Sunday, August 5, 2018

That Pride of Race and Character: The Roots of Jewish Benevolence in the Jim Crow South Hardcover – July 4, 2014 by Caroline E. Light (NYU Press)

It has ever been the boast of the Jewish people, that they support their own poor,” declared Kentucky attorney Benjamin Franklin Jonas in 1856. “Their reasons are partly founded in religious necessity, and partly in that pride of race and character which has supported them through so many ages of trial and vicissitude.” In That Pride of Race and Character, Caroline E. Light examines the American Jewish tradition of benevolence and charity and explores its southern roots.

This book sings. It is that rare beautiful volume that cuts to the heart of the matter—a groundbreaking, eloquent and meticulously researched book about Southern Jewish culture. Light takes us inside the heart of this regional Jewish community. Through careful and creative archival inquiry she illuminates the subtle labors of benevolence—the care of 'our own' widows and orphans—as the site where Southern Jews performed Southern gentility and whiteness as a means to achieve their own cultural citizenship. This book transforms our understanding of how American Jews do race. It changes the ways we think about Jewish life in the South. It is an astonishing accomplishment.

 Light has identified a significant topic that touches upon important matters such as the intersection of race and gender in the Jim Crow South, the changing nature of child welfare work in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America, and the influence of regionalism in American Jewish history.  That Pride of Race and Character constitutes a very interesting and useful investigation of this topic…

Light’s study strikes out in new and interesting directions, including the use of previously untapped sources for the study of southern Jews, such as case files from orphan homes and immigrant relief associations.  Coupled with oral history interviews, these sources give rare insight into family and gender relations, the economic struggles of Jewish immigrants, and the social anxieties driving Jewish elites to impose a strict cultural discipline on aid recipients.. 

Light provides a critical analysis of benevolence as it was inflected by regional ideals of race and gender, showing how a southern Jewish benevolent empire emerged in response to the combined pressures of post-Civil War devastation and the simultaneous influx of eastern European immigration. In an effort to combat the voices of anti-Semitism and nativism, established Jewish leaders developed a sophisticated and cutting-edge network of charities in the South to ensure that Jews took care of those considered “their own” while also proving themselves to be exemplary white citizens. Drawing from confidential case files and institutional records from various southern Jewish charities, the book relates how southern Jewish leaders and their immigrant clients negotiated the complexities of “fitting in” in a place and time of significant socio-political turbulence. Ultimately, the southern Jewish call to benevolence bore the particular imprint of the region’s racial mores and left behind a rich legacy.

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