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Stella Suberman: The Jew Store

Don't be alarmed by the title, which I think is in fact a bit alarming. It strikes our ears as crude, at least, and is the product of a time and place in which Jews were seen as foreign and held in some suspicion, sometimes hostility. The time and place was a small town in Tennessee (fictionally named Concordia) in the 1920s, and the author of this book was the daughter of a Jewish merchant who, with his family, were the first and only Jews in the town, and whose store was therefore known to the town as the Jew store:

Bronson's Low-Priced Store was Concordia's "Jew store." There had been none until my family got there, and in those days it was the custom for every small Southern town to have one. A Jew store--and that is what people called it--was a modest establishment selling soft goods--clothing and domestics (bedding, towels, yard goods)--to the poorer people of the town--the farmers, the sharecroppers, the blacks, the factory workers.

Sure, "Jew store" smells of antisemitism. And the family did encounter hostility from some because they were Jews. But they thrived, and that was not unusual.

I long ago realized that the antisemitism of the South has been greatly exaggerated. Forty years after the Bronsons came to Concordia I went to high school in a southern town somewhat like it, though a little larger. I did not notice at the time that there was a small Jewish community there, that a couple of the stores on the town square were owned by Jews, and that a popular judge was Jewish. And that his daughter was the mother of one of my friends. I didn't notice it because it wasn't remarked. I never heard the term "Jew store," which either had never been used or had passed out of use by my time. And in any case there was more than one, and the clientele of Mr. Jaffe's department store was not considered déclassé--I recall my middle-class family shopping there. 

There was a sort of pro-forma antisemitism among the same sort of people who take naturally to whatever form of bigotry is on offer. But that was something of an afterthought, amounting to little in comparison to the systematic oppression inflicted on blacks. Jews were safely on the "white" side of that divide. I can remember hearing only one explicit expression of antisemitism, and that was from a high school friend who was just trying to shock people. (I know enough of his later life to know that he outgrew that urge.)

It was even later that I learned that the situation in my town was, as Stella (Bronson) Suberman says, pretty standard throughout the South. There was in fact in the early 20th century a sort of mini-migration of Jews, recently arrived from Europe and Russia, to small Southern towns, where they opened businesses and prospered. The Bronsons were one of a great many families. 

I say the Bronsons thrived, but not in every respect. The business thrived, and the husband liked Tennessee better than New York, and anyway considered that any difficulties they encountered had to be seen alongside others that they might have experienced elsewhere:

My father guarded against sentimentalizing Concordia, going "too easy" on it, as he said. He reminded himself that it was not a place of uniformly soft hearts and warm spirits, a place where the inhabitants were partial to Jews. He wasn't a fool; he knew Concordia wasn't that way. But the way it was was okay by him. And why not? Having in Russia been tormented, chased, and attacked by Cossacks, having in New York been insulted and ignored, whatever maltreatment he had endured in Concordia was minor league. The Ku Klux Klan? Their threats had not materialized, though my father did not kid himself. "It wasn't because they loved me so much," he would say. No, it was more that having experienced a Jew store, they were now convinced that having one in Concordia was a good thing.

The children were reasonably happy--sometimes too happy and too much at home to suit Mrs. Bronson, who never stopped pining for New York and the Jewish family and community of which she had been a part there, and who worried perpetually about her children finding Jewish spouses. That became a crisis when the older daughter Miriam approached marriageable age. In the end Mrs. Bronson got her way, and after roughly a decade in Concordia they moved back to New York.

The time in Tennessee encompassed the author's life until the age of ten or eleven. Not for the first time I'm just a little skeptical of the detailed accuracy and quantity of a memoirist's childhood memories. But if I remember correctly (I read the book some months ago) she says that she draws on the testimony of others in the family, those who were older than she at the time. At any rate, this is an extremely enjoyable book. I find myself reaching for the stock terms in which one praises a memoir of what we are too apt to call "a simpler time," which in some ways it was: warm, affectionate, nostalgic, wry, full of colorful characters, especially Miss Brookie Simmons, a well-to-do and educated "spinster," as she would have been called then, who is the family's general guide and protector. Well, if those terms are stock, they're still accurate, and let's add gracefully and engagingly written. 

The story of these little Jewish communities often has in our time a sad ending, as the general movement of people and money away from those towns has seen many of those communities dispersed. It's good that chronicles like this exist. 


The little girl would be Stella, the little boy her older brother Joey. I think this depicts an incident in the book. 


