For more than 135 years, Jews living in and around Knoxville, Tennessee, have maintained the rituals that define them as a separate people, even as they managed to blend quietly with their Christian neighbors. Surprisingly, the Jews of this area have often wielded an influence on local affairs that far outweighed their tiny numbers.
Wendy Lowe Besmann paints a vivid portrait of this small community, showing the complex bonds of kinship, ethics, and culture that unite its many intriguing characters. Using interviews and documentary sources, she describes how successive waves of immigrants have adapted to East Tennessee, gradually evolving from a close-knit society of peddlers and merchants into a geographically diverse community of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and university professors.
Here are the stories of a Knoxville newsboy who built the New York Times into the nation's leading newspaper; a quiet record-store owner who helped make Elvis a star; and a man with political connections who told FDR what to call the New Deal. Here are the belles of Purim balls at the old Knoxville Jewish Community Center and the basketball heroes who dashed down the court with the Star of David emblazoned on their jerseys. Here are the northern businessmen who came south to create a furniture industry in nearby Morristown and the young Jewish scientists who poured into Oak Ridge for the top-secret Manhattan Project of World War II. Here are the wheeler-dealers who made fortunes and the struggling shopkeepers who raised their children to be affluent Jewish professionals.
With broad historical sweep, Besmann places this local story in the larger context of American industrial expansion, urbanmigration, and the emerging importance of southern university towns. She examines the forces of social exclusion that encouraged local Jews to become a "separate circle" as well as the rapid postwar changes that dissolved such barriers. The result is a vibrant, fast-moving narrati