Seeing North Carolina History Afresh Through Jewish Eyes
What is the best way for me to learn about North Carolina -history?
I get this question all the time, -especially from new North Carolinians who want to learn about the special -history of their new homeland.
There are lots of good answers: Professors Powell's and Lefler's classic state history books are still the standards. But newer -versions from important historians like Milton Ready and William Link are now essential references.
H.G. Jones's pictorial history, "North Carolina Illustrated, 1524-1984," though out of print, has always been one of my favorites. A good, easy-to-read description of North Carolina life during various periods of history is "The Way We Lived in North Carolina."
Another way to look at the history of our state is through the eyes of a special person or a group of people whose experiences differ from our own.
The newest of these special North Carolina histories may be the best. "Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina," by Leonard Rogoff, follows the experiences of Jews in our state beginning with Sir Walter Raleigh's efforts to establish a colony on Roanoke Island, when Joachim Gantz, a Jewish metallurgist, explored the area's potential for mining in 1585.
It would be many years before Jews established more that a token or temporary presence in the state. Between 1730 and 1775 North Carolina's population grew from 35,000 to more than 200,000. Between 1770 and 1790, the population doubled. As the population grew, opportunities developed in the fields of commerce and trade.
Jews from other parts of the country and the world came here to take advantage of these new opportunities. By the time of the American Revolution, some Jews were ready to join patriot troops to fight the British while others played important roles in supplying the army.
Early on, Jews typically settled in port towns like Wilmington and New Bern. In the early 1800s, some moved west, establishing a presence in places like Warrenton, Hillsborough and Charlotte.
One of the most important Jewish families, the Mordecais, came from Virginia, first to Warrenton and then to Raleigh, where their home place has been preserved as an important public historic site. The Mordecai children and descendents became physicians, presidents of institutions like banks and railroads, authors and teachers. Ironically, the family's success led to intermarriage with Christians. Many "non-Jewish" families can trace their origins to the Mordecais.
In the years before and after the Civil War, wholesalers in New York and Baltimore supplied goods for Jewish peddlers and for a growing number of established Jewish merchants in North Carolina small towns. Between 1840 and 1860, 48 North Carolina towns had a Jewish store. As the North Carolina Railroad pushed into the Piedmont, Jewish merchants followed.
In the following years, Jewish migration escalated. Rogoff confronts with candor some of the painful challenges Jews faced. He describes the complicated Jewish accommodation to slavery and the racial caste system that replaced it. He explains the difficulty Jews had in preserving their religious traditions in a society dominated by Christians.
He shows the tensions within the Jewish community between the orthodox religious views of newer immigrants from Eastern Europe and those whose more liberal views had been shaped by a long time of contact with American traditions. In more recent times, increasing numbers of Jews have moved from selling merchandise to manufacturing it - or to the professions and other businesses.
Rogoff tells with some pride the contributions of Jews and Jewish families to public service and their generosity to community, educational and charitable causes.
The Jewish experience in "down home" North Carolina has been something like the best business deal: good for both parties - very good for Jews and great for North Carolina.
So is Rogoff's book.
D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV's "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. This Sunday's (May 23) guest is Michael Malone, author of "The Four Corners of the Sky"
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