The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Jewish Literature of the American Confederacy

This lecture explores the understudied literature of Jewish Confederates during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, established Sephardic Jews—and later Ashkenazic Jews immigrating from Prussia and Eastern Europe—built strong communities in Southern cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, Richmond, Virginia and New Orleans, Louisiana. As a tiny religious minority, Southern Jews participated, to various degrees, in the full range of the African slave trade, and would later fight for secession from the United States by joining the Confederate armed forces. During and after the war, Southern Jewish men and women such as Penina Moïse, Alroy James, Octavia Harby Levy, and Thomas Cooper de Leon detailed their experiences and political convictions in poetry printed in Southern newspapers, memoires, and even historical novels glorifying a nostalgic image of the Old South. How does the contemporary Jewish Studies scholar approach the challenging and ironic position of slave-supporting Jews fighting on the wrong side of history? Although arguably less popular than the history of Northern Jews who supported the Union and later advocated for a pluralist vision of America, the literature of Jewish Confederates provides an important contextual history into how nineteenth-century Jews saw themselves contributing to Southern culture, demonstrating their allegiance through military sacrifice, and constructing a particular American identity premised on the concept of a Southern homeland.