FINDING A JEWISH IDENTITY SOUTH OF THE MASON-DIXON LINE IN THE 1940s and 50s

March 2021 by Kelley Kidd Being Jewish is not for everyone and those who have loved Judaism have never claimed that their way of life was intended tor more than some people. I was neither raised as a Jew nor raised among Jews. Like most middle class white Southern boys in the 1940s and 50s I grew up with parents and associates who were Protestant Christians and politically quite conservative. Those who did know me when I was very young would not have been surprised if I had become a minister like my Uncle Bill, whose last pulpit was the First Baptist Church of Austin Texas. And no one would have been surprised either if I had followed a first cousin in a career in electoral politics. In those days that would have meant a brand of Southern evangelical political thinking that was “conservative” on all social and political issues. And that political conservatism implicitly rejected the notion that Jews were even fully American in the sense that my white Christian forebears had been.

Of course I became familiar through early reading with Jews, I never had a conversation with any Jew until I was in college, but I felt that I knew something about them from the Gospel of John’s references to their rejection of Jesus and their constant efforts to kill him, which the Gospel showed led ultimately to his unjust crucufiction. Then there were the far from admirable characters of Shakespeare’s Shylock and Dickens’ Fagan. More important than the negative portraits of literature was the obvious to me reality that white gentiles had created my beloved United States. White male gentile Christians had been creating and running America since they landed on Plymouth Rock. Phillip Roth once clearly summarized the megafact of WASP ownership of this country. Referring to the conditions prevailing in my infancy Roth writes from the standpoint of a Jew in that time:

” It went without saying that {a successful WASP farmer of the time] was a Christian, a long-standing member of the great overpowering majority that fought the Revolution and founded the nation and conquered the wilderness and subjugated the Indianand enslaver the Negro, one of the good, clean, hard-working Christian millions who settled the frontier, tilled the farms, built the cities, governed the states, sat in Congress, occupied the White House, amassed the wealth, possessed the land, owned the steel mills and the ball clubs and the railroads and the banks, even owned and oversaw the language, one of those unassailable Nordic and Anglo-Saxon Protestants who ran America and would always run it—generals, dignitaries ,magnates, tycoons, the men who laid down the law and called the shots….” pp.94-94, The Plot Against America (2004).

In my childhood white protestant patriotic churchgoers were almost certainly reinforced in their attitudes about Jews in part because the Jew, like every other minority group, counted for almost nothing in the patriotic history and politics and economic life of my country. They did not even weigh very much in my early learning about the Bible I was taught to believe was the foundation of my religion. I learned from the Gospel of Matthew to despise Pharisees, that group of religious leaders who Jesus often chastises for allegedly ignoring the important values of love and mercy, and hypocritically stressing unimportant if not downright ugly small strictures in “the law”. My adult relatives portrayed Jews as loud, tasteless, pushy, clannish and materialistic.

So absolutely nobody who knew me in my my youth would suspect that my favorite religion would be Judaism by the time I was 30 or that I would actually become a convert a few years later. Nobody, including me. The path to Judaism involved thought, study and some remarkable experiences. This posting is about the path of searching and finally finding Judaism as a spiritual path.

My introduction to Judaism came largely through that Bible my Baptist Mother taught me to revere. Of course that Bible did not contain the word Judaism, the Jewish scriptures were clearly labelled as Old Testament, which relegated those scriptures to the role of prologue to the New Testament, or possibly even implied that those scriptures were replaced by the latter testament. But they were also somehow sacred enough to be included in the great book. And some of the psalms, the Ten Commandments and passages allegedly predicting Jesus were all to be treated as holy and still to be followed. Other portions of the hebrew scriptures were touched upon lightly or ignored altogether. But I was of course learning from books written by jews for Jews. In my childhood that meant absorbing images of the characters, dramatic scenes and language of the King james Version of the Bible. Seventy percent of that “authorized version” was actually a pretty good translation of the Hebrew bible into seventeenth century English. Before i was four years old my mother had my twin brother and me standing on chairs to be seen by sitting adults, assembled to hear us recite poetry and answer questions from her careful instruction of us. We wee prodigies of learnin about the prevailing babtist views on what to know from and about the “Old Testament”. To this day I persist in feeling great graitude to her for that.

The Bible was taught as though it had all been written in the mind of God, then dictated to Christian scribes for the faithful believers in the Trinity and the salvation of belief in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Jews had been “God’s Chosen People” until Jesus preached the gospel my evangelical Mother pointed out to me for memorizing before I was five years old, the famous .John 3: 16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth is Him should not perish , but have everlasting life.” That verse was the most important teaching of my life for most of my childhood. Salvation from sin and eternal death were enclosed within it. And it was the repudiation of what I was taught had always been the mistaken doctrines of Catholics and the Jews, which i was to understand were trust in adherence to law and the doing of good works. We protestants followed this 3:16 preaching, which had come straight from Jesus and had been confirmed by the subsequent experience of real Christians from the disciple Peter and the apostle Paul straight through to the great preachers of my own time like Billy Graham and my favorite pulpit preachers.

