The first time I read anything about Jews in the South, I was not aware of why the topic was so important. The memoir, The Jew Store by Stella Suberman shows readers the struggle of Jews trying to survive in and navigate the American South in the early 20th century. For me, the most surprising aspect of the story was how much discrimination the Bronson family faced in a country where they moved to so they could freely practice their religion. We are always taught that there was immense discrimination against Jews in Nazi Germany and other European areas during the World War II era, but there is seldom discussion about discrimination in America. There were many examples of people in the South being disrespectful and unkind to Jews in the memoir, which made it very hard for me to believe that the story was taking place in the early 20th century. Similarly, racism towards Blacks was very evident in the story as well
Another distinguishing theme in the memoir was the difficulty of practicing Jewish religion and Jewish traditions in the South. In their small town, there was no synagogue, no Jewish school, and no other Jews to create a community to identify with. This struggle seemed counter-intuitive to the Jew's desire to immigrate to the United States so that they could freely practice their religion – but this clearly did not apply in areas of the South. While they wouldn’t be persecuted for openly practicing Judaism, it was very difficult to do so, as it would cause them be outcasts and unwanted in their community. This issue put the mother in the story, Reba, into a deep depression, as she felt that her children would not be raised Jewishly, and she did not feel like she was a part of the community.
It seems that through out all historical eras, except arguably in the modern day, Jews have been seen as outsiders, or even their own race. Ever since Jews started to migrate from their European homes in the 18th century, they have been seen as outsiders in their new towns. While they learned new languages, new cultures, and new customs, there was a slight segregation between Jews and everyone else. In chapter 4 of Jewish Roots in Southern Soil, peddling is described as the only way Jews could migrate to a new place and still support themselves. This occupation was seen negatively by others, even though it was one that made Jews interact with many people, as they only sold to non-Jews. Ironically, the same thing that made it possible for Jews to migrate to the South also made it difficult for them to gain a respectable and equivalent status to non-Jews.
Similarly, even in later years during the Civil Rights era, Jews felt that when Blacks were granted rights, their own “race” would be threatened, as outlined in chapters 6 and 8 in Jewish Roots in Southern Soil. There is a lot of focus around Jews as a separate race, even in modern discourse, but from a historical standpoint, it is often discussed as a negative thing, rather than a positive thing. Historically, the Jewish race was a segregated group no matter where they migrated, and they were never fully accepted into society in various degrees, especially in the American South.
In my personal experience, being referred to as the Jewish race never seemed like a bad thing, as I was always taught that being Jewish is something to be proud of. Obviously Judaism is not accepted by all people, but it is interesting to look at the patterns in history that regardless of migrations, led to continuous patterns of inferiority.
When I decided to attend Emory for college, I never really thought about how the Atlanta Jewish community would differ from the one I grew up in. I knew that the Emory campus had a Jewish bubble within it, but I never thought that the Jewish community in the South had a reason to be so distinct.
After reading the first chapter in Jewish Roots in Southern Soil, the origins of Judaism in the South and the division between different Jewish groups as well as the struggle to practice their religion became more apparent to me as the background for the immerging Jewish south. We are often taught that practicing Judaism was once not allowed, but this is rarely discussed in the context of America, let alone the South specifically, at least in my Jewish day school education. Reading the story of Nunes did not necessarily surprise me because I've read or heard about religious discrimination many times, but rather sparked a connection. While this history dates back to the 18th century, I couldn't help but think about the community my parents grew up in. Both my mother and father were born and raised in the former Soviet Union, where practicing Judaism was certainly not allowed. Their stories were what always inspired me to be proud of my Jewish identity and very open about it.
My parents shared the same religious climate as that of 18th Century Savannah, which made me think about historical patterns and regional similarities. Surely by the time my parents were alive, the Jewish community in America was growing and thriving (which was the reason for their immigration), but the community they came from openly rejected Judaism at the same time. The title of the chapter, "One Religion, Different Worlds" and the details written in it immediately reminded me of this contrast my parents experienced.