrayed promise of toil in sweatshops.  To be sure, some Jewish workers, stemming from the Pale of Settlement, could be found in Durham among cigarette rollers who worked for James Buchanan “Buck” Duke.11  But in the same era, far more representative of the occupational patterns of East European Jews in the small towns of the South was the case of Lexington, Kentucky.  There, historian Lee Shai Weissbach has shown, “the 53 Russian- or Polish-born Jewish heads of household identifiable in the 1920 census included 11 dry-goods merchants, 10 clothing merchants, seven proprietors of tailor shops, and three owners of grocery or produce firms.  Only a handful of the 53 Russian or Polish household heads in Lexington’s Jewish community were employed in what might be considered atypical jobs for small-town Jews: one was a barber, one a radiator repairman, one a mail clerk, and one a simple laborer.”12

Top-heavy in commerce, Lexington was no anomaly.  At the dawn of the Civil War, even a village as small as Wilmington, North Carolina served as home to as many as 34 Jewish merchants.  In the mid-nineteenth century, so many Jewish names were emblazoned on the store fronts of the main street of Tarboro, North Carolina that the business district was nicknamed “Little Jerusalem.”  All the Jews living in that town whom the US Census could identify as having an occupation were either merchants or clerks who worked for those merchants.  Of the 26 merchants in downtown Galveston in 1866, 22 were Jews.13  The 1920 census for Alexandria, Louisiana disclosed that, “of the 31 Russian-born Jewish heads of household, at least 22 were merchants of one sort or another, half of them in the dry goods business.  Among the other Russian-born Jewish householders in Alexandria were a miller, a junk dealer, a buyer of hides and furs, a watchmaker, a traveling salesman, and two shoemakers.”  Weissbach added that “the dozen or so East European heads of Jewish households in 1920 Vicksburg included a shoe store owner, a furniture store owner, a clothing store owner, two dry goods merchants, and three junk or hide dealers, but only one wage earner, a tailor.”  They had moved into communities that Jews from the German states had already established.  But Weissbach concluded that “the arrival of East European immigrants did not profoundly transform the standard picture of small-town Southern Jewry” because “the highly distinctive subculture these newcomers established was a relatively short-lived phenomenon.”  The Yiddish speakers from Eastern Europe failed to alter the “entrepreneurial character” of Jewish life in the small-town South14,  and neither of the two waves of immigration resulted in imitation of the occupational pattern of other Southerners.

In differentiating themselves from their fellow citizens, Jews showed themselves to be less Southern–but also more American, more attuned to the economic aspects of American citizenship.  They validated the generalization of Alexis de Tocqueville, who asserted in 1840 that “in democracies nothing is greater or more brilliant than commerce; it attracts the attention of the public and fills the imagination of the multitude; all energetic passions are directed toward it.”  The cultivation of mercantile skills, Tocqueville continued, helps to distinguish a democratic from an aristocratic society;15  and the triumph of the Union armies during the Civil War can be partly attributed to the economic downside of an agrarian order.  Its devotion to patrician privilege and rigid tradition doomed the chances of secession that military valor could not overcome.  Some postbellum Southerners therefore wanted to emulate the capitalist enterprise of the rest of the Union, and indulged in visions of a prosperous New South.  In 1866, for instance, a Richmond newspaper proposed an infallible test of the prospects of economic growth: “Where there are no Jews, there is no money to be made.”16  They would thus become the objects of a charm offensive, the beneficiaries of Southern hospitality.  According to historian Leonard Rogoff, Jewish newcomers “could bring capital and commerce to an economically depressed, agrarian society,”17  and could pock the region with enterprise zones.

This invitation was an opportunity that some Jewish settlers seized even before the war.  Cotton was the key raw material in the textile factories, which accelerated the industrialization that swept across Western Europe and the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century.  Nowhere was the cultivation of cotton as productive, profitable and central to the local economy as in the Deep South.  In getting cotton to markets across the globe, Southern Jewish creditors in the Gulf South were indispensable.  The names of Julian Freyhan, Charles Hoffman, Isaias Meyer and Julius Weis may be obscure, but such businessmen pushed the region closer to the ganglia of international trade.  They were, as historian Michael R. Cohen has demonstrated in his recent book, “at the forefront of global capitalist expansion for much of the second half of the nineteenth century.”18  Their success also enabled them to provide credit to peddlers–those intruders in the dust who sold the goods that circulated throughout the rural and village South in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  

The peddlers can be readily categorized as distinctive.  Beginning in the antebellum period, virtually all peddlers were Jews; virtually all Jewish peddlers were first-generation Americans;19  and virtually all Jews who established shops began their careers as peddlers.  They were the acorns from which oaks sometimes grew.  The start-up expenses were small.  Burdened with a pack but with basically no overhead, peddlers needed very little capital.  Prizing independence, they did not have to endure intolerant or obnoxious bosses.  Nor did peddlers face legal barriers to bringing their wares from one plantation or farm or town to another.  The specter of antisemitism nevertheless hovered over them.  A reputation for shady business practices inevitably followed them from the Old World.  Not everyone considered Jews a model minority.  One credit report described a mercantile family in the South as about as “trustworthy as it is possible for Jews to be” and “an exception to the race, being [considered] honest.”20  Such insinuations make it more than coincidental that the most famous episode of nineteenth-century antisemitism involved peddlers.  That was when General Ulysses S. Grant expelled all Jews from the territory under his command.  As commander of Union forces in the Department of the Tennessee, he issued General Order No. 11 late in 1862, banning Jews from territory that encompassed Kentucky, plus parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Missouri, as well as part of Illinois.  President Lincoln immediately rescinded the order, with Henry W. Halleck, General-in-Chief of all Union armies, explaining to General Grant that the president did not object to “expelling traitors and Jew peddlers, which, I suppose, was the object of your order; but, as it in terms proscribed an entire religious class, some of whom are fighting in our ranks, the President deemed it necessary to revoke it.”21  Grant was no antisemite.  His order merely reflected the conventional wisdom, which equated “Jew peddlers” with unscrupulous business practices like smuggling.22

As individuals selling goods on the road, in remote and often unfamiliar settings, the peddlers practiced a dangerous occupation.  A few were murdered.  Others were robbed as well.  Many others simply failed; and their misfortune is usually lost to historical retrieval, with anecdotes as a substitute, like the peddler who told a rural housewife that the cost of a paper fan was one cent.  The woman claimed that the price was too high.  “Okay, lady,” came the reply.  “So make me an offer.”  Perhaps this peddler was in the wrong line of work.  The historian Hasia Diner’s salvage of whatever records exist is heroic; but peddlers rarely left much of a paper trail, though their customers sometimes did.  The novelist Harry Crews, who grew up in Bacon County, Georgia, remembered a Jewish peddler who arrived in 1940, dressed only in black.  He relied on bartering, trading his thimbles and threads for cured meat or eggs or corn.  He spoke only business, having no capacity for patter.  Crews could not “remember anybody saying anything bad about him or anybody treating him badly.  But he was different from the rest of us.”  He was mysterious and nameless, as was “the rolling store man,” the moniker that the Georgia-born novelist Alice Walker’s grandmother bestowed on the Jewish peddler who displayed his wares–spices, most memorably–in the small cabin where she lived.23

Did either of these particular peddlers settle down and head families?  Did either become a shopkeeper, as so many others did?  Who knows?  Not everyone made the transition to owning a store.  But those who did could work within a network that included other Jews who were merchants and wholesalers–all primed to provide goods to customers.  But peddling was too grueling an ordeal to offer an inherent allure.  It was temporary.  “The Jewish peddlers had no desire to stay on the road,” Diner commented, but saw such work as “the fastest route to achieving economic security.  They, too, wanted to put down roots and become respectable merchants and citizens.  And for the vast majority, in fact, life on the road proved to be a short sentence, a brief stint before settling down.”  A classic source of such a claim is William Alexander Percy’s 1941 memoir of the Delta.  He noted that “with packs on their backs, peddlers from Russia, Poland, [and] Germany” arrived after the Civil War, selling trinkets to the freedmen and deferring gratification so that enough profit could be squeezed and saved from such sales to become merchants.  Other ex-peddlers and their sons, Percy reported, became bankers, landowners, physicians and attorneys,24  an ascent so swift that it is tempting to declare that the only difference between a peddler and a professional is: one generation.

