We caught up recently with Dr. Deborah Weiner, author of “Coalfield Jews: An Appalachian History.” Central Appalachia’s coalfields were home to thousands of Jews between the 1880s and 1950s. Dr. Weiner, research historian and family history coordinator at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, tells their story meticulously and movingly. Her book has been awarded the Southern Jewish Historical Society’s Book Prize; it was selected for the top prize from among 11 books published during 2003-06 throughout the nation.
APP HIST: The proportion of Eastern European Jews in your study area of Appalachia is dramatically high compared to, say, the German Jewish population. Baltimore wholesaler Jacob Epstein is a key linchpin in why that is. Can you discuss his role briefly?
Jacob Epstein came from Lithuania as a teenager and started out as a peddler. Before he was 20, he had earned enough to open a dry goods store in Baltimore, the Baltimore Bargain House. He decided to focus on wholesaling instead of retailing, because he saw great potential in selling to peddlers and small shopkeepers rather than selling directly to consumers.
Epstein was a commercial genius — he advised peddlers to go out to areas that were attracting new industries, because he knew that that these areas would have a growing population and a growing need for consumer goods. So he sent many of his fellow Jewish immigrants out on the new rail lines that had just been completed into the coalfields. They began to arrive just as the first shipments of coal were going out, so they were really there at the dawn of the coal boom.
Many of the peddlers Epstein sent out decided to settle in the coalfields and open stores. They became the founding members of the Jewish communities that developed in southern West Virginia. So when people ask, how did Jewish immigrants manage to find their way into the mountains? I point to people like Jacob Epstein as my first answer. Once the “pioneer” peddlers settled down, they sent for their relatives, and Jewish communities grew from there.
APP HIST: ‘Coalfield Jews’ offers a very precise focus on the life and times of 3 generations of small town Jews in 11 counties in central Appalachia. You mention only in passing the existence of the region’s larger Jewish communities in Charleston, Knoxville and Chattanooga, and leave the thriving Jewish community centered around Asheville out of the discussion altogether. Why did you choose the narrower emphasis?
WEINER: Appalachia is a diverse place and needs to be examined as such. Jewish life in a town like Logan, West Virginia, was not the same as Jewish life in Charleston or Asheville—both of which were (and are) quite different from each other. So you can’t really generalize about “Jews in Appalachia.” Well you can, but you would probably end up over-simplifying things.
I suppose I could have compared the Jewish experience in Appalachian cities to their experience in smaller Appalachian towns, and pointed out the differences, but that would have been another sort of book entirely. I wanted to explore one particular sub-region in depth, because it enabled me to investigate a variety of issues in detail, rather than paint broad brush strokes.
I chose to focus on the southern coalfields because I find this particular part of Appalachia fascinating: the diverse mix of people that gathered in mining towns in the early 20th century, the boomtown environment, the domination of a single industry. By delving into how Jewish immigrants navigated this environment, I was able to look at a bunch of issues in depth. For example, how did Jews—who were merchants and had little to do with coal mining—interact with the coal economy? This led me to a discussion of how independent merchants competed with company stores.
I also was able to take a close look at how Jews fit into the social scene, which tended to have a rigid class structure imposed by the coal industry, combined with a multicultural atmosphere that tolerated diversity to a pretty amazing degree.
Limiting my study to the coalfields allowed me to draw connections outside the Appalachian region—to boomtowns around the world, to mining regions around the world. These kinds of places have been important to Jews in the diaspora, so the book sheds light on a particular kind of Jewish experience. At the same time, it provides a bit of an international perspective on Appalachia, even while dealing with the nitty-gritty details of life in these small towns.
That was an excellent question–it sort of gets to the heart of what I was
trying to do.
APP HIST: Thanks so much for joining us today!