Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

North Carolina


To be born Jewish in Brooklyn, New York (June 14, 1922), was certainly not an unusual occurrence for those times. The odd part is that it labeled me as a native on my birth certificate, though South Carolina really held claim to me. The explanation lies with my mother. When on the brink of giving birth to her first child, my apprehensive young mother had returned home to her mother. Actually, my parents lived in my father's hometown of Bishopville, South Carolina, which boasted a population rarely reaching 3,000. With the closest hospital forty miles away, my mother opted for one in Brooklyn.

When I was about a month old, my mother took the long train ride south back to Bishopville with her squealing infant. During the 1920s, this small town contained a relatively large Jewish population of around thirty families. Approximately half the adults were Eastern European immigrants. To insure the availability of kosher meat, the group supported a shochet my mother used for killing our backyard-raised chickens, until my untraditional father used the excuse that he didn't like the taste of the meat. His attitude can possibly be traced to an early entrance into the Southern work force. There he quickly sloughed off most of the Orthodox beliefs of his childhood. Necessitated by the illness and death of his father, he had left school at the age of twelve to further the family's income.

Brother of Irene Schwartz,
Fairmont, North Carolina,
October 1944



Parents of Irene Schwartz,
Fairmont, North Carolina,
October 1944

My father was born in Manning, South Carolina, on December 3, 1894, the sixth child of eight. His parents, who both had traveled separately from Russia in 1876, met and married in New York City in 1884. After several years of wandering through the northeastern states, the family settled in South Carolina, supposedly to be near relatives. The final and permanent move found them in Bishopville, where the 1900 census lists my grandfa­ther as a merchant and jeweler. My father called him a watchmaker, which was not an unusual occupation among the wave of Jewish immigrants entering this country.

Three of my father's older sisters married immigrant Jewish peddlers, two of whom opened stores in Bishopville. His oldest sister married a non­Jew (but never converted) and lived in a nearby town. My father's older brother also married a non-Jew but converted to Protestantism. He eventually became a lawyer with the financial aid provided by his father-in-law.

After my father's mother's death--both his parents died in their forties--his married sisters provided varied jobs for him from railroad work to clerking in their stores. All took place within the surrounding area. By being nurtured in the South, my father pledged his allegiance to the South and there practiced his distinct form of Judaism.

My mother, on the other hand, came from a stable, liberal Orthodox family with close ties binding the eight children. By 1905, my grandfather and three of his older children had immigrated from Russia to America. In 1906, he returned to Russia to bring Grandmother and the remaining four children to New York City. One newly married daughter preferred to stay behind. My mother, third from the youngest (born in 1902) must have been four or five years old at the time. She was always hesitant to admit being foreign born. I did not learn of it until I was around fifteen, for her accent held only that of the velvet, mellow tones of the south. None of the accents from her homes on the east side of New York and Brooklyn remained. They could have been erased during her father's two farming endeavors when, as a child, she attended a one-room schoolhouse in the Catskill Mountains, or later, as a young adult, in Connecticut.

Now a married man with two children (my brother, David, having been born in 1925), my father needed to advance from his job as a salesman in his brother-in-law's store. Our family moved in June, 1929, to Fairmont, North Carolina, just months prior to the cataclysm of Black Thursday. My father bought out a clothing store in this town that was similar in size to Bishopville; Fairmont thrived as a tobacco market rather than one depen­dent on cotton. Before our move, my mother's three brothers had all settled in Columbia, South Carolina, sixty miles from Bishopville. Our subsequent transfer a hundred miles north snatched us away from a warm assortment of numerous relatives to the sterility of strangers.

Three other Jewish families lived in Fairmont. All owned clothing stores, and all were uncivilly competitive. Only two children, much older than my brother and myself, formed the town's Jewish youth. The group did not increase until my high school years, when a family that included five children of various ages settled here. Previously, for a short period, a Jewish family with adult children attempted to establish a small overalls factory.

As the Great Depression set in, the businesses of my uncles in Bishopville failed. With my exceptionally beautiful mother working side-by-side with my father in their store, somehow they managed to persevere. My father's geniality and business acumen may have greatly contributed. When the tobacco season arrived, lasting only a scant three months of late summer, the population doubled, with the influx of workers and street hawkers. The dormant town's tempo quickly changed into vibrating allegro. As the harvested crops sold in the town's vast warehouses, bills of green surfaced. The rest of the year people used credit, with the farm owner standing good for his tenant farmer's purchases. Bartering also took place, as a pound of butter or a live chicken created an exchange for a few yards of cloth or a pair of bib overalls.