The Jews who came South found themselves in hamlets quite far from the gleaming “alabaster cities” that were “undimmed by human tears” (to quote from one late-nineteenth-century hymn).  Relocation often occurred by caprice.  In 1892 Simon Schiffman landed in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he was changing trains; and he noticed that a jewelry store was up for sale.  The intended destination of Asheville was ignored.  Eli N. Evans once met the first Jew to settle in Scotland Neck, North Carolina, and asked him how he chose to open a backwoods boutique there.  The elderly interviewee offered a monosyllabic explanation: “The horse died.”25  In a slightly fictionalized family history, Stella Suberman explains that her father ended up in tiny “Concordia,” Tennessee, a town that had no Jews.  The absence of competition encouraged him to open up a dry-goods store there.  On the other hand, Benjamin Boorstin propelled himself from the Pale of Settlement in the late 1880s and abruptly halted his quest for refuge in Monroe, Georgia.  His grandson, the Atlanta-born historian Daniel J. Boorstin, never found out why, though Benjamin Boorstin’s brother arrived about the same time, and opened a competitive store directly across the street.26

Such retailers, Handlin commented, faced years of “hard work and, at most levels, insecurity.”  The pressures were formidable, and the calculations of profit and loss veered on the edge of precariousness.  If you think otherwise, recall that Ulysses S. Grant and Harry S Truman became Presidents of the United States after having failed at retailing.  When Grant and Truman became ex-Presidents, they wrote their memoirs because of pecuniary needs.  Retailing had not given these two enough of a financial cushion, but that field did offer certain benefits to Jews.  A shop permitted a gentle adaptation to the New World while giving Jews a shot at economic independence.  A retailer also “had the dignity of a man who could take time off to observe the Sabbath,” Handlin added.27  Because many farmers could do their shopping in town only on Saturdays, his generalization about commercial freedom must nevertheless be modified, if not rejected.  The day of rest had to be abandoned; Jews usually took for granted the need to keep their stores open on the Jewish Sabbath.  Variations can admittedly be found.  In the 1920s, for instance, a member of Brith Sholom Beth Israel in Charleston estimated that as many as three-fifths of the businesses that the congregants owned were closed on the Sabbath.  But piety alone may not have motivated such merchants.  Their best customers worked in the navy yards and the phosphate factories and did not get paid until Saturday night anyway.  Nor were Sunday blue laws widely enforced in Charleston,28  so that keeping the Sabbath did not directly conflict with making sales.

Another advantage of retailing, Handlin averred, was that Jews “had the comfort of preserving the family structure, for in these enterprises the family worked together.”  Families arrived through chain migration, and they needed all hands on deck.  The durability and profitability of these businesses depended upon the dedication and cohesiveness of families.  The merchants typically succeeded because their relatives, not least their wives, were so involved in running the shops and serving customers.29  In 1909 Sam Solomon Wholesale Jobbers was founded in Charleston, specializing in dry goods and toys.  Three years later the eponymous owner married Sophie Prystowsky, the daughter of a local retailer whose own sons (Mike, Sam and Jake) were employed in the business.  All five of Sam and Sophie Solomon’s children–Naomi, Aaron, Muriel, Frances and Melvin–worked in the store.30  In 1949, when Edward’s department store was opened in Charleston, with 15,000 locals showing up for the gala, Lena Jacobson Kronsberg welcomed them in her role as secretary of the company.  Her four sons were Edward, its founder and president; first vice-president Macey; second vice-president Meyer; and treasurer Milton.31  Hyman Joseph Brody reached the United States from Tsarist Russia in 1906.  His wife, the former Bessie Lampert Krashnishelsky, arrived seven years later; and they reached Sumter in 1918, where he founded a shoe store that became Brody’s Department Store.  Their sons–Sam, Raymond, William, Leo, Abram and Jake–all worked in the store, though William became a physician in Philadelphia and Leo moved to set up a second Brody’s Department Store in Kinston, North Carolina.32

Minding the store therefore meant flooding the zone with relatives.  It was a satisfactory alternative to the desperation that often pervaded the countryside, which is why habits of acquisitiveness could so easily thwart or distort other values.  The scheming and greedy relatives on the maternal side of playwright Lillian Hellman’s family inspired her to write The Little Foxes (1939), for example.  In 1890, when no office of president existed at the University of Virginia, W. W. Thornton chaired its faculty.  The Jewish repudiation of the Savior continued to disturb him.  But Thornton was also disappointed that the university’s Jewish students “certainly care less for what is embraced in the term culture than Christians who are equally well off.  They are immersed in business and money-getting.”33  With businesses to inherit, such undergraduates might have had a pre-existing condition.  Yet the continuity that could be synonymous with security and stability might also conflict with the dream of upward mobility.  That is why, eight decades after Thornton’s observation, Eli N. Evans formulated the most famous sentence ever recorded about the Southern Jewish experience, which has often “revolved around the fathers who built businesses for the sons who didn’t want them.”34

Among the exemplars of filial repudiation was Alan Lightman (b. 1948), who became a novelist and an MIT astrophysicist.  His recent, partly fictionalized memoir recaps the career of his grandfather, Maurice Abraham Lightman, a civil engineer whose own father had immigrated from Hungary.  In 1915 M. A. Lightman was “working on a dam project in Alabama one day when he looked out of his hotel window and saw a long line of people waiting to get into a movie theater across the street,” his grandson declared.  “In those early days of film, many movie theaters were simply converted storefronts with a projector installed at the back of the room and folding chairs for the audience.”  Seeing that line of potential customers gave Lightman an idea; sometimes the accident of geography could lead to real opportunity.  The following year, at age 25, he opened a movie theater in Sheffield, Alabama.  Then came Florence, Alabama, and Nashville, and a decision to move his family from there to Memphis.  After the installation of sound equipment, Lightman created an empire of sixty-three movie palaces in seven Southern states; and he became the sole owner of Malco.  By the early 1930s, Lightman served as national president of the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America, and became president of the Jewish Welfare Fund in Memphis as well.  Though the memoirist himself opted out of Malco, it enabled four generations to thrive: “Most of my male relatives have worked in the empire: my father, three uncles, an occasional brother or two, several cousins, the children of cousins.”35

The movie business was largely spared from the effects of the rhythms of the seasons and of the vagaries of the international market for cotton and rice and sugar and tobacco and other Southern staples.  But most Jewish businessmen were vulnerable to the bad times and the financial disaster that threatened their customers.  The second half of the nineteenth century, for instance, was punctuated with the crop failures of 1866-67, the Panic of 1873, the remorseless decline in the price of cotton throughout the decade of the 1880s, and then the Panic of 1893, which triggered a major depression.  Jewish enterprise and Southern agriculture were so interdependent that, when the notoriety of the region for bigotry and xenophobia is factored in, a riddle must be solved.  Why did Jews relocate themselves there?

