cover image Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South

Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South

Sue Eisenfeld. Mad Creek, $19.95 trade paper (292p) ISBN 978-0-8142-5581-0

Eisenfeld (Shenandoah), who teaches science writing at Johns Hopkins, blends history and travelogue in this adequate exploration of race and religion in the South. Surprised to discover that some Jews fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, Eisenfeld set out to understand Southern Jewish identity. She grounds her historical analysis in personal reflection as she travels to small towns with lost or vanishing Jewish histories, meeting holdouts like peanut magnate Sara Hamm in rural Alabama. Her travels take her to abandoned or dying synagogues and endangered graveyards, and her ruminations highlight both Jewish history and lack of current resources to maintain sites and records. Jewish assimilation both surprises her, with mentions of shellfish eating and Yom Kippur luncheons, and disappoints her, particularly with some Jews’ failure to grapple with slavery. Though the focus can wander when, for instance, Eisenfeld writes about African-American experiences, she does highlight how the civil rights movement and subsequent backlash made many Jews fear for their own safety in the South. In the strongest chapter, Eisenfeld details how Michael Kogan, a genteel retired Jewish professor, faced off in public debates about a Confederate monument with Robert Rosen, a Jewish lawyer on the committee trying to contextualize the monument in 2017 Charleston, S.C. While Eisenfeld’s meandering style might not appeal to hardcore history buffs, her stories provide many revealing tidbits for those who enjoy self-reflective historical writing. (Apr.)