The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South, by Eli Evans

Discussion Guide

About the Book:

In The Provincials: a Personal History of Jews in the South, Eli Evans proves that American Southern Jews are not exempt from the complicated racial, religious, and political history of the region. Not surprisingly, their Jewish heritage often put them in a unique and unenviable position—somewhere between white and black, conservative and liberal, segregationist and abolitionist. Indeed, as Mr. Evans’ excellent work attests, the Jews of the South have as much glory and shame in their history as any other Southerner.

Mr. Evans deftly shuttles between these narratives and vivid descriptions of the historical presence of Jews in the South, tracing the journeys of Sephardic, Eastern European and German Jews from their arrival in the region until the present day. Famous (and sometimes notorious) figures abound: Judah Touro, the Sephardic Jew who founded the Touro Synagogue; Solomon Blatt, longtime speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives; Sam Massell, the first Jewish mayor of Atlanta; and Judah P. Benjamin, secretary of state of the Confederacy. Like all the Jews in the South, these men had complicated relationships with whites, blacks and with their Jewish co-religionists. It is Evans’ understanding of these nuances of Southern society that makes for a captivating read.

About the Author:

The son of Durham, North Carolina’s first Jewish mayor, Evans was raised in the Old South. He graduated from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 1958 and Yale University Law School in 1963. He served as a speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson and also worked for North Carolina governor Terry Sanford. In 1968, Evans joined the Carnegie Corporation, a national education foundation. He served as the first president of the Revson Foundation from 1977 to 2003. While at Revson he oversaw grants to fund projects such as the Israeli version of Sesame Street, the award-winning series Heritage: Civilization and the Jews with the late Abba Eban and Eyes on the Prize, which documented the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Some of the most engrossing sections of The Provincials are those in which Evans describes his personal experiences. Other books that he wrote include Judah P. Benjamin:The Jewish Confederate and a collection of essays titled The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner.

Questions for Discussion:

Part I: Tobacco Town Jews

(The experience of the Jews brought to Durham to work as cigarette-rollers (page 15), only to be replaced by machines, is suggestive of many similar stories during the period of the Industrial Revolution.)

  1. What does the Jewish tradition, rich in discussions of economics, say about these occurrences?
  2. What factors make these scenes uniquely Jewish?
  3. Are there similar examples happening in the world today?
  4. What would be an ethical Jewish approach to solving these problems?

Part II: The Immigrants

(Perhaps most striking for the Jewish reader is realizing that some Southern Jews in fact owned slaves, fought for the Confederacy and were against integration.)

  1. What does the Torah say about Jews and slavery?
  2. According to our tradition, how are slaves to be treated?

Part III: The Struggle against Conformity

  1. Comment on the complicated relationships between Southern Christian fundamentalists and Jews. Compare these relationships to those between Northern Christians who belong to more established, liberal churches and Jews.
  2. How are Zionism and the State of Israel perceived as influencing the loyalties of Southern Jews to the United States?
  3. Keeping in mind that The Provincials was first written in 1972 (and updated in 1997), how might events of the past thirty years in both Israel and the United States have changed the perceptions of Southern Christians?

Part IV: Coming of Age

(Mr. Evans writes: “….Jewish students…are meeting non-Jews from similar suburban homes who have been nurtured by the same television memories in an era when secular concerns are smothering religious identity. Organized religion is struggling to reach the young, who often share values about society that they feel transcend differences in formal religion” [page 184].)

  1. How accurate do you think this statement was when it was first written in the early 1970s?
  2. Does it remain true today?

Part V: Discrimination

  1. In your opinion, do people living in the South seem more anti-Semitic than those who live in the North?
  2. Assuming that many people hold this belief, is it fair to say that the South’s history of racial prejudice may influence this impression?
  3. How do we understand the psychological and historical roots of prejudice as found in both the individual and in the community? Because many Southerners are viewed as prejudiced against blacks, do we also assume they are prejudiced against Jews?

Part VI: Jews and Blacks

(When Northern rabbis came to protest segregation in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, a resident of the Birmingham Jewish community told them, “You will go back on the plane heroes and leave us to gather the wrath. I hope your convictions are strong enough to carry the blood of my children on your hands” [page 323]. This dilemma, whether to preserve one’s own safety or to speak against oppression and risk often-drastic consequences, has been faced time and again.) 

  1. Using your own opinions as well as arguments from Jewish texts, how would you defend the positions of both the Northern rabbis and the quoted Jewish resident of Birmingham?
  2. This ethical quandary between moral decency and self-preservation takes on an additional dimension for people like Evans’ father, who was a member of the local government. How does someone act when faced with such a conflict?

Final note:

(Many African-Americans identify strongly with the Exodus narrative. Mr. Evans quotes the prominent black author James Baldwin, who said, “The Negro identifies himself almost wholly with the Jews…the more devout Negro considers that he is a Jew, in bondage to a hard taskmaster and waiting for Moses to lead him out of Egypt” [page 304]. Many of America’s founding fathers also identified strongly with the Israelites, seeing King George III as Pharaoh and America as the promised land of freedom and opportunity for all.)

  1. What other historical events have been compared to those of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt?
  2. It was only a generation ago that Baldwin wrote of the strong affinity between Blacks and Jews. How has this relationship changed?

Raphael McGregor serves as the librarian of the Klau Library in the Union for Reform Judaism’s New York office. Raph graduated from Brandeis University in 2001.