The answer that historian Anton Hieke has given is succinct: “Jews came to the South for two main reasons: their families and the economy.”36  He hardly needed to add that “these two phenomena were both interconnected and interdependent.”  The intricate connections among families and friends that constituted ethnic networks encouraged Jews to concentrate in niche sectors of the economy, so that members of this tiny minority could deal heavily with one another.  Ethnic niches and kinship networks enabled many of the Main Street shopkeepers to survive and even to thrive.  The trust that they were obliged to harbor for one another within the niche economy gave them a competitive edge, Michael Cohen argued.  The peddlers crisscrossing the region often managed to achieve upward mobility and open stores, and could then supply other peddlers with credit and goods.  That trust seems only rarely to have been misplaced, because everyone in this niche economy could discern the benefits.37  Relatives loaned one another money, invested in one another’s businesses, clerked in one another’s stores, married into one another’s families.  Southern Jewry was (in Evans’s phrase) “entwined like wisteria vines”;38  and so many kinfolks were installed in so many stores throughout the region that they provoked the question: Why did God create Gentiles?  Somebody has to buy retail.

Many of those Gentiles were black, which makes this story Southern in a way that characterizes no other section of the United States.  Jewish peddlers and Jewish retailer could be found throughout the nation, but only in the South did their relations with their black customers take on historical significance.  Even before the Civil War, peddlers seem to have demonstrated a willingness to cross the color line.  They didn’t want to make trouble; they merely wanted to make a sale.  Perhaps the transcendent quest for customers made such Jews a bit subversive in a slave society that bore an equivocal relationship to the capitalist ethos.  Putting the South closer to what Tocqueville called the “commercial passions” pushed it a little further away from the rigidities of an embattled racial order, and therefore the intrusion of Jewish tradesmen was bound to generate a little friction.  Even the most famous antebellum visitor from the North–and later a co-founder of the Nation–was unsympathetic to them.  The eminent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted could not help noticing “a swarm of Jews, within the last ten years, [that] has settled in nearly every Southern town, many of them of no character, opening cheap clothing and trinket shops, ruining, or driving out of business, many of the old retailers, and engaging in an unlawful trade with simple negroes, which is found very profitable.”  Olmsted noticed that, in Richmond, the German Jews were “very dirty.”  Their shops emitted “their characteristic smells” and were “thickly set in the narrowest and meanest streets, which seem to be otherwise inhabited mainly by negroes.”39  Of course those “old retailers” may have charged higher prices, which drove black customers to Jewish tradesmen who were less likely to exhibit overt racist hostility.

Writing from as far away as Tsarist Russia, Fyodor Dostoevsky also caught the drift.  Writing in 1877, he mentioned how Jews “have already leaped en masse upon the millions of liberated Negroes” in the American South, “and have already taken a grip upon them in their, the Jews’ own way, by means of their eternal ‘gold pursuit’ and by taking advantage of the inexperience and vices of the exploited tribe.”  The Russian novelist added that although “the Negroes have now been liberated from the slave owners . . . they will not last because the Jews . . . will jump at this new little victim.”  If the freedmen were indeed victims of swindlers and profiteers, that would explain the conjecture of historian Harold Cruse that “it was from the Jewish storekeeper and trader that the Southern Negro got his latent antisemitism,” rather than from, say, Christian mythology.  A standard scholarly history of the South during the era of Civil War and Reconstruction also notes how “the end of the war saw an invasion of Jews to reap a harvest in trade.”  E. Merton Coulter wrote that “the antebellum Jewish peddlers . . . now settled down and opened stores.  Sticking to their business and treating the freedman as an important businessman, not eschewing to call him ‘Mister,’ they secured . . . a great amount of the Negro’s trade.”40  Were these transactions exploitative?  It’s a loaded term, and can neither be dismissed entirely nor casually accepted as true.  Trade is supposed to benefit both buyer and seller, a win-win proposition.  But some Jewish merchants undoubtedly took advantage of caste privileges to cheat their black customers, who were in no position to complain or to secure a remedy.

The weight of the evidence nevertheless favors the benign features of these economic encounters.  The tradesman’s faith that anyone alive should be considered a prospect reflected an admirably democratic spirit.  To the villages and towns came Jews who were both temperate and moderate, largely immune to the unchecked emotion and spasms of violence that constituted the character ideal of the white Southern male.  Jews were more apt to regard former slaves and their descendants as customers and debtors and to place less weight on their status as racial inferiors.  Jews thus generated a larger clientele than did their white rivals.  In the 1930s, for example, Dollard reported that the Jewish merchants of Indianola “let the Negro know that his dollar is as good as anyone else’s.”  The Yale social scientist added that “over and over one hears from Negroes that Southern [Gentile] dry goods merchants have been crowded out of the territory by their hostile, categorical treatment of Negroes.”  Jewish storekeepers by contrast “treated Negroes with courtesy, or at least without discourtesy, in strictly business relations.  They find some way of avoiding the ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ Question, such as by saying ‘What can I do for you?’ and letting it go at that.”  Dollard also learned from his interviews that Jews “bargain with the Negroes and the Negroes like this.  Other merchants are more likely to follow a strict one-price policy. . . .  Negro tenants . . . get satisfaction out of the fact that the Jewish merchant allows himself to be beaten.”41  In Halls, Tennessee, the hometown of historian Bell Wiley (1906-1980), the Jewish owner of the dry-goods store “got most of the black trade because he treated Negroes as human beings and was kindly to them, taking time to joke, inquire about their families and otherwise manifest interest in them.”42  The desperation of the Great Depression did narrow the gap between Jewish merchants and their competitors, who felt compelled to treat their black customers with greater politeness, historian Clive Webb claimed.  But “unlike other white businessmen, Jews extended such courtesies in times of economic boom as well as bust.”43

Did such merchants understand their advantage over their Gentile rivals as merely a commercial proposition, or was the immigrant generation in particular largely immune to the racist habits and attitudes that permeated the white South?  Haunted with memories of bigotry in the Old World, were Jews simply more likely to recoil than their neighbors from the constant reminders of intolerance?  Generalizations are risky, in part because businessmen exhibited little interest in leaving behind a record of their interior lives for scholars to follow.  Such merchants showed little aptitude for introspection, but it is quite doubtful that their main purpose in life was to promote the Prophetic vision of tikkun olam.  Lillian Hellman insisted that her family’s aim in New Orleans was “to make money, nothing else.”  Perhaps so.  But why didn’t non-Jews grasp more fully the profitability of decent treatment of their black customers?   Jim Crow prevented black women who shopped in white-owned stores “from trying on dresses, hats, and shoes before purchasing them,” historian Leon F. Litwack noted.44  Black clientele were expected to point to untried, ready-to-wear items, and to wait until the last white customer was served.

