The writer talks history, Southern Jews, and releasing a book during a pandemic.
Before setting out to explore the small towns where Jewish people once lived and thrived, Sue Eisenfeld never really thought about her tribesmen from the South. A Northern Virginian (by way of Philadelphia) and a Civil War buff, she was nonetheless surprised to discover a Confederate soldier section in a Jewish cemetery in Richmond.
Curious to learn more, Eisenfeld, a writing instructor at Johns Hopkins, embarked on a four-year journey across nine states — including visiting a peanut factory in Eufaula, AL, and attending a birthday party for Robert E. Lee in Charleston, SC — hunting down the forgotten history of her Southern ancestors. Along the way, she not only discovered the region's complex and troubled past with race and religion, she experienced a profound transformation within her own internal landscape.
The result is the deeply reported Wandering Dixie: Dispatches From the Lost Jewish South. In it, Eisenfeld's itinerary is both organized and serendipitous. The souvenirs she picks up along the way, like the weeds in so many of the overgrown Jewish cemeteries she visits, amount to a beautifully nuanced and moving portrait of acceptance and accountability.
You had a "Come to Jewish" moment in your mid-40s. Can you talk a little bit about this spiritual transformation and how your time in the South perhaps crystalized your Jewish identity?
As a younger person, I did not really feel a connection with other Jewish people because I felt so un-Jewish, and being Jewish wasn’t important to me or part of my identity in the world. As an adult, especially in the past decade, and especially being married to someone who is not Jewish (which helps me recognize my Jewishness), I’ve realized that Jewish life and Jewish practice and the feeling of being Jewish come in many forms, and that I could still consider myself truly Jewish based on my heritage and upbringing and culture. And so I began to embrace that. And embrace the Jewishness that was always in my life, even when I didn’t really know it.
Traveling to the lost Jewish communities in the South gave me a sense of the precariousness of Jewishness in some places, the way having a well-supported synagogue available or a Jewish community is not necessarily a given, as it has been in the metropolitan areas I’ve lived. The Jews in these places have really been trying to hang on. These small Jewish communities were so welcoming, and I felt so connected to them instantly. Once I found myself on this quest, I realized it was the first time in my life that I was on any kind of Jewish quest. It really opened a door for me.
Along those lines, how has the South changed a born-and-bred Northerner like yourself?
The author Shelby Foote (who was half Jewish, by the way) once said, “One of the great satisfactions a historian…[and I’ll add writer] derives from his work…comes after he has put the work behind him. Once he has studied and written of an event in relation to the ground on which it happened, that scrap of earth belongs to him forever. To some extent, he even feels he owns it.” That’s how I feel now about Natchez, Clarksdale, Charleston. They are a part of me now. That said, I’ll always consider myself a staunch Philadelphian, as well. So, I’m a split personality.
Each chapter is its own self-contained essay. Did you consider doing a book of linked essays, or did you always have a traditionally structured memoir in mind?
I am an essayist at heart, but I know that readers (and publishers) need a narrative arc as connective tissue to ensure there is a story happening in a book. That’s the hardest part of writing a book like this — knowing there must be transformation: The author must move from one place of understanding to another. But at the start of a book, and even in the middle of a book (while researching, experiencing, and writing), the author does not necessarily know what the transformation is or will be. Although I wrote as I went along, it wasn’t until I underwent all the experiences and could then reflect back upon them that I could see what transformation had happened.
Can you talk about the South and its landscape as a character in this book?
When I think of the Deep South, I think of the open sky and vastness of landscape — the vastness and horizontalness. It’s like an ocean of cotton, sorghum, soybeans, and peanuts. Sometimes, pecan trees. In the Lowcountry area of South Carolina, that vastness was once rice and indigo. Those rows, those fields, those huge expanses of land as far as the eye can see were where one of the greatest injustices and atrocities of our nation took place. It’s one of the backdrops of the formation of the nation. It’s what we’re made of. Blood is in that soil. When writing about the South, that landscape and that soil is the backdrop, the set, the stage, and the main character around which everything else revolves. In some ways, I think everyone should have to see the plantations of the South to understand the South.
My favorite chapter is "The Longest Memory," and particularly the character of Michael Kogan. You mentioned that he was upset with an article you wrote. How has Kogan received this book?
Dr. Kogan is, in some ways, the epitome of the complex intersections of ideas I was writing about from the beginning. He’s a New Yorker, a liberal, and a deeply religious and observant Jewish man who also has Confederate ancestry and who devotes his time to the cause of Confederate monuments. I spent more time with him, in person and over the phone and email, than any other person featured in the book. I couldn’t have even begun to understand Kogan if I had interviewed him earlier in my travels. Dr. Kogan has let me know that the he is pleased with how I portrayed him in the book and that I captured his views accurately. Last time we talked, he was singing Gilbert & Sullivan to me over the phone!
What's it like to have a book released during the pandemic?
After spending five years working on the book, including a year and a half of waiting for it to be released, I’m disappointed that the book might not get the publicity it would have if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. But I can’t really feel that bad for myself — so many other artists and performers and writers are in the same boat. People worldwide are obviously suffering much greater tragedies. If this is the worst thing that should happen to me during the pandemic, I’ll consider myself very lucky. I can only hope that people will be reading more, and they might need a short, readable book about an unexpected topic to help them pass their quarantine time a bit…
Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and author of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.