A History of Southern Immigrants in Eighteen Objects

If you were going to tell the story of an immigrant community through artifacts – photographs, letters, newspaper articles, objects from the community’s day-to-day life – what kinds of artifacts would you choose? Would you want to make sure that your chosen objects attested to the transnational connections between the community’s old and new worlds? Or would you center the story around the lives these immigrants made, and the ways they changed (or didn’t), in their new home? Would you focus on the communal leaders, the cultural and political “ethnic brokers” who helped the newcomers and the people among whom they now lived understand and relate to one another? Or would you elevate the quotidian, showing how politics and culture could be found in even the most ordinary acts? Would you want to emphasize the creation and maintenance of communal life, or would you reveal the fissures, the conflicting ideas that needed to be negotiated?

Of course, you’d probably want to do all of these things. Now: what if you had to tell this story in only eighteen artifacts?

This was the challenge posed to me and several other local historians by Timothy Frilingos, the Exhibitions Manager of the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta. Founded in 1996, the Breman is the largest Jewish history museum in the southeast. They recently dismantled their longstanding permanent exhibition on Atlanta Jewish history, with the intent of developing a new space and a new concept. Mr. Frilingos asked us each to send him a list of events, physical spaces, individuals, families, and historical themes – but no more than eighteen in total – that we would choose if we were going to curate an exhibit that told Atlanta’s Jewish history. The exercise evokes the amazing book A History of the World in 100 Objects by the director of the British Museum; the number eighteen, I assume, is a reference to the numerological value of the Hebrew word “chai,” which means “life.”

As a teacher, I do this kind of selecting and excluding all the time. Every subject I choose to include in a course’s curriculum represents a hundred other subjects I’m leaving out. One might call this kind of work curatorial. But museum curation seems especially daunting to me, and when I sat down to make my list I felt a little overwhelmed and outside my comfort zone.

I began with the intent of focusing on the immigrant experience, specifically. Atlanta has hosted a Jewish population since the 1850s, and for most of the nineteenth century a majority of Jews in the city were born in central Europe. By 1900, however, Atlanta’s Jewish population was changing: hundreds of Jewish immigrants had recently arrived from the Pale of Settlement and elsewhere in eastern Europe, and the central European-born population was shrinking, both actually and relative to the newer group. This ethnic shift was entirely typical of Jewish communities all over the U.S., and Jewish historical museums have found ways to tell this story everywhere: the more established population moves to a better neighborhood, and the newcomers take their places; a new synagogue (or two or three) is founded to serve the spiritual needs of the newcomers; the “uptown” Jews look down on their poorer “downtown” brethren, and their paternalistic efforts to help inspire resentments and cultural clashes. Atlanta’s Jewish history offers plenty of evidence of all of this. So my list of eighteen began with the founding of The Temple by central European Jews in 1867, Ahavath Achim by eastern European Jews in 1886, and Or V’Shalom by Sephardim from the Ottoman Empire in 1914. It included the cemeteries where the earliest members of each of these congregations are buried, the names of the immigrant Jewish entrepreneurs who started important businesses in the city, and the secular institutions that these Jews had created. So far, so good.

But the “immigration” story soon gets more complicated. By the end of the nineteenth century, the number of American-born Jews had more than doubled, from 369 in 1880 to 876 in 1896.[i] From that time forward, native-born Jews comprised the majority of Atlanta’s Jewish population. This demographic shift is also typical, but it threw me for a loop: for a population created by immigration, when does the “immigrant experience” end? This is a question that I’ve never seen engaged in the scholarly literature (though perhaps I’ve missed it), and it seems absolutely central to anyone thinking categorically about immigrant communities.

My other hoped-for goal was to include as many events and themes as I could that denoted the “southernness” of Atlanta’s Jewish community. But again, the story got complicated soon enough. Much has been written about American Jewish attitudes toward slavery and Jewish slaveownership. But Jews owned slaves in the North, too, until those states passed manumission laws; and Jewish attitudes toward slavery – both for and against – varied within the sections. Jewish involvement in local Confederate civic and military efforts during the Civil War: that’s an easy one. Was there anything particularly southern about the world of Jewish work in Atlanta? Their occupational distribution looks nothing like that of New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia, which were all manufacturing centers and sites of robust Jewish immigrant involvement in the needle trades. In Atlanta, Jewish breadwinners were far more likely to be petty entrepreneurs and small-scale merchants than anything else. But one would find that in any American city or town without a strong manufacturing sector. So what was southern here, exactly?

Jim Crow, certainly. Of course, racial segregation was not limited to the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But white supremacy was the organizing principle of every aspect of life in this city. Jewish responses to it, and the ways in which they were subjected to southern racial ideologies, shaped their history. The trial and lynching of Leo Frank is the most obvious example, but there are others. For instance, central European Jews who had been in the country for decades responded to the turn-of-the-century influx of eastern European Jewish immigrants in ways that betrayed profound racial anxiety: would these newcomers be seen as white enough to gain acceptance by Atlanta’s white mainstream? Another example, decades later: the bombing of The Temple in 1958 by a militant States Rights organization that accused the city’s Jews of “leading the fight to destroy segregation in Atlanta schools” and “promoting mongrelization.”[ii] In each case, the regional context, so profoundly defined by Jim Crow, suggests that there is something distinctively southern about Atlanta’s Jewish history.

In the end, my list failed to speak to “southernness” or “immigrant community” in any absolute way. I sent it in to Mr. Frilingos, and I look forward to being a part of the continuing conversation about the exhibit. But this exercise reminded me that when we think and write about southern immigration, we must question the meaning and use of our analytic categories. It’s not enough to say that immigrant communities have settled and flourished or struggled in the South; we have to ask ourselves why it matters, and what these community histories can tell us about southern and American history more broadly.

[i] Source: Steven Hertzberg, Strangers in the Gate City: The Jews of Atlanta, 1845-1915 (JPSA, 1978): 233, 241

[ii] Source: “Jews Behind Race Mixing,” http://www.southernspaces.org/2009/counterblast-how-atlanta-temple-bombing-strengthened-civil-rights-cause, accessed 8/22/2014