But it was not even absolutely clear to me that the writers and subjects of the Old Testament were Jews until I was in grade school. Were the Israelites or the Hebrews all Jews or merely ancestors of the later Jews. the word Jew did not appear until the Gospel of John contained numerous references to “their rejection” of him and their efforts to kill him, efforts which were apparently successful when they pushed a reluctant Roman official to order his crucifixion. Years later I learned that the notion that the Jews killed Jesus became a widespread belief among Christians. in the early years of the christian faith. I did not hear my Christian teachers explicitly denounce that point of view.

And the limp and frequently blond haired blue eyed Jesus of typical depictions belied any motion that he in fact was a Jew himself. i saw no Jews who fit that description. instead both the living examples and frequently the visual depictions of Jews were curly haired and black eyed and usually had convex noses–features never shown of Jesus in the stained glass windows of my Father’s Methodist church sanctuary or the portraits hung in the Baptist churches my Mother preferred. The women were said to be scolders and the men grasping and entirely intent on taking as much money as possible for the sale of as little value as possible. The expression “Jew you down” referred to the real or imagined practice of the sme people as buyers; allegedly they haggled the seller to get the lowest possible price for something they wanted to buy. Hence Jews were the “money changers” were assumed to be the people referred to as profaning the temple by selling the animals required for sacrifice.

But perhaps the most often heard negative reference to Jews was the suggestion or insinuation that they were the opposite of “genteel”, a word with the obvious reference to the Christian meaning of “gentile” to mean a Christian or at least a non-Jew. The only explicitly Jewish characters i the literature I read outside the Bible were Fagan, the crook and exploiter of children in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and Shylock. the ruthless money lender who gets his just put down in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the offensive and whiny Jew in Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises, and Ben Hur, the prince of Judah who has the good fortune to become a Christian. Then in 1960 as i was going off to college, Phillip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus showed me a variety of irritating and decidedly ungenteel modern American Jews.

I suppose my first exposure to the idea that Jews were sometimes very positive and admirable came in a college Bible class. The teacher who handled my own breakout group was a Mehodist former Dean of Men at Emory, the beloved “Hebe” Reese. He was bald and bespeckled and gentle. And he was a lover of the Hebrew propets, hence his nickname. I never heard him referred to by any other. This same Hebe taught that Amos, Hosea and Micah and the first Isaiah all were sharply critical of the governments and ruling classes of their times. I emerged from that class with a new respect for the Judaic civilazation that had produced such social critics. Perhaps equally important was learning that this was the same people that produced the David who composed the 23d Psalm with its hymn to God as a constant comforter and protector. Sadly it did not teach that David and the prophets were all referring back to a covenant relationship between that people and a deity whose central commandments were about that people’s responsibility to love God and each other. I left that course still believing that it was Jesus who had given the world that view and been rejected by Jews for that view.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Jewishness that emerged from my Protestant belief system was the notion that God had decided that the faith in Jesus which would save those who believed in him would also damn to hell those who chose not to so believe, and the first and foremost of these nonbelievers wee the Jews. In fact the narrative of the Gospel of John often referred to “the Jews” as those seeking to kill Jesus throughout his ministry and succeeding in getting the Romans to do just that eventually. By rejecting their own scripture’s prediction of Jesus as their own “messiah”, they had also created a false narrative for others to follow. By continuing to treat their own scriptures in a legalistic and material manner, they had spurned spirituality and rejected the loving humility of the true Christian. No wonder then that they had become the founders ad practitioners of cutthroat capitalism and godless communism and socialism! They were also the authors of doctrines which “coddled” the lazy and defiant and degenerate types who constituted most of the “poor white trash” that leached off the good middle class citizens like my parents. And Jews constituted the backbone of the radicals who pushed those women and blacks who defied the praiseworthy efforts of decent white Christian men, that group which had written the Constitution and who rightfully and competently directed the direction of the American way of life. Some of these things were said openly and frequently. But all of them were evident in the makeup and policies of the community in which I grew up.

White male supremacy ruled the land, and that really meant rich white protestant man supremacy. It was impossible to miss the point that virtually all of the power and respect in the United States belonged to rich white protestant men. Law and history and custom and habit recognized just those as leaders and no one else. So any child born in Milledgeville Georgia whose Father fit that description was a fortunate one who would be nuts to want to belong to any other group except the one to which his birth entitled him.

And yet…

A child there was in the land of Georgia who was born a twin boy in a home not really a home at all. Mother fretted about the Father. Father we called daddy and Daddy drank too much always when he drank, and Mother scolded and feared he chased other women and sued for divorce long before nice middle class Southern folks did that sort of thing. And she must show in a court before a judge that he was unfit to be a husband, And she did that in the small town in which his family was prominent and where the boy and his brother were very young and frightened. the boy named for his Father’s Father loved the Mother, and the boy named for his Mother’s Father loved his Father. And the boy who loved his Father was me.

1 thought on “FINDING A JEWISH IDENTITY SOUTH OF THE MASON-DIXON LINE IN THE 1940s and 50s”

  1. Hey. Your posting here ends with saying that it is about searching and finding the path of Judaism. But it looks to me like you only cover some factors that made the search and finding improbable. So you should correct that in future postings by telling much more of this story. I do like what you have written so far.

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