What do you do when you break up with your life? A trove of old love letters leads to the Mississippi swamp and a murky search for roots.
Six years ago, I washed my hands of graduate school, girlfriend, apartment, and New York City. As my dad liked to tell his friends, I broke up with my life. I threw my dog-eared paperbacks and sleeping bag into an old Toyota Corolla, and, in a departure from the young man’s cliché, headed not west but down south.
A peddler arrives. (Library of Congress)
Why the South? I had no good answer, since having no good answers was part of the plan, but a few months earlier my cousin had sent me a Kinko’s box filled with the amorous correspondence of my great-grandfather, Charles Mansbach, who ran a clothing business in Cumberland, Maryland, and his fiancée, Regina, who attended school in Baltimore. Among the letters I found a five-page Civil War diary detailing Charles’ father’s service in the Confederate Army.
That my mother had Southern roots wasn’t news; my grandmother Laney (Charles and Regina’s daughter) grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, and I had relatives with names like Hattie and Sally Jean, who found the letters. Still, in reading them I was struck as if for the first time by the juxtaposition of Southern and Jewish, its irresistible double helping of underdogdom. My family’s history suddenly possessed a certain mystery, something worth investigating.
The first stop on my roadtrip was Norfolk, where my great-uncle Harry and his wife hauled me off to a family clambake. Everyone wanted to know what I was doing, and, for my make-something-of-yourself family, I knew I had to spin my purposeless rambling into something that would look like a project. Having left behind a Ph.D. program in U.S. history with the notion of writing fiction, I told them I was researching a historical novel about my ancestors’ love affair and the turn-of-the-century Southern Jewish experience. “The Southern Jewish experience?” a family friend asked. “If you want to know about the Southern Jewish experience, you’ll just have to meet my deah friend Macy.”
Macy Hart was the director of Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi, where kids from the Deep South who are otherwise isolated get to spend an entire summer in an all-Jewish setting. When parents started dropping off salvaged artifacts from shuttered synagogues along with their children, Macy decided to build a gallery to house this accidental inheritance, and the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience was born.
A few months into my roadtrip, I gave Macy a call. He offered me a job traveling through small towns, videotaping oral histories of the Deep South’s elderly Jewish remnant. I thought I’d struck gold. I could get paid to wander and research my “novel,” meeting people who lived like my great-grandparents had. And, just as important, I could tell people my address was Utica, Mississippi. If the Southern Jew seemed improbable and freakishthe bearded lady of American Jewish culturethen Utica, Mississippi, had to be Coney Island.
There’s no sign on the road between Jackson and Vicksburg announcing the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience; the only way to find it is to already know where it is. Mostly bald, with a salt-and-pepper mustache and twinkling eyes, Macy looks like your uncle Moishe, but talks like Uncle Dave Macon. It’s an unnervingly seductive combination, and Macy knows it. You don’t need to eat many fried chicken gizzards with Macy to figure out how the museum got built next to a swamp in rural Mississippi.
In the Museum’s gift shop, everythingT-shirts, coffee mugs, cup cozies, stationery, you name itbears the slogan, “Shalom Y’all.” That priceless phrase neatly encapsulates a mystique that Macy invokesand that I initially bought into. (A book and a documentary also bear the same name.) For Yankees, it’s a knee-slapper, a vision of Woody Allen in a cotton patch; they’re titillated by the idea of Jews owning department stores in Alabama or pouring gravy over their matzo balls. For Southerners, it’s a badge of pride, proclaiming their distinctive purchase on Southern history. Whether ignorant or nostalgic, everybody seems to find the Southern Jew enchanting, another strange crop sprung from the soil of Southern eccentricity.
I started out both ignorant and nostalgic, but over the two years I crisscrossed Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana and Texas, my fantasies of the South collided with real places and the Southern Jewish mystique became less compelling as I got to know real Southern Jews.