A nearby town had a seasonal strawberry market in the early spring. During that limited time, my father opened a store there to enable one of his brothers-in-law to earn enough money to begin a new business. I remember my mother bringing home crates of the berries to make jam that would last throughout the winter. In all, the small town's stores sprouted, blossomed, and withered following nature's cycle of each seasonal crop.

When my father's brother, the lawyer, ended up with only nonpaying clients, he appealed to my father. To create additional income for families, my father bought out a bankrupt clothing store in my uncle's small upstate town. My aunt ran the business, leaving my uncle free to concentrate on his practice.

Of the towns surrounding Fairmont, most claimed equal or less comparative population. Only one town ten miles away, Lumberton, the county seat, boasted numbers that doubled those of our town. Of the possibly ten Jewish families living there, practically all were related. On the High Holy Days, Orthodox services were held in a tiny, drab, wooden synagogue. Rather than attend services among these inhospitable members, my parents returned to worship in Bishopville among relatives and friends. By this period of the Depression, the middle 1930s, its Jewish community had dwindled and scattered to opt for more lucrative locations. The area's cotton crop now earned merely pennies to the pound.

The only synagogue I remember in Bishopville was a huge rented room where the Elks Club normally held their meetings. It sat over a Main Street drug store where, occasionally, a worshiper would slip down for a Coca-Cola. An imported Orthodox rabbi from a northern city came yearly to to this space. He simply conducted the services, perhaps never to return again.

Although these Holidays tended to arrive during the height of our tobacco season, my father always kept his store closed from sundown to sundown to observe one day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A sign in the window explained: "Closed in Observance of Religious Holiday." The church-oriented community graciously accepted the reason and waited. Upon opening the store's doors at sundown, the tide of patient custome surged inside to shop with "Mister Harry."

Aware of her children growing up in a community without close Jewish contact, my mother relied wholly on whatever creative measures she could produce. She bought Bible stories for us to read and ordered a subscription to "Young Israel," a children's monthly magazine. To combat the fundamentalist Christian religion surrounding us, she taught us to includ the Shema in our nightly prayers.

On Friday nights, the candles were always lit. Although we did not keep a kosher home, Passover transformed it. Months in advance, my mother ordered the special foods to be sent from Baltimore. Another set of pots and pans and dishes came out of storage. Despite permission to eat outside the house, we were asked to abstain from leavened foods.

When my maternal grandmother visited us, then a widow and living with a daughter in Brooklyn, separate cooking and eating utensils appeared for her. Kosher meat came in from Fayetteville, forty-five miles away. While staying with us, Grandmother always prepared delectable Jewish dishes. The teiglech, sweet with honey and freshly made noodles, endeared her to me; yet, conversation with her always remained difficult. Despite her twenty-six years in America, her English remained heavily accented and I understood only a minimum of Yiddish phrases.

Upon reaching eleven years old, although I had visited cousins in Bishopville during summer vacations, my mother sensed the need to send me for a month's visit to her twin sister's in Brooklyn. There I could be exposed not only to Jewish city life, but to the museums and sights that offered educational enhancement. I reveled in it and begged to return, which I did nearly every other summer.

By the time my brother reached twelve, a decision had to be made for his Bar Mitzvah. Since he rejected anything related to an Orthodox ceremony, my parents contacted Rabbi Mordecai Thurman of the Reform temple in Wilmington, North Carolina. For over six months, the rabbi traveled a hundred miles once a week to instruct my brother. He often had to stay overnight in our home. The ceremony was held in our living room, as well as the following celebration (composed of a Thanksgiving Day dinner) for all attending relatives and friends.

Though indelibly stamped with my mother's instructive Judaism, my brother and I found no barriers raised by our parents for intermingling with the community. Quite the opposite happened. They encouraged us to culti­vate friendships and to participate in all available activities. To keep me occupied during the sweltering summers when I was very young, I was allowed to attend the Baptist Vacation Bible School for a week or so. This lasted only until exchange visits between South Carolina cousins could be set up.