Evidence is limited, but some Jewish shopkeepers nevertheless allowed blacks to try on clothes before deciding whether to purchase them.  In Jackson, for example, Cohen Brothers permitted blacks try on clothes.  According to Edward Cohen, the store became “the only white-owned business with an integrated rest room and water fountain.”45  In Asheville, the Savannah-born Harry Winner hired a black elevator operator as a sales clerk.  Her job might have sparked a boycott.  But Winner successfully persuaded other department store owners to employ black sales clerks on the same day, thus avoiding retribution at Winner’s Department Store, which also became the first to display an African-American manikin.46  A few Jewish merchants advertised in the black press and even hired black clerks.  In mid-century Natchez Jewish firms allowed members of the black bourgeoisie to open up charge accounts, and gave such customers the right to try on clothes as well as the dignity of being addressed with “Mrs.” and “Mr.”  In Atlanta some Jews even extended credit to blacks who tended to live on the edge of financial calamity.  Far more typical, however, was Dave Pearlman, who immigrated from Lithuania in the 1880s, and joined a cousin as a partner in a dry-goods store in Americus.  Pearlman realized that “if he let blacks try on clothes he would be criticized and even threatened by white customers.”47  Jewish shopkeepers usually had no choice but to abide by the rules of Jim Crow.

That is why, from a black perspective, the transition from the initial phase of peddling to the opening of “the Jew store” may well have been a setback.  “Many blacks welcomed the Jewish peddler not only because he treated them with courtesy,” memoirist Leon Waldoff conjectured, “but also because he provided a certain degree of freedom in shopping.  They didn’t have to stand waiting until all white customers had been helped to get the attention of a clerk and they didn’t have to put up with his frequently intimidating presence and the glaring eyes of other whites.”48  From a black perspective, the transition from small dry-goods shops to urban department stores may well have been a setback too.  In them blacks could be even more subjected to mistreatment.  In the big stores, the restrooms, the water fountains, the restaurants were subject to the strict rules of Jim Crow, if they existed at all.  Nor were black clerks ordinarily hired.  Even as late as the mid-twentieth century in Baltimore, located in a formerly slave state that had not seceded from the Union, the Jewish-owned department stores did not permit black customers to try on clothes, nor to be seated at lunch counters, nor to be extended credit, nor to return what they purchased–despite promises of “Satisfaction Guaranteed.”  Direct defiance of the racial etiquette of the region would have ruined business.49

One exception consisted of the movie theaters in M. A. Lightman’s empire.  By 1963 all of Malco’s cinemas were desegregated, even those in Arkansas and Louisiana.  Enlightenment could occasionally be injected without adverse consequences, as Max Moses Heller discovered.  In his youth he managed to flee from Vienna in 1938, and a decade later founded his own manufacturing firm, Maxon Shirts, in Greenville, South Carolina.  Another decade later, Maxon employed about six hundred black and white workers, usually as machine operators.  When Heller, on his own initiative, removed the signs that designated water fountains and rest rooms by race, so that everyone had to use the desegregated facilities, no objections were raised.50  He later became Greenville’s mayor.  But only the passage of federal anti-discrimination laws, beginning in 1964, generally forced the application of Jim Crow policies to be ditched.

In any case Jewish merchants sometimes attracted the same hair-trigger enemies that Southern blacks did.  In 1868, a masked mob lynched both S. A. Bierfield, the young owner of a dry-goods store in the town of Franklin, Tennessee, and his black clerk, Lawrence Bowman.  Homicide under similar circumstances–the crime of fraternization across the color line–occurred fourteen months later in Marianna, Florida, where the victim was Samuel Fleischman, a hardware merchant.  The more extensive rancor of the second Ku Klux Klan proved so ferocious that one Klansman, who owned a store, avowed his hostility to Jews, blacks and Catholics by putting up a sign that read: “I am a 100% American.”  A rival merchant puckishly topped that claim by putting up a sign: “I hate everybody.”  Except as satire, that announcement would have been bad for business.  The Second Klan adopted the distinctive wardrobe that actors had used in D. W. Griffith’s epic Birth of a Nation (1915),52  and some Jewish merchants discerned an opportunity mentioned in Harper Lee’s iconic novel.  It evokes Maycomb, Alabama after the First World War; and Atticus Finch recalls the Klan as an outfit that “couldn’t find anybody to scare.  They paraded by Mr. Sam Levy’s house one night, but Sam just stood on his porch and told ‘em things had come to a pretty pass, he’d sold ‘em the very sheets on their backs.  Sam made ‘em so ashamed of themselves they went away.”  The attorney’s daughter Scout admires the Levy family as “Fine Folks”; they had, after all, lived in the town for five generations.53  That they were not deracinated may have given Sam Levy the confidence to stand up to and to ridicule the Klan.

Richard Kluger’s Members of the Tribe (1977), a fictionalized account of the lynching of Leo Frank, alludes to the same commercial instinct that To Kill a Mockingbird does.  Kluger’s Noah Berkowitz changes his surname to Berg in coming to Georgia, where he marries Naomi Klein.  Her “family sold sheets throughout the state to the Ku Klux Klan.”  Steve Stern extends such interactions into a more elaborate joke in his most recent novel, set in the noticeably Jewish neighborhood of Memphis known as the Pinch.  There several Jewish merchants and a tailor find themselves facing a street march of Klansmen, “decked out in their Halloween finest, white robes and pointed hoods.”  The Jews of the Pinch do not cower or flee.  Instead they compete not only in figuring out who their customers are, but also which of them bought the fabrics classier than mere “shmattes.”  Such evidence is of course fictional, and even when presented as oral history may well be dismissed as apocryphal.  But in 1921, when a klavern marched for the first time in Houston, a Jewish merchant is reported to have sold the members their robes and sheets.54  Mississippi’s Forrest County is named for a founder of the First Klan, General Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Hattiesburg is located there, and in that town the father of Dotty London Stetelman watched Klan parades.  He “could recognize the men by the shoes he had sold them.  He could see their shoes under the sheets.”55  An elderly Jew in Alabama once assured Eli Evans of what excellent customers Klansmen were: “I used to sell ‘em the sheets, and Sam the tailor made them into robes.  Let me tell you we had a good business going.”56

Such shrewdness did not escape the notice of black editors, who encouraged their readers to find inspiration in the upward mobility of Jews, just as black leaders urged their audiences to find their models in the dedication of Jews who began as peddlers and ended up in commerce and finance.  Some combination of aptitude and circumstance enabled Jews to succeed in the region, and some of the freedmen believed that they too could surmount the barriers of bigotry.  At the Tuskegee Institute the class of 1886 picked as its motto “There Is Always Room at the Top!”57  That optimism was delusionary, but the entrepreneurial skill of Jews elicited admiration.  In 1895 a black writer asserted that the Jews “have been enabled to command respect [solely] by reason of their money,” a claim consonant with the Brazilian saying: o dinhero embranquece (“money whitens”).  Others saw Jews as rivals as well.  In 1900, a Savannah black entrepreneur addressed the National Negro Business League and appealed to Northern black tradesmen to come South: “Come down and buy and sell to our people . . . and you will make money and have it, instead of the Hebrew having it, as he has it now.”58  Yet in the decades after Emancipation, at the nadir of the experience of persecution, cruelty and violence, Northern blacks understandably did not want to come to the South.  Even as late as 1955, when one young Chicagoan did so, the consequences proved lethal.  The death of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was instigated in a tiny retail store, a very modest “grocery and meat market,” a crime that can be seen as the vicious opposite of the merely business transactions that Jews pursued by coming to the region.

