In 1920, the Jewish population of Union City, Tenn., increased by 100 percent. That was the year the Bronson family moved there from New York, becoming the only Jewish family among close to 6,000 inhabitants, and the proprietors of “Bronson’s Low-Priced Store.”
The story of their 13-year sojourn — when they left there were again no Jews in town — is gracefully and colorfully unfolded in a new memoir by Stella Suberman, the youngest of the family. The Jew Store (Algonquin), her first book, evokes a Southern culture where there’s always time to sit back on the porch and tell stories, where most of the locals don white sheets for Klan meetings, where a request for brisket at the local meat market is met with a look as though it were “the flesh from a newly evolved animal. … ‘Don’t have no call for that, Mizriz Bronson.’ ”
The lives and complicated identities of Southern Jews have been splendidly depicted in the works of historian Eli Evans and in the plays of Alfred Uhry. Suberman adds an important new chapter. While Evans grew up in a Zionist-minded community in Durham, N.C., where his father served as mayor, and Uhry lived in a highly assimilated world of German Jews in Atlanta, Suberman’s milieu — the single Jewish merchant family in an isolated town — is quite different.
“I always knew I had a story to tell,” the 76-year-old author tells The Jewish Week while in New York City on a book tour. Suberman has no noticeable Southern accent, although she laughs and insists she can turn it on. She describes the 1910s and 1920s, when the memoir takes place, as the “golden age of Jew stores.” These Jewish-owned shops in small towns throughout the South — actually referred to as “Jew stores” — sold dry goods to the poorer people in town, including blacks, farmhands and factory workers.
A retired museum executive who now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., Suberman recognizes that calling the book “The Jew Store” has a certain shock value, and recounts that some publishing executives were initially against using it. “You don’t have to go much further than the dust jacket to realize it’s not pejorative.” In the South, she says, “Jew is often used as an adjective.”
Although Suberman was born two years after her family moved to Union City, she describes their arrival scene as though she were there, for every detail was preserved in her family’s stories, which were endlessly retold. Some people in town were convinced they were fake Jews since they didn’t have horns. This being “near the buckle on the Bible belt,” some believed they were God’s chosen people. And others took a position of suspicion and hatred.
Suberman’s parents make a lasting impression on the reader. Aaron Bronson, her father, glows with optimism. In the Russian shtetl of Podolska where he was born, the young orphan was nicknamed “geborner ferkoifer, which he translated as a ‘born salesman,’ an accolade that stuck in his head and occasionally lit up like a storefront sign,” she writes.
At 16, Aaron sailed for America, but found living with relatives in the East Bronx and working as a coal deliverer not the life he had imagined for himself. He got work on a boat headed for Savannah and there talked his way into working for a Jewish merchant. Although he loved the South, he returned to New York at age 23 to find a wife and met Reba. Again, he saw opportunities beyond the five boroughs and convinced his new wife to move to the South. Aaron lived by his motto: “Know when you’re happy, and the rest is easy.”
Reba, like many immigrant women, was unschooled in Jewish religion but deeply attached and determined to keep some semblance of Judaism in their Union City life. Fridays, she baked challah, lit candles and served chicken on a white tablecloth. She worried a lot about the Jewish education her children weren’t receiving and felt guilty about the holidays they didn’t observe. Aaron was not at all pious; he was a merchant first and, always, a family man. But although he became one of the leading businessmen in town and did much to improve the place, he was always considered an outsider, never invited to join the local Rotary Club — but he was unfazed. Aaron’s other motto: “For a real bargain while you’re making a living, you should make also a life.”
The author says that her unworldly immigrant parents actually had a lot in common with their unworldly gentile neighbors and eventually made many friendships. Their first friend in town, though, was quite different from the others. Miss Brookie, a wealthy woman from a prominent family, was educated in the North. The loving and eccentric spinster, who fought to end child labor in the town’s factory, sounds like she could be a character in a Eudora Welty story.
Suberman beautifully captures the language of the South and the inflections of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, and the cross between the two; the book highlights the strong connections between language and memory. When a New York aunt visits and bristles with the wife of a Jewish merchant from a Kentucky town 25 miles away, she writes, “When they spoke to each other, it was as though they were biting off tough crusts of rye bread.”
In her travels talking about “The Jew Store,” Suberman is frequently asked about the Ku Klux Klan. “I thought the Klan would never harm us,” she notes. “I knew everyone inside those sheets.” Many times, she heard them say they “were out to protect the good people in our town” and believed them. Her parents understood differently. They knew about Leo Frank, the Jewish man lynched in Georgia in 1915. Once, her father indirectly received a threat after he promoted a black helper in the store to a commissioned salesman; he then hired the man as his chauffeur. The author reflects that one of the reasons that the Klan never marched on their store was that the owner of the property was a Klan member. “Greenbacks beat back white sheets every time.”
Suberman’s childhood in Union City was marked by the freedom and intimacy of small towns. “I was a yokel,” she says. “I knew nothing of museums, of restaurants, certainly not Jewish delicatessens. I was at ease eating chicken fried in bacon grease at a neighbor’s house.” She admits that she shared the bigotry of her peers, but adds with hopefulness that “people can change. I did.”
It was Reba who convinced her husband to move back to New York in 1933, when Stella’s older sister Miriam was beginning to date and there were no Jewish young men in sight. As they were leaving, the Sentinel newspaper ran a long story about the family. Suberman, then 11, transferred to a school in New York and was sent to speech classes, along with immigrant kids, to alter her Southern accent.
To Reba’s surprise, she missed the South more than anyone else. Aaron, with money he saved in Union City and his natural pluck, bought a garage in New York and later was involved in real estate in Florida, although the author says that he never quite found himself again. When he died 20 years ago, the Sentinel clipping was folded up inside his wallet.
In 1995, Suberman, now a mother and grandmother, returned to Union City for the first time. (In the book, she refers to the town as Concordia, as a way to protect people’s privacy. But since a Tennessee newspaper revealed the real name, she discusses it openly.) The main street, where Bronson’s Low-Priced Store stood, is little changed, although the shop is now an electronics store. Since the book was published, she heard from a Jewish man who now lives in Union City and owns a large department store there. The town now has three Jews.