Last night, my book club discussed THE JEW STORE. Just the title of this book feels raw and startling to me. I expected a painful read. What I got was some pain and a whole lot of pleasure!
Aaron Bronson knew what to expect when he moved his Jewish family south to open a dry goods store. To buffer the racism, he changed his last name to Bronson. But mostly he simply showed up in "Concordia", Tennessee and was who he was - a born salesman! And yes, a Jew.
Folks in Concordia, Tennessee reacted with undisguised fascination and in some cases, ill-will. Here are two examples.
T. introduced the boy with him. He was another "cudden" one named Nathan, who was "near nineteen years old," and who, according to T, had "never see a Jew person in all his life." and despite T's insistence to the contrary, was convinced that Jews had horns.
"A YankeeJew merchant comes and turns First Street into a cutthroat place and pretty soon everybody in town is miserable."
Aaron Bronson was used to being discriminated against. In Russia the Kossacks had "tormented, chased, and attacked" him. After immigrating to New York the Bronsons were insulted and ignored. They could handle the south which, as it turned out, proved to be more friendly than not.
The Bronsons learned to eat southern foods, they made friends, and much to the horror of visiting aunts from New York, the children occasionally attended Sunday School.
Appalling, of course, but think about it. What was one family with three children with no other Jews for miles around supposed to do for a social life? How could they possibly remain kosher and celebrate Jewish holidays? How would their son be bar mitzvahed? And most important of all, who would the children marry?
I kept waiting for the KKK and the Great Depression to undo the Subermans. But the conflict didn't center around these external factors. Instead their greatest challenge was the question of how to maintain their Jewish identity.
Of all the books The Sojourner Truth Book Club has read and discussed, I think THE JEW STORE brought out the most personal sharing among us.
Two of us, who had moved South as Pennsylvania Mennonites, identified with the outsiderness of the Bronsons. Several African-Americans shared memories about Jewish families who treated them with more dignity, respect, and love than they'd ever received from any other white people. Another woman, a Gentile, planned to marry a Jewish boy but was not received by his family.
There's something for everyone in this book. Culture clash, unrequited love, humorous anecdotes, and a whole lot of heart. Read it, please!