Sue Eisenfeld finds it fascinating that when neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates shouted "Jews will not replace us" in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, they did so as they gathered around a statue of Thomas Jefferson that was created by Jewish sculptor Moses Ezekiel. The sculptor, in turn, was firmly on the Confederate side. There's a lot to unpack in that scene—those who hate Jews rallying around a sculpture created by a Jew who was actually sympathetic to the Confederate cause.
It is at this intersection of many prejudices, false historical assumptions, and the legacy of the Civil War that appeals to Eisenfeld. Her book, Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South (Mad Creek, Apr.), explores race, religion, and history in the South–including the often overlooked existence of Confederate Jews. Eisenfeld, who teaches science writing at Johns Hopkins, tells PW she first got the idea for the book when she went to the opening of a Civil War museum in Richmond, Va., but was distracted by a visit to the Jewish cemetery, where she discovered the Confederate soldier section.
"In all the years I had lived in Virginia, I had never heard anyone talk about Confederate Jews, and certainly growing up in Philadelphia I had... definitely never heard of Confederate Jews."
This curiosity had brought her to the South in search of a Jewish Confederacy she never knew existed. In fact, it went against her whole understanding of the Judaism she inherited from her mother, who was always interested in social-justice causes. The Jews in her circle always felt an affinity with African Americans because of a common understanding of what it means to be oppressed.
"But I think what that really just revealed was my ignorance on how things are different in different times of history," she said. "I think that the Jewish young men fought for the South with equal gusto as any other young men in the South.”
Eisenfeld is careful not to judge the Jews of the Confederacy too harshly. She explains: “We see people accept a lot of things now that are part of our culture, like African-American men being incarcerated at extremely high rates compared to others. Well, I think back then, that slavery was just a part of the culture, and that most people—a lot of people—didn't really see it as something they would necessarily do anything about."
Wandering Dixie is not only about Jews in the Confederacy. More broadly, it's about how assimilated Jews were into Southern culture. Some of that assimilation is lost today, as Jews have since mostly moved to bigger cities in the South. In her book, Eisenfeld chronicles some of the artifacts of lost small-town Southern Jewry, and a sense that there are lost Jewish places that still need to be preserved. The Coming Street Cemetery in Charleston, S.C., for example, is the oldest surviving Jewish burial ground in the South and it's in danger of losing its funding.
"This is a place full of Jewish Revolutionary War veterans and War of 1812 veterans, and yes, Jewish Confederates, but also people really important in the formation of Reform Judaism in America,” she says.
Ultimately, Eisenfeld doesn't see her book as an indictment against anybody, but more of a place from which Jews can better understand current race relations. In the South, where Jewish history intersects with African American history, there are lessons to be learned for today. Seeing Jewish culture in the heart of the South might force readers to think about what she calls "the two touch points between African-American history and Jewish history in the South: slavery and the Civil Rights Movement." And that Jews, even if in some cases they were also considered second-class citizens, were still beneficiaries of institutional racism.
"This is the journey I went through—the journey of understanding that this research and this travel put me on," Eisenfeld says. "And I guess I'm hoping that some other readers come away with a changed idea of who they are in the world."