Walking outside in the extreme heat and humidity of Charleston, S.C., I felt a long way from my home and native land of Canada. It was technically still spring, but it felt like the dead of summer. It was even hotter than my current hometown of Richmond, Va., where I’ve been living for the past three years.
I was in Charleston participating in a two-week program, funded by the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), called “Privilege and Prejudice: Jewish History in the American South.” The NEH gathered 25 scholars for a bootcamp on Southern Jewish history. We heard superb guest lecturers, engaged in stimulating discussions, conducted important archival research and went on fascinating walking tours that brought shvitzing to unprecedented heights.
We learned about the rich, but oft-ignored Jewish history of the American South. The second-oldest synagogue in the United States, which was built in 1840, is in Charleston. The third oldest, built in 1878, is in nearby Savannah, Ga. Charleston was the birthplace of Reform Judaism in America, and Jews played a central role in the economy of its vibrant port, as well as in other Southern cities, like Richmond, New Orleans, Mobile, Ala., and later Atlanta.
The lone Canadian on the trip, I was struck by the similarities between Southern and Canadian Jewish history. Despite recent scholarly innovations, both sub-fields have been considered peripheral to North American Jewish history, which has long focused on the urban North, where most American Jews lived, especially New York. North American Jewish history has been dominated by the stories of eastern European immigrants who came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but Jewish communities existed in the United States and Canada long before then.
Before the American Revolution, there were five colonial Jewish cities: New York, Philadelphia and Newport, R.I., in the North, and Charleston and Savannah in the South. Each had active Sephardic congregations. Yet there was a sixth colonial Jewish city, which is often ignored because it did not end up in the United States. In 1768, Jews in Montreal founded Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue.
Southern and Canadian Jewish history have more in common than their early origins. In the American South, Jews had to navigate their relationship with the dominant white Christian population, along with millions of African-Americans who lived under slavery and then under segregation.
Jews in Quebec experienced a similar “third solitude,” in negotiating their place between the Anglo-Protestant elite and Francophone-Catholic masses.
Jewish tourists in Charleston and Savannah often can’t help but admire how proud these small communities are of their Southern heritage, which they sometimes present as an unvarnished success story.
In truth, it’s a complicated legacy: Southern Jews benefitted from their whiteness (many owned slaves) and some fought to preserve segregation. But a new generation of scholars, museum workers and historians are endeavouring to correct the more triumphalist narrative, offering human stories of triumph and tragedy, privilege and prejudice.
At the heart of this investigation lies questions of exceptionalism and regionalism. Was America different for the Jews? How does the Southern Jewish experience alter that question? And is the Southern Jewish experience exceptional?
Canadian Jewish studies offer a similar dynamic. Scholars have long asked how the Canadian Jewish experience differed from the American one, focusing on the Jews of Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg. More research is needed on Jews from British Columbia and Alberta, the Maritime provinces and small Canadian towns, in order to determine how they compare to Jews from across North America.
To begin this research, Canadian Jewish history could use a program of the kind I experienced in Charleston, which brought senior scholars together with younger academics. Like Southern Jewish history, Canadian Jewish history is fascinating, complex, sometimes troubling and perhaps even exceptional. It deserves to be studied, told and heard.