Sometimes those transactions could extend far beyond the region and could generate an international impact.  The most famous instance occurred in the 1840s in Montgomery, where three brothers from Bavaria landed and opened up a small fabric store.  The profits from dry goods enabled Emanuel, Henry, and Mayer Lehman to purchase slaves, buy local real estate, and establish their own private investment bank.  The brothers used it to broker cotton between the plantations of the South and the manufacturers of the North.  With the utter collapse of the Southern economy in 1865, the Lehmans opted not to live and die in Dixie.  They moved most of the bank’s operations to New York City, while keeping important family cotton enterprises in Montgomery and in New Orleans.  The firm continued to provide capital to scores of cotton merchants, most of whom were Jews.  Some of the funds had been generated by Lehman Brothers’ own businesses, and part was funneled from European and New York Jewish-owned banks such as Hallgarten, Lazard Frères, J. W. Seligman, M. & M. Warburg and Kuhn, Loeb.  Circulation of capital on this scale would have been difficult for members of the National Negro Business League to replicate.  Lehman Brothers extended itself to other commodities, going from cotton to coffee and tobacco, and then invested in railroads and the Panama Canal, before taking the full, fatal leap to the intangibles of high finance.  Lehman Brothers became the fourth-largest investment bank in the US, so big that it might have been considered too big to fail–until it did, in 2008.  By investing in mortgage-backed securities that bundled together loans to borrowers who were manifestly without the capacity to repay what they had borrowed, Lehman Brothers faced massive defaults, and brought down much of the American economy.  The last member of the family to lead the firm, Robert Lehman, had died in 1969; and fifteen years later American Express bought the company.  The global dimensions of what started in Montgomery are suggested in a contemporary play staged in New York.  First written in Italian by Stefano Massini, translated by Ben Power and directed by an Englishman, Sam Mendes, The Lehman Trilogy needed more than three hours to mount this saga at the National Theatre in London, and at the Park Avenue Armory.  Audiences in Milan and Paris are evidently more patient; productions there have run twice as long.59

No dramas have been staged to trace the career of Samuel Zemurray (1877-1961), but perhaps his rise exceeds the imaginative capacity of playwrights.  Had he been a clothing retailer, the company that he founded should have been called Banana Republic.  But with its safari theme, it was founded by others, long after Zemurray himself learned to live by the law of the jungle.  In his defense he did not write that law.  As a teenager he arrived fatherless from Bessarabia, with no relatives to help him when he landed in Alabama.  Formally uneducated and virtually penniless, Zemurray began his meteoric ascent at the very bottom, peddling otherwise discarded bananas from a cart.  He reached the docks of New Orleans, probably around 1905.  From there on, his career displayed a fierce determination, a faith in his own judgment and an implacable optimism, as well as a remorseless grasp of every aspect of the business in which he made his fortune.  By 1929 Zemurray had made a company called Cuyamel so efficient that United Fruit bought him out and made him its majority stockholder.  Three years later he was running United Fruit itself.  Though its corporate headquarters were located in Boston, Zemurray clung to his New Orleans roots by keeping a home there.  El Pulpo (the octopus) became the world’s biggest grower, shipper and seller of bananas–a fruit that has topped even apples in popularity, and worldwide ranks below only rice, wheat and milk.  In the first half of the twentieth century, when the power of United Fruit was greatest, its relentless quest for profit helped determine the fate of much of Central America.  So subjugated was the civic life of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in particular to the power of El Pulpo that they became known as “banana republics.”  (O. Henry coined the phrase.)60  Zemurray had accumulated the power to violate the sovereignty of entire nations.

In the early 1950s, when the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, wanted to take over some of United Fruit’s unused land and to give it to impoverished peasants, he offered to compensate the company with bonds rather than in cash, and then assessed the property according to the wildly undervalued rate on the basis of which that the company had paid its taxes.  El Pulpo cried foul.  In 1954 the Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency then joined forces to overthrow the Arbenz government, charging it (without credible evidence) of introducing Communism into the Western Hemisphere.  Secretary of State John Foster Dulles has been a lawyer for United Fruit; and the CIA director was his brother, Allen Dulles.  Public relations counselor Edward L. Bernays, a nephew of Freud’s, was assigned the task of organizing a propaganda campaign to undermine a legitimate government.  Its overthrow worked, with a brutal right-wing dictatorship replacing the Arbenz regime.  Never in American history had the influence of a single company been more nakedly shown.  In Guatemala City, among those observing the outbreak of the U. S.-instigated violence, was a young Argentine physician named Ernesto Guevara.  What he saw drove him towards Communism, and towards Cuba, where he joined the charismatic son of a successful farmer who had leased land from the ubiquitous United Fruit.  The startling triumph of Fidel Castro in 1959 activated the CIA effort to overthrow his regime two years later at the Bay of Pigs.  The landing there was partly facilitated by two ships on loan from United Fruit.  A year after that disastrous invasion, Zemurray sold all of his stock in United Fruit.  El Pulpo eventually became United Brands, and is now known as Chiquita.61  The question of Zemurray’s Jewish identity cannot be easily resolved.  But he married within the faith, belonged to a synagogue, and fervently championed Zionism (as Chaim Weizmann discovered, even before Zemurray had taken command of United Fruit).62  He came to personify bare-knuckle capitalism, yet much about his business career remains shrouded in obscurity.  Matthew VII:20 deserves to have the last word on the legacy of Samuel Zemurray: “By their fruits shall ye know them.”

But the marrow of Jewish merchandising in the South tended to be less clouded with moral ambiguity; and perhaps the most important effect was to accelerate the process of modernization, of which key components are secularism and consumerism.  The balance sheet of the urban department store should be interpreted as the death warrant of the traditional order.  Jewish merchants played a role in what Max Weber called the disenchantment of the world.  When a department store magnate like Jacob Goldsmith originated the “Spirit of Christmas” parade in Memphis, or when more than hundred thousand Atlantans regularly attended the annual lighting of the great Christmas tree at Rich’s,63  something has happened to exclusivity of a religious holiday celebrated in what has historically been the most thoroughly Protestant part of the Western Hemisphere.  Already during the Civil War, a children’s book published in Macon, Georgia depicted a little boy dreaming before Christmas of “all the curious things he had seen in a Jew’s shop the day before.”64  The threat that commercialization has posed to the sacred recognition of the Savior’s birth thus has a rather antique lineage.