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I am grateful that our family wasnt antisemitic. Antisemitism just didnt seem big on our radar screen in Athens. It was more important to say,be able to play a tuba, than being Jewish-or not. We just didnt care-at least from my limited view.
I remember going to Mr Jaffes store(And he was not much taller than me and I wasnt even close to being a teenager). He was very generous in giving various items out of his 5 and 10 for various school causes raffles etc. If you had asked me what a Jew was at 10 years old I would have said "Rich white people who are generous" That is humorous but as true as can be.
And Mac,I guess you know Rachel Caurghn(sp?)-Dama's best friend was of Jewish ancestry.
Got a little more complicated as we aged-but a little town who elects as their judge a guy named Roseneau aint horribly anti s. Mac I will tell you something I bet you didnt know; The guy -Thomas Knight- who prosecuted the Scottsboro boys and was pretty doggone racist and an antisemite ... his adversary in court was Samuel Leibowitz-a "New York Jew". Well Samuel Leibowitz was on the side of the facts and didnt exactly defeat Knight-but he did help keep the Scottsboro boys alive with his brilliance and zeal.
When Knight dies....guess who delivers the eulogy? Yep-ol Sam.. I wish I could find that now but I cant remember where I read it.
If you want to read a really inspiring story of a Southern Fundamentalist defending Jewish people-I guarantee you will be glad you watched this 4 minute video:

There was plenty of ugly in the South at times...but there was also lots of good....and that good sprang straight out of the very heart of applied Christianity 101.

"Rich white people who are generous"--heh--there are a lot of southerners who probably have more or less the same impression. Jewish philanthropy in the Mobile area has a very big "footprint" so to speak--lots of different charities and non-profits owe them a lot, including Catholic Spring Hill College.

I've heard that story about Thomas Knight but can't point to a source...may have been you I guess. :-)

My response to this post is going to be disorganized.

I grew up in Oklahoma, which is not deep South, but was profoundly influenced by Southern culture. My grade school and junior high were both named after Confederate generals--Stand Watie and "Stonewall" Jackson. My mom taught at Robert E. Lee grade school. They've changed the names more recently. The high school, however, was name U.S. Grant. Go figure.

My grandfather was Jewish. This is a fact that I was not aware of until be traveled to visit our St. Louis relatives when I was 14. They were very culturally Jewish, whereas my grandfather as well his brothers and sisters that I had met previously were very secular. He and my grandmother, who was Methodist, went to the Unitarian Church as a compromise (I guess).

I don't recall any antisemitism among my friends in grade school or junior high. There was definitely some racism, however, although I remember having conversations of the type, "They can't help it if they are black." The only racist thing I ever heard from my relatives was when my grandmother used the "N" word after grandpa was violently robbed by a black man. Also, my father would grumble about the union's defending African Americans who didn't work as hard as my dad. Whether that was "racist" or not, I can't say. I'm sure others would say "yes!"

I went to high school in Kansas (boarding school). There were two Jews in the student body. One of them played Motl in Fiddler on the Roof, which was fun. Once again, I don't remember any antisemitism among my friends.

I think the reason that antisemitism, if present, was not expressed was for the most part because we were so close to WWII that it would have been unseemly to express anything like antisemitism or antijudaism.

I grew up in an area of Miami, Florida where my high school was mostly either the Jewish kids who lived closer to Biscayne Bay and therefore tended to have parents who were more affluent, and then us gentiles from the other side of the tracks which was quite middle class. I certainly did not suffer at all. Very small numbers of both black and hispanic kids at this point in time (late 70s, early 80s) in North Miami, FL. Now it is primarily families who emigrated from Haiti in the area where I used to live; Jewish families may still be in the other areas, and if so their children likely attend private schools.

As a result of this upbringing and the friends I had I was very much influenced by East Coast Jewish culture - I was reading Philip Roth and watching Woody Allen at a pretty young age. Of course South Florida has always been full of lots of refugees from New York and New Jersey, not just the Caribbean.

Racism towards these lower classes in Miami was very prevalent, unfortunately. Those being the African-Americans, and any and all peoples from Latin America. My maternal grandmother was from Cuba, so Spanish in my family. Even those Cubans had their prejudices: my family emigrated from the Canary Islands to Cuba and mostly had blonde hair and blue eyes, and as a result looked down on the darker Cubans.

I feel very good about younger people though. At least my stepkids who are 19 and 22, seem to have no racist feelings at all. Perhaps there is hope in the next generation. That is how it should be!

In the typical human fashion, a lot of people are running off in the other direction, trying so hard not to be racist and ending up in a very racist position--i.e. non-white and white identities are somehow ontological, and there's a very rigid distinction which is kind of an inverse of old-school racism. Some think this is pretty close to having run its course, and I hope they're right.

