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Friday, February 26, 2021

Author Sue Eisenfeld on ‘Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South’

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How did Jews living in the Confederacy reconcile celebrating Passover while owning slaves and fighting for the South in the Civil War? As she geared up to research her new book, author Sue Eisenfeld confessed she was puzzled by that seeming contradiction. 

“That’s the million-dollar question that started my whole journey,” Eisenfeld told a Zoom audience on Aug. 12 during her author talk co-sponsored by the Center for Jewish History and the National Museum of American Jewish History. “When I first saw that cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, in 2006, I asked myself, ‘How could the Jews have fought for the South when they still celebrate their freedom every year at Passover?’ ” 

Eisenfeld traversed the South researching her travel memoir, “Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South.” A native of Philadelphia who now lives in Arlington, Va., Eisenfeld journeyed across Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and South Carolina conducting interviews, collecting stories and visiting the temples and graveyards of Jewish communities, many of which no longer exist. Through her book, she tracked Jews who settled in the South, prospered financially and fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. And as she explored the complexities of Southern Jewish history, Eisenfeld investigated how and where that history intersected with the experiences of African Americans. 

Eisenfeld began her research two months after the 2015 shooting at the AME church in Charleston, S.C. Her work continued through the 2016 election and through the notorious 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. “Wandering Dixie” was published in April just before George Floyd died while in police custody in Minneapolis, which spurred nationwide protests, civil unrest and calls for racial justice.

Despite widespread discussion over Southern racism and intolerance, most Southern Jews, Eisenfeld learned, did not experience the same types of prejudice as Blacks. Because they were white, Jews avoided persecution and some were themselves slave owners. Others advanced politically, most notably Louisiana Sen. Judah Benjamin (1811-1884), who was appointed attorney general of the Confederacy. While some Jews felt a moral obligation to free their slaves, Eisenfeld said that others grew up singing Confederate songs and bought into the lost-cause mythology that glorified the South and reinterpreted the Civil War as being a conflict born of the need not to preserve slavery but to “beat back the northern aggressor.”

“When I first saw that cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, in 2006, I asked myself, ‘How could the Jews have fought for the South when they still celebrate their freedom every year at Passover?’ ” — Sue Eisenfeld

She highlighted the statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia that was a congregating spot for the Unite the Right protesters, who chanted “Jews will not replace us!” The statue was designed by Confederate soldier Moses Ezekial, the first Jewish solider at the Virginia Military Academy. 

“There are good people and bad people in any kind of people, and I think Jews are no exception,” Eisenfeld said. “It’s easy to say, ‘Look at the northern Jews and all the good things they did,’ which is true, but I think there was definitely an interest in doing good things in the South, too. This is one of the issues that doesn’t have an easy answer.” 

Eisenfeld’s talk included a slide show of photos she took at Jewish cemeteries and temples in “lost communities” throughout the South, with many of the sites no longer home to congregations or in serious disrepair. Temple Mishkan Israel in Selma, Ala., for example, had 140 Jewish families in the 1920s but was down to four when Eisenfeld visited. The temple, built in 1899, is in need of rehabilitation. Where once there were 467 Jews in Vicksburg, Miss., in 1927, when Eisenfeld visited she reported “they were basically closing down.” No children had attended the religious school in more than 25 years and both the Anshe Chesed temple and cemetery have been taken over by the National Park Service because they sat adjacent to the Vicksburg Military Park. “Which is a great ending,” Eisenfeld said, “because now it will be preserved.”

The tzedakah page on Eisenfeld’s website (sueeisenfeld.com) contains links to several of the lost communities in the South where fundraising for restoration, preservation and rehabilitation efforts are in place. Organizations like the Institute of Southern Jewish Life and the Jewish Community Legacy Project are helping to spearhead some of these efforts. Eisenfeld, who is related to slain Civil Rights worker Andrew Goodman, also supports the foundation that bears Goodman’s name, which promotes youth leadership development, voting accessibility and social justice initiatives on campuses.

“I hope readers have their own journey of understanding,” Eisenfeld said. “The lost Jewish communities became dear to me. I’m hoping readers will help save them.”

As for the troubling question of how slave-owning, Confederacy-loving Jews could reconcile their beliefs with the celebration of Passover, Eisenfeld conceded, “It hurts your brain to think about it. The Jews fought for the Confederacy because the South was home to them. They were free to live as they wish, practice their religion and advance in business. Life was good in the South if they happened to settle in the South, and they were willing to fight for that.”

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