The church school's scheduled activities varied, and included, for example, a sewing class. One firmly fixed period did consist of Bible study, with an emphasis on the New Testament. This affected me little since I had been similarly exposed in grade school. Once a week our entire all-white school body, housed in one three-story building, attended morning chapel services in the auditorium. The superintendent read various portions from the Bible. It ended with the singing of selections from our school song book. Many times he chose the Christian hymns. Two other separate schools existed in different parts of town, one for the black and one for the Croat (Indian) children.

When older, as a member of the high school choir, I became a part of the early morning Christmas caroling groups, and duly memorized complete verses of each song. My mother had no objection. She thought the music quite beautiful. The words were irrelevant. Yet no Christmas tree or decorations pertaining to that season appeared in our home. I was told to explain that our "tree" stood in our store's window. When my brother I were young children, Santa Claus did climb down our chimney and leave gifts. My parents felt that the receiving of gifts in this non-religious manner gave us joy and created a bond with our peers. They reasoned that by not participating we would have built a wall separating us as curiosities within the community.

Being one of the leading merchants in town, my father became quite active in the community. He sat on the school board, participated as a member of the Chamber of Commerce, and held a term as president of the local Rotary Club. One of his greatest daily pleasures, after opening his store was to dash over to his friend's cafe to eat breakfast with his cronies. Normally a man churning with nervous energy, he could for this one hour relax during their exchange of friendly banter. However, when asked to run for town mayor, he declined. To his family he explained, "I have never encountered outright anti-Semitism here, and if there is such in the community, I would rather not know about it."

Possibly he recalled the experience that his brother, the Baptist converted lawyer, confronted when running for judge in his home town. Despite being a deacon in the church to which his entire family belonged, my uncle found himself branded as a Jew. He had stubbornly retained the family name of Levinson. That could have been the detriment.

My mother never did feel the same closeness to the town as my father. Although she had friends and became active in the "Women's Club," she was never invited into their so-called exclusive "literary club." Not a typical homebody, she could be ready to travel at a moment's notice. Visits were constantly exchanged between both sets of family relatives--north and south.

My brother and I, despite having experienced a few isolated anti­Semitic remarks, always felt genuinely accepted into the town's society. In school, we held numerous elected class offices. We were also chosen by the faculty for honorary positions. For example, I was selected twice in high school as an attendant to the Queen in the school's annual May Day Court festivities. Summers always included invitations to be a part of house parties held at nearby lakes and beaches--all fully chaperoned. The only exclusions surfaced when the youth activities stemmed from groups within the church.

There was one unforgettable and puzzling incident that happened to me around my first year of high school. Because this classmate, Vera (not her real name), lived across the street, we tended to be fairly friendly. One day a close friend ran up to me and repeated an overheard conversation of Vera's. It included numerous anti-Semitic slurs directed at me. I felt shattered. My loyal friends ostracized Vera from our social group. She remained, thereafter, relegated to a lower one. Even in very small towns, caste systems do exist.

Upon entering that inevitable stage of adolescence--and encouraged by our parents--my brother and I dated our Protestant peers. Hormones dictating, we fell in love with several and had the favors returned. My first crush was the Methodist preacher's son. His family offered no objections. A later infatuation of mine sported the last name of O'Brien.

Those particular years held me focused almost wholly on the emerging "self." The impact of the Holocaust in Germany existed merely along the periphery of that egocentric core. Although the extent of the inhuman practices of the concentration camps were yet unknown to us, our family spoke of hatred for Germany. We boycotted all goods from there. I remember my mother and her sisters wondering about the fate of their older sister, Pesha, who chose to remain behind when the rest of the family emigrated to America. At the time of Hitler's invasion of Poland, she was widowed and lived with her children in a small town near the Polish-Russian border. Correspondence from Pesha halted in 1939. Despite our family's search following World War II, which stretched as far as Israel, the fate of Pesha and her children remained a mystery. Within the past year, by using the address from one of my aunt's last letters, I did a bit of research at the Hebrew Union College Library. There I found a mention of Pesha's town which stated that all the town's Jews had been shot by the Germans. Could one family member have escaped? I will continue the search.