In a region locked into agrarian habits of mind and conduct, the ambitions of the Jewish merchants thus helped cultivate a taste for the products of the industrial world.  Just as the historical materialism of Karl Marx understood the road to serfdom to be a dead end, inferior in humane ends to the capitalism that succeeded the centuries of the feudal order, so too merchandising can be read as a significant improvement over the cramped, arduous and drab routine of the agrarian way of life.  In helping to modernize the South, and in making it a little less devout, Jewish businessmen altered the cultural climate that everyone breathed.  Secularization and consumerism thus constitute the historic achievement of the South’s “Jew stores” and of the flagship department stores that anchored the urbanization of the region.  Hence the merchants who prospered there softened the buccaneer capitalism that is so often associated with the robber barons of the nineteenth century.  William H. Vanderbilt notoriously dismissed the objections to his way of doing business by remarking: “The public be damned!”65  The Jewish merchants who operating near Vanderbilt University–and not only in Nashville–adopted a very different credo: “The public be pleased.”

Their direct impact could not be fully and finally sustained, however.  The decline of the economic niche that Southern Jews enjoyed over a century ago can be attributed to multiple causes, such as the emergence of investment banking; the rise of impersonal cotton exchanges; the growth of new cotton-growing regions in Asia, Africa, and the American Southwest; and periodic floods and insect infestation.  The competition of mail-order companies such as Sears, Roebuck made the brick-and-mortar stores less integral to the local economy.  Though they continued to appeal to customers, they began vanishing along with the yeomanry who once shopped in them.  A Department of Agriculture still exists, because farmers have remained politically influential.  But statistically they have become so insignificant that, according to the latest census. they represent only 1% of the population.  (Twice as many Jews live in America.)  Mechanical cotton pickers eliminated the need for cheap labor, and the men and women who once picked cotton often migrated to Northern and Western cities.  Competition from behemoths like Walmart and www.amazon.com slammed the last nails into the coffins of the general stores that had once flourished at the crossroads South.  Occasional news stories about the fate of tiny Jewish communities have not foreseen a robust future for them, but instead have tried to give these saving remnants the dignity of a decent burial.66

Nor should Evans’s resonant sentence about the sons repudiating the businesses that the fathers built be discounted in explaining the decline of merchandising.  Himself the son of an owner of a Durham department store, Evans became a lawyer, historian and foundation executive–and is thus a case in point.  His generalization merits scrutiny, even though no such assertion can hope to be comprehensive.  It obviously omits the half of Southern Jewry that has been composed of women, who were presumed to be ineligible to inherit the ownership of stores.  To be sure, Evans did capture the central feature of Southern Jewish history when the region was primarily rural and small-town, before the impact of urbanization and suburbanization could fully register.  But no generalization can do justice to the full span of the richness of Southern Jewish life from the eighteenth century to the present, from the sparse and fragile settlements of the colonial era to, say, the retirement communities and wealthy enclaves of south Florida today.  Such statements cannot account for the sheer variety of the occupations that Southern Jewish men and women have held since Evans evinced no willingness to take over Evans United Department (Dollar) Store.  Perhaps most intriguingly, his generalization leaves open for investigation what happened to the generation that enjoyed the freedom to skip the available careers in business.  What was the fate of those who resisted the appeal of merchandising and who moved elsewhere?

The answers are bound to be sketchy.  But look what happened to a town in Louisiana.  “While Jewish merchants once dominated the main street of downtown New Iberia,” its chroniclers reported, “no Jewish-operated retail businesses remain. . . Instead, Jews in New Iberia and the surrounding area are most likely doctors, lawyers, and professors at the University of Louisiana in nearby Lafayette.”67  Such changes occurred throughout the region, as the progeny of businessmen entered the professions or pursued the arts; and the result was often the enlargement of the nation’s civic life and the enhancement of America’s cultural life.

The list begins with Adolph Ochs (1858-1935), whose Bavarian-born father Julius ( Ochsenhorn) landed in Louisville in 1845 and became a peddler before settling in Tennessee, selling dry goods and struggling at other businesses.  His precocious son would publish the Chattanooga Times before buying the New York Times in 1896.  Born in Berlin, Ludwig Lewisohn (1882 -1955) arrived in St. Matthews, South Carolina as a sensitive eight-year-old, unable to shake first impressions of the “characteristic odor of peanuts and stale whiskey and chewing tobacco,” of watching white men who “whittled and spat” and “burly” black men who “gabbled and laughed weirdly.”68  His immigrant father ran a grocery store, serving a mostly black clientele; and, away from South Carolina, Lewisohn became a man of letters.  Born in Charleston, the chemist Robert F. Furchgott (1916-2009) was a scion of the family that ran major department stores in that city and in Jacksonville, Florida.  He was thirteen years old when the Great Depression struck, and his family left the failing store in Charleston so that his father could open a women’s clothing store in Orangeburg.  Eager to become a scientist, Robert Furchgott spent his freshman year at the University of South Carolina.  It was academically inferior to the University of North Carolina, but the out-of-state tuition that Chapel Hill required was more than his parents could afford.  So the family relocated to Goldsboro, North Carolina–not because the horse died, but so that Robert could get in-state tuition on a campus that had better chemistry labs than at Columbia, South Carolina.  That parental decision paid off in 1998, when Robert was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for sharing in the discovery of “nitric oxide as a signaling molecule in the cardiovascular system.”69

This trajectory was remarkable, but other rejections of mercantile careers are noteworthy too.  Born in Uniontown, Alabama, Morris L. Ernst (1888-1976) was the son of a peddler who had immigrated from Bohemia and would join his older brother in running a general store.  “Next to his family, business was his [father’s] greatest joy” in Uniontown, Ernst recalled.  His mother, the daughter of immigrants, was unusual in having a degree from Hunter College.70  Ernst became the civil liberties attorney who won the Ulysses case in 1933 and later served on President Truman’s Civil Rights Commission.  Attorney and political counselor Joseph Proskauer (1877-1971) was born in Mobile, where his grandfather, a former peddler, had become a merchant and then a banker.  Proskauer served as president of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) during the critical years of 1943 till 1949, and spearheaded its support for a Jewish state in Palestine.71  Elliot E. Cohen (1899-1959) was raised in Mobile, where his father owned a dry-goods store, but entered Yale College at the age of fifteen.72  He became the founding editor of the AJC-sponsored Commentary, which ranks among the most influential magazines in all of Jewish history.  The family of Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) flourished in a number of businesses in New Orleans, so that she even knew Zemurray.  At various times the father of Justice Abe Fortas (1910-1982) owned a jewelry store and a clothing store in Memphis.73  Ben Bernanke’s father was a pharmacist and a part-time theater manager in Dillon, and sent his son to Camp Blue Star outside of Hendersonville, North Carolina.  In chairing the Federal Reserve Board, at the top of the most important financial institution on the planet, Bernanke completed an arc that had begun in his senior year of high school, when he served as secretary-treasurer of the Florence chapter of the Southeast Federation of Temple Youth, the affiliate of Reform Judaism known as SEFTY.  The father of the songwriter Arthur Freed (1894-1973), who was born in Charleston, was a businessman.  Max Freed did not sell shoes or clothes; instead he was an art dealer.74  His son became a producer who ran the musical unit of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in its most glorious two decades, from 1939 until 1959.  The mogul Louis B. Mayer put so many of his own relatives on the payroll of the studio that its initials were reputed to stand for “Mayer’s ganze mishpoche.”