One thing I've always tried to insist upon is that the tendency to prefer one's group, however it's delineated, and to make negative generalizations about other groups, is pretty much inherent in human nature, and the attempt to get rid of it completely is futile, and leads to excesses of its own. I remember how shocked I was sometime in my mid-20s when I heard a guy of Japanese ancestry make a remark about a guy of Korean ancestry which was every bit as bigoted as anything a white racist ever said about black people. It was an important lesson for me.

"I think the reason that antisemitism, if present, was not expressed was for the most part because we were so close to WWII that it would have been unseemly to express anything like antisemitism or antijudaism."

Yeah, there's probably something to that. I remember my father, no bleeding heart liberal, saying that the world owed a debt to the Jews because of "what happened in World War II" (that's how I remember him phrasing it). That was certainly part of the reason why my high-school friend's attempts to shock with antisemitic remarks were effective.

Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, in an interview on Pints with Aquinas, made a very useful distinction between prejudice and racism.

We are all to a greater or lesser degree prejudice (whether black, white, red, yellow, or whatever). We often respond to a situation based on a perception of the character of the other because of their category. We need to be aware that we do that and resist it. We need to develop the habit of seeing the Other as persons, not as members of a class. Prejudice, though sometimes a defect, is only a sin if we do not actively seek to minimize its influence on our interaction with the Other.

We really can't function or survive as human beings without some categorization and prejudice. We just have to submit our impulses to reason, just like any other passion.

Racism, on the other hand, is the belief-in-action that the Other is automatically inferior or evil because of the category to which they belong. Racism is always a sin.

He's writing a book called Building a Civilization of Love: A Catholic Response to Racism.

I like and agree with those distinctions. Robert. First because I think they are true, and second because then I have never acted in a racist fashion. You can certainly think what you want about annoying "groups" of people, including the groups in which I might be a member, as long as you treat each individual that you meet with the respect they deserve (at least initially, in case they later prove that they do not deserve this respect).

That looks to be a book worth reading, once it is published.

I've been complaining for a long time about the treatment of "racist" as a totally either-or condition. The prejudice-vs-racism distinction is a good one, but a hard one to get people to see in the present climate. Or at least among those who are most influential in determining that climate. I think the word "racism" is only applicable when there is some hostility involved. I heard someone not long ago accuse herself of racism for a remark which really didn't indicate anything more sinister than awareness that the other person is from a different culture, and in a manner that could have been considered condescending or even unfriendly, if the other person was touchy. But she didn't mean it that way. At worst, I thought, it was a faux pas.

Underlying the naturalness of prejudice is an essential mental faculty: pattern recognition. If we see one red thing among a dozen green ones, the red one gets our attention, and is marked as a departure from a pattern. And we draw conclusions about red things in general from it. If we see one white cat among a dozen tabbies, and the white one bites us, the tentative hardly-conscious conclusion is "white cat dangerous, tabby not." Further experience may modify that. Or may not. Even if the white cat and one of the tabbies bites us, we'll still tend to generalize that "white cats are more likely to bite than tabbies." Because that's what our limited experience suggests--we know eleven tabbies that don't bite, but no white cats. These are almost mechanical mental processes and serve a useful purpose. "Here comes a big striped cat. I saw one before and it ate my wife. But maybe this one is different." We just have to be discerning about when those processes are useful and when they're leading us astray.

You said that the book was enjoyable, and that is exactly the word I would use. I really enjoyed this book. I loved the way she captured the dialects of both the Jewish people and the Southerners.

A former pastor of ours was a young priest at about that time and was, I believe, the first pastor of a Catholic church in East Tennessee, where he met with a lot of opposition. The Klan burned a cross in his front yard.

There is a large and thriving Jewish community in Memphis. I don't remember ever coming across much in the way of Prejudice beyond a casual remark about their financial dealings. Many of the Jewish boys went to the Christian Brothers high school.


Yes, it's "merely" enjoyable. :-) Not great literature, but anyone with the least interest in the subject would enjoy it.

There has long been a (relatively) large and thriving Jewish community in Mobile. As indicated in a joke I heard once, from someone who was not inhibited by fear of offending: "The Jews own Mobile, the Catholics run it, and the African-Americans enjoy it." As far as I remember white Protestants were not included in that schema, which of course I heard from a white Protestant. I feel pretty sure that A-As did not agree with that description.

Now that I think about it, there may have been a line about the Protestants doing all the work. Ha.

And of course "African-Americans" was not the term used. This was quite a while ago.

Dr. Jill's recent taco episode is an example of what we're talking about here. I don't know if it's been called racist or not, but it certainly would have been by the usual crowd if she were a Republican. It was *seriously* cringeworthy, but I don't think it was racist. Just a big faux pas, indicating a certain cluelessness. But no harm intended--the opposite, in fact.

Who is Dr. Jill?

Biden. Do a search for “jill biden tacos” and I’m sure you’ll be quickly informed.

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