“Tell her to be kind to the South,” says Kerlin Caspari Sutton, one of the last living descendants of Jewish settlers in Natchitoches, Louisiana, when parting company with Neil, husband of author Sue Eisenfeld. Although she has never been a devout practitioner of Judaism, like many Jews in the United States, Eisenfeld has long tied her cultural identity to her faith. After moving from Philadelphia to Arlington, Virginia, she began to appreciate the culture and traditions of the South, but the journey she recounts in Wandering Dixie begins 14 years after settling in Virginia.
On a trip to the nearby city of Richmond, she discovers the Hebrew cemetery on Shockoe Hill, dating back to 1816. Like many Jewish families in the US, Eisenfeld’s great-grandparents and grandparents emigrated to the northeast in the early 1900s, and the cemetery brings to light another, different Jewish culture. Curiosity inspires Eisenfeld to learn more about the history of Jews in the South.
Running alongside that curiosity is a piece of personal history, in that she is a distant cousin of Andrew Goodman, one of three civil rights activists murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964. While Goodman’s death is a fact of Eisenfeld’s family history, it’s not part of the storytelling within her family circle. She hopes that understanding Goodman’s activism, and his death, will help her make sense of the two histories of Jews in America that she sets out to explore.
Eisenfeld discovers quickly that the history of Jewish people in the South is often inseparable from African-American history in the South. After a first stop in Eufaula, Alabama, she and Neil travel to Tuskegee, where they learn the history of Julius Rosenwald, whom Eisenfeld describes as “a Jewish Yankee who came down South to do good.” Rosenwald established an endowment that matched funds from county governments and black communities to build nearly 5,000 schools between 1912 and 1932.
When visiting a Rosenwald School in nearby Notasulga, Eisenfeld discovers that the two sisters serving as tour guides are descendants of one of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study subjects. As her narrative unfolds, social justice becomes a growing concern. Her identity as a person with enthusiasm for Civil War history becomes complicated by her understanding of the intertwined history of the South.
In Selma, she meets the first Southerner — and Jewish Southerner — who can offer a firsthand account of the civil rights movement. About 90 percent of the civil rights lawyers and one third of the voter-registration activists were northern Jews, but their stories are not part of Eisenfeld’s world. While the history of the South had long been perceived as “someone else’s story”, she comes to realize it is her own history, as well.
Selma is also typical of many of the smaller cities and towns Eisenfeld visits in the South, where Jewish families ran small businesses like department stores and dry goods stores for many decades. Jewish store owners welcomed blacks as customers, which many other white-owned businesses would not. Eisenfeld explains how, during the civil rights movement, “Southern Jews had to calculate living inside the battleground”: protesting would pose a significant risk to their personal safety, but staying silent could be interpreted as siding with their racist neighbors and lead to loss of black customers and friends.
As she visits other towns across the South, Eisenfeld is often referred from the Jewish people she meets to someone else with their own story to tell in another town. She recounts her time in Nashville at the annual conference of the Southern Jewish Historical Society, which draws out an introspective thread as Eisenfeld discloses her feelings of being an imposter; that as a non-practicing Jew, she is an outsider who doesn’t really belong at the conference.
The following year, the conference brings her through Vicksburg, where the once-thriving Jewish community has shrunk to the point that she fears she might be among the very last organized tours of the local synagogue. Vicksburg, Natchez, and Natchitoches are all towns where there is an everlasting reminder of the Jews who have left: the Jewish cemeteries. The very old cemeteries have no permanent fund for maintenance and almost no descendants to care for the grounds. Yet in some cases, the dwindling number of Jewish families is also a sign of Jews intermarrying: for Eisenfeld, this is the realization that Jews belong to their communities and to the South and its somewhat difficult history.
Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery. Eisenfeld’s narrative of her reactions to what she experiences as a liberal, Jewish woman in the South (and vegetarian, which is the source of many witty asides in a place where food is culturally significant) is its own story that makes the history she shares more personal and more meaningful than it would be if she chose to set aside her subjective self. The reader accompanies her on her many journeys, and the travel is always engaging.