Which gets us to Stanley Donen (1924-2019).  His recent death should spark a fuller consideration of Eli Evans’s generalization, for Donen was a film director whose honorary Oscar in 1998 cited him for “a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit and visual innovation.”  His father was Mordecai Moses Donen, who managed a chain store that sold mid-range dresses; his mother was the former Helen Cohen.  They lived in Columbia, South Carolina, where his parents gave him cameras with which he experimented.  “The camera was like a constant companion,” Donen recalled.  “It allowed me to withdraw into myself,” especially when faced with the antisemitism of young bullies.  The interwar South did not prove congenial.  He found it “sleepy” and “awful.  I hated growing up there and I couldn’t wait to get out.”75  Luckily Donen’s father had to visit his company’s home office in New York during summers, and his son joined him.  There he attended dance school as well as numerous Broadway musicals.  In 1940, after graduating from high school at the age of sixteen, Donen spent a semester studying psychology at the University of South Carolina, a field he pursued only to please his father.

But then Donen fled to New York, where he became a dancer, a choreographer and then a director.  His credits included thrillers like Charade (1963) and Arabesque (1966), which he directed, one critic raved, “with a panache worthy of Hitchcock at his best.”76  Such movies ingeniously shuffle the cards of identity, a skill that might have come naturally to a Jew who had grown up maladjusted to the South.  But Donen is best known for musicals like Singin’ in the Rain (1952), which he co-directed.  Arthur Freed, who wrote most of the lyrics, produced it.  Singin’ in the Rain may be the most admired Hollywood musical, full stop.  Another of Donen’s hits was Damn Yankees! (1958), which he also co-directed.  Its title may be misleading, because this musical does not tap into regional hostility but explores instead the threat to the dynasty of an American League baseball team.  Donen’s other credits included the co-directed On the Town (1949), which boasted a score by Leonard Bernstein.  In Boston the composer’s father ran a beauty shop supply business, which he would have been happy to pass on to his son.  Even after Leonard Bernstein had personified American music, Samuel Bernstein assured him of a permanent place in the beauty shop supply business back home.  Donen also lived a full life–undoubtedly fuller than had he sold dresses back home in South Carolina.  That life included so many wives (five, all of whom became divorcees) that his living room included a cushion embroidered with the words, “Eat, drink and remarry.”77  To recap such careers is to corroborate the role of Southern Jews–the merchants and their descendants–in making not only the South but even the rest of the nation modern.

Their inventiveness and their innovativeness, their resourcefulness and their resilience brought a little closer to realization the tantalizing promise, issued by the Framer who patronized David Isaacs, of an inalienable right to pursue happiness.  Through some combination of savvy and industriousness, good timing and a willingness to take calculated risks, these businesspeople became the civilian counterparts of the quartermasters without whom no army could possibly function.  Such Jews therefore merit retrospective praise for their role in making the South less impoverished–and not only materially.  In their honor no equestrian statues have been erected in the town squares of the region.  But is it overstatement to argue that they helped foster the ideals of equality and autonomy that represent the elusive axial principles of American society?

ENDNOTES

“The World of Ashkenaz: Jewish Communities in the Middle Ages,” in Stories of an Exhibition: Two Millennia of German Jewish History (Berlin: Jewish Museum Berlin, n. d.), 36.

2 Melvin I. Urofsky, Commonwealth and Community: The Jewish Experience in Virginia (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society and Jewish Federation of Richmond, 1997), 10, 11 30.

3 Thomas Wolfe to Louis Lipinsky, March 3, 1938, in Sharon C. Fahrer, A Home in Shalom’ville: The History of Asheville’s Jewish Community (Asheville: History@Hand, 2015), 29; Leonard Rogoff, Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 133.

4 Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner and Mary Gardner, Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941), 264; Jack E. Davis, Race against Time: Culture and Separation in Natchez since 1930 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001), 106; Leon Waldoff, A Story of Jewish Experience in Mississippi (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2019), vii; John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1957), 4.

5 Quoted in Dollard, Caste and Class, 128; Clive Webb, “Jewish Merchants and Black Customers in the Age of Jim Crow,” Southern Jewish History, 2 (1999), 56.

6 Hugh Sidey, “Impressions of Power and Poetry,” Time, 109 (June 20, 1977), 31.

7 Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Boston: Little, Brown, 1994), 38, 46, 119, 199, 282.

8 Josh Lambert, Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 33.

9 Oscar Handlin, “New Paths in American Jewish History: Afterthoughts on a Conference,” Commentary, 7 (April 1949), 391.

10 Jerry Z. Muller, Capitalism and the Jews (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2010), 80-81.

11 Rogoff, Down Home, 113-15; Eli N. Evans, The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South (New York: Atheneum, 1973), 15-18.

12 Lee Shai Weissbach, “East European Immigrants and the Image of Jews in the Small-Town South,” in Dixie Diaspora: An Anthology of Southern Jewish History, ed. Mark K. Bauman (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 126-27.

13 Rogoff, Down Home, 53; Anton Hieke, Jewish Identity in the Reconstruction South: Ambivalence and Adaptation (Boston: De Gruyter, 2013), 91, 92; Evans, Provincials, 71.

14 Weissbach, “East European Immigrants,” 126-27.

15 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Phillips Bradley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), II, 127-28.

16 Quoted in Rogoff, Down Home, 87.

17 Leonard Rogoff, “A Tale of Two Cities: Race, Riots, and Religion in New Bern and Wilmington, North Carolina, 1898,” Southern Jewish History, 14 (2011), 65; Evans, Provincials, 71-71; Hieke, Jewish Identity in the Reconstruction South, 133.

18 Michael R. Cohen, Cotton Capitalists: American Jewish Entrepreneurship in the Reconstruction Era (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 1-2.

19 Hasia R. Diner, Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way, 54.

20 Quoted in Cohen, Cotton Capitalists, 50.

21 Quoted in Jonathan D. Sarna, When General Grant Expelled the Jews (New York: Schocken, 2012), 21-22.

22 Sarna, General Grant, 45-49.

23 Hieke, Jewish Identity in the Reconstruction South, 100-2; Harry Crews, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 73-76; Eli N. Evans, The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993), 7-8.

24 Diner, Roads Taken, 55-58, 153; William Alexander Percy, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973 [1941]), 17.

25 Weissbach, “East European Immigrants,” 117; Eli N. Evans, “Southern-Jewish History: Alive and Unfolding,” in “Turn to the South”: Essays on Southern Jewry, eds. Nathan M. Kaganoff and Melvin I. Urofsky (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979), 159-60, and Lonely Days Were Sundays, 5; Alfred Uhry, “Foreword” to Shalom Y’all: Images of Jewish Life in the American South (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2002), xi.

26 Stella Suberman, The Jew Store: A Family Memoir (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1998), 2-3, 51-52; Daniel J. Boorstin, “My Father, Lawyer Sam Boorstin,” in The Daniel J. Boorstin Reader, ed. Ruth F. Boorstin (New York: Modern Library, 1995), 894.

27 Oscar Handlin, Adventure in Freedom: Three Hundred Years of Jewish Life in America (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1954), 51-56, 87-90.

28 Jeffrey S. Gurock, Orthodoxy in Charleston: Brith Sholom Beth Israel and American Jewish History (Charleston: College of Charleston Library, 2004), 24-25.

29 Handlin, Adventure in Freedom, 90; Diner, Roads Taken, 55.

30 Kate Stillman, Martha Stillman Silverman et al., “The Sam Solomon Company,” Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina Newsletter, 24 (Spring 2019), 24.