In Dumas, Arkansas, a couple of hours southeast of Little Rock, you get the distinct impression that Jews weren’t the only ones to abandon this town. I had come to see Elsie Phillips, who was putting the finishing touches on her makeup when I arrived. “There’s not much you can do with an old face, David,” she called out from the powder room with bittersweet irony. Her life, it became apparent, was filled with ironies: Her family escaped Nazi Germany when she was a girl, and her first job in the States would involve building “relocation centers” for Japanese-Americans. Her parents worshipped in their living room with an ark made out of an old Victrola cabinet. On Sunday evenings, she would alternate between the Methodist and Baptist youth groups, like so many Southern Jewish kids who wanted to hang out with their friends.
After our interview, Elsie served lox, bagels, and grits, presenting this combination with the barely restrained pride of a diplomat who has coaxed warring factions to the same table. Then she drove me down to the cemetery to visit her husband’s grave. “I’ve got more friends here than I do downtown,” she said, more to herself than to me.
In Meridian, Mississippi (the birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers), I met Al Rosenbaum, Mississippi’s first and last two-term Jewish mayor. He had the florid lips of a fish, one good eye (he lost the other shooting skeet), and a smile that bursts suddenly, like a rabbit pulled from a hat. He was old (“You behaving yourself, Eustace?” he bellowed to his wife. “At our age, all that’s left is behaving,” she replied), but didn’t act it. When I asked if he felt accepted in Southern society, he told me about a Presbyterian man who helped keep his father’s store open during the Depression and who stood up in church to denounce a minister who preached that Jews were condemned to hell. Al proved Jews could attain both economic standing and political power in the Deep South. Yet he also showed me the direct line the FBI installed in his kitchen in the 1960s when Klan members bombed the local synagogue, and the arsenal of guns he began stocking after his wife spoke in favor of integration at a school board meeting.
Minette Saber of Monroe, Louisiana, told me how the president of the local bank called her grandfather into his office one day and presented him with a white robe and hood. “You’re a Southern gentleman, Sam,” he said. “Come ride with us.” Sam politely declined, but used his good relationship with the sheriff (and local Klan leader) to keep the Klansmen from lynching a Jewish merchant.
The particulars of small-town Southern life placed special burdens and forced unusual compromises on Southern Jews. But mostly I was struck by how much Elsie and Al and Minette reminded me of the life I knew growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio. My mother’s parents, Laney and Sam Kaufman, lived 15 minutes away, but their home felt like its own country: a world of polished silver and mahogany, of gallantry shot through with melancholy. A black butler dressed in a white servant’s coat sliced the turkey on Thanksgiving and, when my mother was a child, would pick her up from school in Laney’s Cadillac. The family dramas were a theater of tidy manners and untidy behavior.
My grandfather Sam, a native Ohioan, ran a clothing company in Cleveland, but owned a dairy farm an hour away in Streetsboro. We visited the farm most weekends, so I was no stranger to dirt roads or tractors or the rural drawl of the farmers. Sam had been the first Jewish merchant asked to join the exclusive Union Club in downtown Cleveland. Most vividly, I remember him dressed up as Santa Claus on Christmas morning, dispensing presents to our extended family under a massive pine tree.
Like assimilated Jews everywhere, I grew up in two worlds, insider and outsider, an inheritor and shirker of tradition, making my uneasy bargain between fitting in and setting myself apart. The more I saw of the South, the more I realized that its familiarity, not its foreignness, had drawn me there.
I never wrote my novel. After my stint working for Macy’s museum, I had gotten my fill of the Southern Jewish experience. I moved to Athens, Georgia, and after four years I returned to New York City. I left reluctantly, for the same reasons so many Jews in past generations left the South: the impulse to expand one’s horizons and feel the inimitable rush of freedom and possibility urban life delivers, with its own mixed results.
My great-grandparents’ love letters remain in their tattered Kinko’s cardboard box, now stowed away in my own closet. I haven’t looked at them since those days before I left New York. I sought traces of my history there, like I did in the South, hoping, I suppose, to find a home. It was when I stopped rummaging through the past that I stopped searching for home and began making one instead.
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