Eli Evans, ‘poet laureate’ of Southern Jews, dies at 85

Eli N. Evans, an author and memoirist who explored through the lens of his family the history of the Jews of the American South – a population called the Dixie Diaspora – died July 26 in a New York hospital. He was 85 years old.

The cause was complications from covid-19, said his son, Josh Evans.

Mr. Evans was a Yale-educated lawyer who made his professional life in Washington, as a speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson, and later in New York, where he served as president of the Charles H. Revson, a philanthropic organization where he was president from 1977 to 2003.

But his heart remained forever planted in the South. He was born in North Carolina to one of many Jewish families whose stories have often been overlooked among the best-known accounts of immigrants who escaped pogroms and persecution in Europe and rebuilt their lives in the north. -is American. Mr. Evans recorded these untold stories in “The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South,” a book first published in 1973 and reprinted in 1997 and 2005.

“The Jews of the South have found their Poet Laureate,” Israeli statesman and diplomat Abba Eban reportedly said of Mr Evans.

He described the Jewish South as “my Yoknapatawpha,” a reference to the fictional county of Mississippi that was the setting for many of William Faulkner’s greatest works. In “The Provincials”, Mr. Evans evoked the South as he, his parents, his grandparents and generations of Jews before them had known it, weaving autobiography and history to produce a seminal text of the history of the Jews in the Southern United States.

It “explores the nuances of Southern Jewish identity,” a New York Jewish Week writer once observed, “and belongs in the library alongside Irving Howe’s classic ‘World of Our Fathers,’ the seminal 1976 history of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. in the USA.

These Eastern European immigrants included Mr. Evans’ paternal grandfather, who arrived in New York from Lithuania in the late 19th century at the age of 9. As a young man, he found work in the city’s garment district, but grew weary of the work and took a train. en route to Florida. When the train stopped in Fayetteville, North Carolina, he learned that a fire was raging downtown and got off to help fight the flames. The train departed without him, leaving him to start a new life for himself and his descendants in the South.

Mr. Evans’ father, EJ “Mutt” Evans, became the owner of a successful general store chain, Evans United Dollar, which reportedly offered one of the city’s first integrated food outlets, and was voted first Jewish mayor. of Durham, holding the office from 1951 to 1963. An uncle served as mayor of Fayetteville. Mr Evans’ mother, the former Sara Nachamson, was a civic leader known, according to the family, as “the southern accent of Hadassah”.

Mr. Evans presented his family as proof that “Southern Jews are not strangers in the Promised Land, as some would have you believe,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1997, but rather “part of the bone and marrow of the place.”

To write his book, he traveled his family’s history and 7,000 miles from Virginia to Texas, interviewing not only “Jews of all ages but also black ministers and activists, Klansmen and orderlies. posts, farmers, churchwomen and postmasters”. who shared their world.

Calvin Trillin, a humorist and editor for The New Yorker magazine who has written about the arrival of his ancestors from Eastern Europe to the United States through the port of Galveston, Texas, said in an interview that the book by Mr Evans “made a big splash”. difference in trying to understand my family history.

“Like a lot of people in this environment,” he added, “my knowledge of my family kind of stopped at the water’s edge.”

Mr. Evans recounted times in his life when he felt distinctly like an outsider, such as one summer night when he found himself swept up in the fervor of revival amidst believers proclaiming they had been “saved”, or the time in sixth grade when a teacher gave him the role of Joseph in the annual Christmas pageant.

It was a choice role, but “I knew straight away I couldn’t get through something so close to nursery,” Mr Evans wrote. When he explained his reservations, he was recast (or rather “typed,” he wrote) as a tax collector, “King Herod’s heartless representative.”

Anti-Semitism was real in the South, but so was philo-Semitism, Mr. Evans wrote. There were farmers, he recalls, who saw the Jews as God’s chosen people and asked his grandfather to bless their children in Hebrew. The grandfather obliged by singing “a beautiful brakha in his best tenor,” Mr. Evans wrote, “just as on the Caruso records he owned.

Such was the nature of Jewish life in the South, Mr. Evans wrote, that when a Christian friend tried to convert him, he took no offense. The boy was “worried about what was going to happen to my soul”, Mr Evans said. “It was kind of endearing: I was his friend and he was worried about me. Northern Jews find that kind of stuff threatening. Southern Jews don’t usually find it that threatening.

He did not consider himself a “Jew of the South”, but rather a “Jew of the South”, one who had “inherited the Jewish desire for a homeland”, he writes, “while being brought up with a sense of home of the Southerner”.

Eli Nachamson Evans was born in Durham on July 28, 1936. According to family tradition, Evans was an anglicised form of the family’s original surname, the Hebrew word for “stonecutter”.

Mr Evans said his parents taught him to be proud of his Jewish identity. He recalled that his father, while running for office, announced his leadership in the local synagogue because Southern voters respected involvement in his house of worship. As mayor, he is credited with the leading role in the desegregation of Durham in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Mr. Evans earned a bachelor’s degree in 1958 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he served as student body president. He served in the Navy before enrolling at Yale University, where he earned a law degree in 1963.

After law school, Mr. Evans spent about a year working for the Johnson administration. He moved to New York in the late 1960s to become a program director at the Carnegie Corporation, a philanthropic fund where he worked until joining the Revson Foundation. Under his leadership, the organization awarded grants for urban, educational, and biomedical programs as well as for Jewish causes. He helped fund the 1984 public television production “Legacy: Civilization and the Jews” and “Rechov Sumsum,” an Israeli production of the children’s program “Sesame Street” which sought to promote Jewish-Arab relations.

In North Carolina, Mr. Evans helped found the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was inducted in 2001 into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

After moving to New York, Mr. Evans met Judith London, a fellow Southern Jew who had grown up in an Orthodox home in Montgomery, Ala. They married in 1981. When their son was born, Mr. Evans brought a vial of North Carolina Dirt to the delivery room.

“With one hand I held Judith’s hand, and with the other I gripped the soil of the South”, he wrote in “Les Provinciaux”. “I wanted him to know his roots and I believe in starting early to create family legends.”

Judith London Evans died in 2008. Their son, from New York, is the sole immediate survivor of Mr Evans.

In addition to his memoirs, Mr. Evans has written two other books exploring the history of Southern Jews. These volumes included a 1988 biography of Judah P. Benjamin, who served as Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State for the Confederacy, and the collection of essays “The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner ” (1993).

“A Southern Jew”, Mr. Evans once ironically noticed in the New York Times“always teach”.

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