Stuart Rockoff, Southerner by birth and Northerner by education, is one of the most prominent voices of Southern Jewry. Since 2002, he has served as director of the history department at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life and the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in Jackson, Miss. The institute provides educational and rabbinic services to isolated Jewish communities, and documents the history of Jews in the South, where nearly 400,000 live. Rockoff was here a few days after the historic presidential election to speak at Village Temple in Manhattan.
Q: Last week’s election of President Elect-Barack Obama showed a shift in the South — states like North Carolina and Virginia voted for an African-American candidate. Is the Jewish South also changing the same way?
A: I haven’t seen exit poll figures for Southern Jews, but I suspect that they were more likely to vote for Obama than other Southern whites. In my experience, Southern Jews are more likely to be Democrats than other Southern whites.
Can we talk about a Jewish South, or is it more and more a transplanted Jewish community from the North?
There have never been more Jews living in the South than today. As the American Jewish population has stagnated, the number of Jews in the South has more than doubled since 1960, even excluding Florida. Much of this growth has been from Northern Jews moving South to cities like Atlanta. According to a recent study, more Atlanta Jews were born in New York than in Atlanta.
Jews in the South? When you meet Yankees like us — your speech here recently, for instance — are we still surprised there is Jewish life south of the Mason-Dixon? What are our stereotypes about you?
Since so many of y’all have been moving South, there is certainly increased awareness. We at the Institute have been working hard to make sure that Southern Jews are part of the discussion among Jewish national leaders and historians. What’s ironic is that New Yorkers are often the most provincial folks of all.
What makes Jewish life in the South unique beyond the well-known “Shalom Y’all” we glorify on T-shirts and posters?
The experience of being such an extreme minority, less than 1 percent of the South’s population, has often led Southern Jews to assimilate more quickly. Jews adapted to the unique culture of the South, including its speech patterns, foodways and historical memory. One of my favorite documents is the short-lived Yiddish newspaper that was published in Atlanta in 1908 that featured two flags on its masthead: the Zionist flag and the Confederate flag.
Everyone knows Atlanta. What are the other up-and-coming Jewish communities in the South?
Places like Austin, Houston, and Dallas have experienced tremendous growth in their Jewish communities in recent years. On a smaller scale, Charlotte, the Durham/Chapel Hill area and Nashville are also flourishing Jewishly. Perhaps the most interesting growing Southern Jewish community is Bentonville, Ark., which is the corporate home of Wal-Mart.