Museum tells story of N.C. Jews

Staff WriterJune 14, 2010 

Many stories about Jewish history end sadly.

Not this one.

The N.C. Museum of History's exhibit of Jewish life in North Carolina is an immigrant tale with a happy ending: European families settle in the South, work hard, rear children, fight for educational opportunities and thrive.

While not a comprehensive history, the exhibit, "Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina," is the first of its kind, a celebration of a minority culture coming of age alongside the state's overwhelming Protestant majority.

Although Jews settled across the South, and other Southern states, notably South Carolina and Georgia, have synagogues dating back far earlier, North Carolina's Jewish community is finally getting its due. A documentary on the state's Jews aired last week on public television, and a school curriculum has now been developed.

In three rooms on the first floor of the museum, the exhibit conveys the essentials of Jewish life, vignette-style, with life-sized models of a Jewish peddler, a Jewish five- and-dime, a Jewish kitchen.

At Sunday night's opening, hundreds of Jews from across the state came to hear Susan Stamberg of National Public Radio talk about the joys of museum-going. Later, they watched former Gov. Jim Hunt cut the ribbon to the exhibit and noshed on pita bread and hummus.

"It was not always assumed North Carolina had a Jewish history or that it was significant," said Leonard Rogoff, exhibit curator and the author of a companion book published by UNC Press. "But we found it, and it dates back to 1585."

The history on display here begins in the late 1800s, when East European Jews were lured South by the owner of a Baltimore dry goods warehouse who sent his agents to the docks to meet immigrant Jews and offer them work peddling his wares in emerging manufacturing towns in the South.

Many of those peddlers eventually made a home in North Carolina, trading their wagons for stores. Some started chains such as Family Dollar and Pic 'n Pay Shoes. A few, such as Cones of Greensboro or the Blumenthals of Charlotte, built factories and assembly plants for denim, radiators, rubber parts and household chemicals.

From faith to food

The exhibit, which officially opens today, is intended to teach non-Jews about their neighbors, and it does so with religious artifacts such as prayer books, yarmulkes and a shofar, or ram's horn. But its most engaging section may be a recreated Jewish kitchen with a 1950s refrigerator visitors can open and a pot of matzo ball soup on the stovetop. On the countertop, visitors can practice braiding challah bread.

Of course, Jewish life here was not always rosy. In the 1930s and 1940s, Duke University had a 3 percent Jewish quota. Fraternities and sororities were segregated along religious lines. Davidson College, a Presbyterian school, denied a faculty post to a political science professor because of his faith.

But in time, most of these constraints were eliminated. In 1988 and 1994, Jewish residents of North Carolina won Nobel prizes for work in the sciences, though neither Gertrude Elion nor Martin Rodbell was born here.

"It was a great place to grow up," said Muriel K. Offerman, 74, former secretary of revenue under Hunt, who was born in the Duplin County town of Wallace. "Our Jewishness was not a problem."

Offerman remembers inviting her non-Jewish girlfriends Saturday mornings to her synagogue and attending the Presbyterian League Sunday nights at their churches.

'The Carolina Israelite'

No exhibit of Jewish life in North Carolina would be complete without mention of writer and raconteur Harry Golden. A former stockbroker, Golden moved to Charlotte in 1941 and began publishing "The Carolina Israelite," which became a platform for his civil rights advocacy. He is probably best known for his "Vertical Negro Plan," in which he recommended eliminating chairs to solve the problem of segregation. (Southern whites didn't mind standing with blacks, but they didn't want to sit down alongside them.) The exhibit contains four video clips of Golden, who died in 1981.

"We wanted to make it accessible so people could relate to it on a personal level," said Henry Greene of Durham, president of the Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina, which sponsored the exhibit.

Sue Sandlin-Plaehn, who is not Jewish but attended the opening, said the exhibit succeeded in doing that.

"The more you learn about other religious outlooks," she said, "the more you broaden your own soul."

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891

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