Jewish family in Charleston, c. 1900
A Jewish family in Charleston, circa 1900.
(Photo courtesy of B'nai Jacob Synagogue, Charleston)

Righteous Remnant:
Jewish Survival in
Appalachia


(Page 2)

by
Maryanne Reed
West Virginia University


     Professor Reed observes that when she first conceived of the film, she had "a vision of doing this story about small pockets of prejudice and ignorance." Given the state's rural and conservative Christian heritage, she anticipated that her research would reveal Jewish communities "living in a state of siege." What she discovered was that for most part, Jews in West Virginia faced little organized anti-Semitism. While the Ku Klux Klan held rallies and marches throughout the state during the 1920s, the organization never posed much of a threat to the relatively small Jewish population. Many Jews did, in fact, successfully integrate themselves into the communities where they lived. Gentile West Virginians accepted their Jewish neighbors as contributing members of their communities, and in some cases even welcomed them as exotic outsiders. Reed notes that while researching the project, she learned about the birth of the first Jewish baby in one West Virginia coal town. People traveled to the family's home from miles away to see what a Jewish baby looked like. The local folk were curious but apparently not disrespectul to the Jewish family.

Jewish West Virginians enjoy a family meal, circa 1900
Jewish West Virginians share a family meal, circa 1900.
(Photo courtesy of B'nai Jacob Synagogue, Charleston)
     Moreover, Reed discovered that many Appalachian Jews maintained an unusually close relationship with their Christian neighbors. The state's strong conservative and Fundamentalist Christian traditions, with their reverence for the Hebrew scriptures, helped cultivate an unusually high level of cooperation between West Virginia Gentiles and Jews. This cooperative spirit can still be witnessed today. In the southern community of Beckley, for example, nearly half the synagogue's congregation on the High Holy Days is Christian. It is somewhat ironic that in the southern part of the state, the region that is most stereotypically Appalachian, one encounters a culture that welcomes its Jewish citizens. Southern West Virginia is a region frequently described as clannish and hostile to outsiders, and yet in reality Jews and other immigrants were generally welcomed into the communities located there.




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