Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina
Wednesday, Nov. 11, 7:30 p.m.
Griffith Film Theater, Duke Campus

There’s a telling moment partway through the new documentary Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina. Hannah Block, who at one time served as mayor pro tem of Wilmington, is remembering her days training girls to compete in local, state and national beauty pageants, including Jewish pageants, in the postwar decades.

“I trained girls because I wanted them to win. And believe me, I’ll tell you one thing, we worked like dogs.” Asked what was involved in training beauty queens, she leans in toward the camera and draws out her words in a thick Coastal Carolina patois. “You want to really know the truth? Teaching them the good old-fashioned Southern charm.”

Down Home is a charming corrective for those whose sole image of Southern Jews is of recent Sunbelt émigrés from the New York area. Aside from exceptions like the 1989 film Driving Miss Daisy or the 1997 novel The Color of Water, the Southern Jewish experience hasn’t received much attention in popular culture. But as the film shows, Jewish communities have been tightly woven into the fabric of the South, and of North Carolina, since the earliest days of European settlement.

Down Home is packed with colorful details about a tiny community (just 0.3% of North Carolina’s population) with a typically outsize presence. It’s an affectionate, upbeat portrait, and while it doesn’t exactly shy away from discussing anti-Semitism, examples of it are mentioned only in passing. By focusing on the American melting pot, Southern-style, rather than identity politics, it plays up a neighborly, open-hearted climate, as attested to by a slew of interview subjects.

The film itself has an interesting ethnic backstory. Funded by the Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina as a companion to Leonard Rogoff’s book of the same name, the project was entrusted to Steve Channing’s production company, Video Dialog. Lue Simopoulos, who is not Jewish (though she was married to a Jewish man, with whom she has a daughter), was chosen to direct. When she started on the project, Simopoulos, a first-generation Greek-American, noticed parallels to her own family’s immigrant experience. “The focus on family, on the food, on surviving in a strange place … that’s how I grew up,” she explains.

Channing thought Simopoulos’ non-Jewish perspective could help universalize elements of the story for wider audiences. He also thought it could help distinguish Down Home from other recent Southern Jewish documentaries, like Shalom Y’All and Delta Jews. He tapped her to produce as well as direct. Simopoulos worked with the cinematographer and editor Warren Gentry, a Lumberton native who brought another non-Jewish perspective. Simopoulos and Gentry were particularly curious, for example, about the preponderance of peddlers and scrap dealers among the state’s first Jewish settlers. These were trades they’d brought with them from the old country, scraping by on the economic margins with businesses that were self-sufficient and portable. These lines of work were a natural fit for the Tar Heel State, with its dispersed, small-farm economy. “They were probably the first recyclers of any substance in this country,” laughs one of the film’s interviewees, Jerry Sternberg, a scion of tanners and hide recyclers in Asheville.

“There was a whole population which really had to survive by collecting junk and doing something with it,” says Simopoulos. “Which is something Warren and I had never thought of. People who had grown up with these stories in their childhood said, ‘Why would we want to talk about that? We want to talk about our accomplishments and our philanthropy’ and all that. But Warren and I both felt like, this is a fascinating story, and most people don’t know this.”

By 1878, the film notes, Jews had taken up residence in almost 100 towns in North Carolina. Many had scaled up their trade from peddling to merchandizing, with shops on main streets across the state. These shops catered to all segments of society and were often located near or in black residential areas. Durham’s Hayti district, for example, was home to a number of small Jewish-owned stores up to the 1960s.

Toward the end of the film, Down Home brings many voices to bear on Jewish participation in the civil rights movement. Former Governor James B. Hunt Jr. credits UNC graduate and New York congressman Allard Lowenstein with opening his eyes to the injustice of segregation. Eli Evans, historian and author, tells of his father’s actions at the Durham department store he owned. When he was ordered by a sheriff to stop seating blacks at his lunch counter, E.J. “Mutt” Evans, six-term mayor of Durham, famously responded by removing the stools.

The complicated history of black-Jewish relations before, during and after the civil rights struggle is large enough to merit a documentary of its own. Down Home skims over certain uncomfortable points. For instance, it’s not mentioned that the first Iberian Jewish traders in the area were most likely engaged in the North Atlantic triangle slave trade. Jews fighting “with their Tar Heel brothers” in the Confederacy is presented in an entirely positive light, and the hiring of African-American housemaids and nannies is held up, perhaps unrealistically, as a sign of racial tolerance.

But the film makes it clear that involvement in the civil rights movement was a point of pride for many Jewish leaders in North Carolina. And interestingly, it shows that in the same way that Southern blacks and whites had more daily interactions with each other than in the North, despite official segregation, so too the Jews of North Carolina had more connection with their non-Jewish neighbors than did those in de facto segregated Northern cities. Muriel Kramer Offerman, the former N.C. secretary of revenue who grew up in Wallace (pop. 3,344), describes going off to college and finding herself in conversation with a fellow student from one of the urban Jewish strongholds in the North.

“As we talked, I realized that she had had none of the exposures to other religions, other people and their customs and their ways that I had grown up with,” she says. “I felt privileged in some ways to have grown up in a community in which I could share, that we shared with one another.” It’s a sentiment expressed often in Down Home and a message embodied by the film itself.

A Q&A with Channing, Simopoulos and Rogoff will follow the Wednesday night screening.