31 Mickey Kronsberg Rosenblum, “Edward’s 5¢ – 10¢ – $1.00 Stores and the Kronsberg Brothers,” Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina Newsletter, 10-11.

32 Harold J. Brody, “The Brody Brothers: Jewish Retail Giants in South Carolina,” Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina Newsletter, 16.

33 Philip Cowen, ed., Prejudice Against the Jew: Its Nature, Its Causes and Remedies (New York: Philip Cowen, 1928), 100-102.

34 Evans, Provincials, 29, and Lonely Days Were Sundays, 5.

35 Alan Lightman, Screening Room: Family Pictures (New York: Pantheon Books, 2015), 8-9, 10, 33, 34, 105.

36 Hieke, Jewish Identity in the Reconstruction South, 81, 106, 306.

37 Cohen, Cotton Capitalists, 2, 22, 23, 135, 181, 201, 202; Elliott Ashkenazi, The Business of Jews in Louisiana, 1840-1875 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988), 132-33; Diner, Roads Taken, 61-62.

38 Evans, Lonely Days Were Sundays, 60.

39 Frederick Law Olmsted, The Cotton Kingdom (New York: Modern Library, 1969 [1861), 38, 196.

40 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Diary of a Writer (New York: George Braziller, 1954), 642-43; Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: From Its Origins to the Present (New York: William Morrow, 1967), 476-77; E. Merton Coulter, The South During Reconstruction, 1865-1877 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1947), 202; Diner, Roads Taken, 172.

41 Steven Hertzberg, Strangers Within the Gate City: The Jews of Atlanta, 1845-1915 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1978), 183-86; Cohen, Cotton Capitalists, 105, 108-12; Dollard, Caste and Class, 129.

42 Quoted in Webb, “Jewish Merchants and Black Customers,” 62.

43 Webb, “Jewish Merchants and Black Customers,” 62.

44 Lillian Hellman, rev. of Evans, Provincials, in New York Times Book Review, November 11, 1973, 5; Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 233.

45 Waldoff, Story of Jewish Experience, 38; Webb, “Jewish Merchants and Black Customers,” 62, 63; Hieke, Jewish Identity in the Reconstruction South, 173-75.

46 Fahrer, Home in Shalom’ville, 14.

47 Davis, Race against Time, 98; Hertzberg, Strangers Within the Gate City, 185; Waldoff, Story of Jewish Experience, 37.

48 Waldoff, Story of Jewish Experience, 36-38.

49 Webb, “Jewish Merchants and Black Customers,” 71-72; Eric L. Goldstein and Deborah R. Weiner, On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 239.

50 Lightman, Screening Room, 201-2; Diane Vecchio, “Max Moses Heller: Patron Saint of Greenville’s Renaissance,” in Doing Business in America: A Jewish History, eds. Steven J. Ross and Hasia R. Diner (West Lafayette, In.: Purdue University Press, 2018), 188.

51 Webb, “Jewish Merchants and Black Customers,” 65; Hieke, Jewish Identity in the Reconstruction South, 150-51.

52 Abram Leon Sachar, Sufferance is the Badge: The Jew in the Contemporary World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1939), 536; Godfrey Cheshire, “Why No One is Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Feature Film,” Southern Cultures, 21 (Winter 2015), 34.

53 Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (New York: Popular Library, 1962), 149.

54 Richard Kluger, Members of the Tribe (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1977), 245, 246; Steve Stern, The Pinch: A History (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2015), 26-29; Bryan Edward Stone, The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), 130.

55 Quoted in Bill Aron and Vicki Reikes Fox, Shalom Y’all: Images of Jewish Life in the American South (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2002), 33.

56 Quoted in Evans, Provincials, 253, and in Lonely Days Were Sundays, 71.

57 Quoted in John P. Roche, The Quest for the Dream: The Development of Civil Rights and Human Relations in Modern America (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 9.

58 Quoted in Litwack, Trouble in Mind, 357, and in Eugene D. Genovese, In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), 28; Fernando J. Rosenberg, Chair of Romance Studies, Brandeis University, e-mail to author, April 14, 2019.

59 Ben Brantley, “A Magnificent Road to Ruin,” New York Times, March 29, 2019, C1-C2; Patricia Cohen, “Lehman Brothers, a Family Saga,” New York Times, April 19, 2019, B1, B4.

60 Rich Cohen, The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012), xi, 3, 12, 28, 48, 50, 60, 68, 96, 104, 106, 118-20, 143, 150, 220; Peter Chapman, Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World (New York: Canongate, 2007), xii, 68-69, 59-61.

61 Cohen, Fish, 167, 177-80, 186, 191, 193, 195-97, 198-99, 204, 209, 214, 227, 230; Chapman, Bananas, 130-41, 144-45.

62 Cohen, Fish, 53, 125, 161-62, 221-22.

63 Leon Harris, Merchant Princes: An Intimate History of the Jewish Families Who Built Great Department Stores (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 132, 153.

64 Quoted in Hieke, Jewish Identity in the Reconstruction South, 89.

65 Quoted in Matthew Josephson, The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 187.

66 Ira M. Sheskin, “The Dixie Diaspora: The ‘Loss’ of the Small Southern Jewish Community,” in Dixie Diaspora, ed. Bauman, 181-85.

67 Jason Schulman and David Rosen, “New Iberia,” at: https://www.isjl.org/louisiana-new-iberia. encyclopedia.html (accessed May 11, 2019).

68 Quoted in Ralph Melnick, The Life and Work of Ludwig Lewisohn (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998), I, 27.

69 “Robert F. Furchgott Biographical,” at: https://www.nobelprize.org./prizes/medicine/1998/ furchgott/biographical/ (accessed May 21, 2019); interview with David Furchgott, May 18, 2019, Charleston, South Carolina.

70 Melnick, Life and Work of Ludwig Lewisohn, 35; Morris L. Ernst, A Love Affair with the Law: A Legal Sampler (New York: Macmillan, 1968), 5, 6.

71 Joseph M. Proskauer, A Segment of My Times (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1950), 4, 30, 31; Marianne R. Sanua, Let Us Prove Strong: The American Jewish Committee, 1945-2006 (Hanover, N. H.: University Press of New England, 2007), 21-27.

72 Daniel Greene, The Jewish Origins of Cultural Pluralism: The Menorah Association and American Diversity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 136.

73 David G. Dalin, Jewish Justices of the Supreme Court: From Brandeis to Kagan (Waltham, Ma.: Brandeis University Press, 2017), 211.

74 Alex Cohen e-mail to author, June 4, 2019; Hugh Fordin, M-G-M’s Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), ix.

75 Quoted in Stephen M. Silverman, Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and His Movies (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 4.

76 Richard Corliss, Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema (New York: Penguin Books, 1975), 99.

77 Silverman, Dancing on the Ceiling, 8-15; Richard Severo, “Stanley Donen, 94, Director of Buoyant Musicals and Indelible Moments, Dies,” New York Times, February 24, 2019, 24.

The Jewish Merchant Project is supported by the generosity of the Norman and Gerry Sue Arnold Foundation and the Stanley B. Farbstein Endowment at the Coastal Community Foundation. Longtime members of the JHSSC, Mr. Arnold obm, a merchant himself, and Mr. Farbstein obm were both children of South Carolina Jewish merchants.

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