In the late 1930s, my home town, busily pulling itself out of the Depression, appeared unaware of the dire events in Europe. To illustrate, I recall a conversation that I, as a high school senior, had with my O'Brien boyfriend. He spoke of trips we could take. He described his favorite one that included the beauty of specific mountains in Germany. I knew that this was a land I could not enter: I did not enlighten him. I merely let him continue to rhapsodize.

Just as we accepted college as part of an inevitable future plan presented by our parents, so too was marriage to Jewish partners. Neither my brother nor I harbored any opposing thoughts. We both graduated fron college and afterward married within our faith. Of all my first cousins raised Jewish on both sides of the family, only two (both males) married non-Jews. Sadly, amidst our present generation, intermarriage has become more prevalent.

About the first year or so following World War II, a unique situation developed that banded together a group of scattered small-town merchants. With the struggles of the Depression extinguished by prosperous times, these men contemplated building a second home--a vacation "cottage." My father bought a lot and joined the other families at relatively close North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Our "cottage" became a reality in 1947. Quickly, a small Jewish enclave burgeoned in part of what was then called the Ocean Forest Section. This area carried the name of the stately hotel that, at the time, stood in the center of spacious grounds on Front Beach. While this newly formed social group of summer wives and families sunbathed, swam, and held afternoon bridge parties, husbands commuted--some on weekends and some daily.

We sold the "cottage" around 1960. My father had died, and my mother's health was only fair. Neither child wished to maintain it. Similar circumstances occurred within other Jewish families that owned beach home there. By this time, world travel was preferred for summer vacations. The second generation differed in their lifestyle. That limited, distinct entity of little more than two rows of Jewish owned cottages dissolved as each house sold. Front-row condominiums now blot the ocean's view.

My brother and his bride from New York settled in Fairmont. David worked with my father and inherited the business upon my father's death. Here he and his wife raised two sons. During those years, a small but inviting synagogue was built in Lumberton, the county seat, ten short miles away. It served a number of the surrounding small towns with services conducted by the circuit-riding rabbi. Both my nephews had their Bar Mitzvahs there. By joining the youth group of the B'nai B'rith chapter, the boys maintained contact with the young people of the Carolinas. As the only Jewish students, they attended the local integrated public school-­black, white, and Indian--in modern structures that housed each of the three different educational levels. A Christian, all-white private school was formed for those who preferred to be segregated. It attracted only a small percentage. Ironically, today the mayor of the town is black.

Advanced methods for tobacco warehouse sales and its accounting system (in addition to the Surgeon General's message) have eliminated the carnival atmosphere of Fairmont's past years. The months of the tobacco season now barely raise a ripple in the town's daily life.

My husband is also from a very small town, but in Ohio; however, his family background differs considerably from mine. We married during World War II while he was in training as a navigator for the B-17 plane. Following the war, we settled in Cincinnati and became quite active in our temple and Jewish organizations. Our three daughters were confirmed and two are married to Jewish men. The third is divorced. Occasionally, I visit a close friend and old classmate in Fairmont. I don't know of a single Jewish family living there now.

After my brother's untimely death, his widow sold his business and moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where she and her two sons live. In Lumberton, the Jewish population, despite the growth of the town, has dwindled to the point that the synagogue is presently, but not permanently, closed. Young Jewish families--the majority being professionals--have departed for larger cities, seeking greater opportunities.

With that generation's exodus from the small towns, we of the scattered, older generation are left only with poignant home-town memories. Without hesitation, I can pluck out one that I will always cherish. It concerns the town's heartfelt response at the time of my father's death. His funeral was held in the local funeral home and conducted by the Reform rabbi from Sumter, South Carolina. With no casket available bearing a Jewish symbol, his closest friend, Ivanhoe Campbell, stayed up most of the previous night in his workshop carving a Star of David that was attached to the exterior of my father's casket. Following the service, the funeral cession drove slowly through Main Street on its way to the little Jewish cemetery outside Sumter. All stores stood closed, showing deferential respect during the hour of my father's funeral. He lies buried next to graves of his sisters and their families. My mother rests beside him, and protective branches of tall, ancient trees hover over them.

Nostalgia tends to evoke sentimental and affirmative memories, while often erasing the negative ones. Growing up in my town was not perfect, but it permanently exists as the background for this, my only life.





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