Within moments of meeting Eli Evans, it’s clear that he’s not the typical New Yorker. He’s more polite than most, and he’s a natural storyteller. But it’s his accent that places his roots far from even the outer boroughs of this city: He’s a son of Durham, N.C., where his father was the first Jewish mayor in the city’s history. Evans wears his Southern Jewishness the way a Texan wears his Stetson, with pride.
But don’t expect to find him sitting on a porch, strumming the banjo (although he does play). He’s a son of Gotham too, having moved here in 1969, and he’s one of the more well-connected New Yorkers you’ll meet. In his Madison Avenue office, Evans directs the Revson Foundation, which supports projects in urban affairs, education, biomedical research and Jewish education.
This fall, the Free Press is publishing a new edition of Evans’ landmark book, The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South. Originally published in 1973, the book, a successful combination of journalism, autobiography and history that explores the nuances of Southern Jewish identity (and belongs on bookshelves next to Irving Howe’s classic "World Of Our Fathers") has stayed in print for almost 25 years, which is an unusual feat. For this updated version, Evans has added a new introduction and five new chapters bringing the book up to date and looking towards the future.
"The Jews of the South have found their poet laureate," Israeli statesman Abba Eban has said of Evans. A former aide and speechwriter in the Lyndon Johnson White House, he is also the author of "Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate," which he worked on for 10 years, and "The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner," a collection of essays. His next book is about American Jews and the institution of slavery.