Campus discussion focuses on Southern Jews

Release Date: 4/25/2006

Discussion inspired by student production of play that looks at Jews in the South

CLARKSVILLE, ARK. (April 25, 2006) – Being Jewish in the South was the focus of an April 24 campus conversation, as Ozarks students gathered to discuss issues raised in the play "The Last Night of Ballyhoo."

The story of an extended Jewish family in Atlanta, Georgia in December 1939, just as World War II has broken out in Europe, was performed by students for two nights in April.

Family matriarch Beulah "Boo" Levy seeks to assimilate into Southern society while maintaining her Jewish identity, pushing her daughter Lala to marry Peachy Weil, scion of a prominent -- and Jewish -- family from Louisiana.

"(Beulah) doesn't see Jewishness as a religion, but as a heritage,” said Ozarks Freshman Grace Harnish, who played Beulah. "For her, (Jewishness) is about keeping up appearances.” Beulah and Lala enthusiastically prepare for Ballyhoo, the “Jewish cotillion” that is the highlight of their social year.

Beulah’s attitude and events such as Ballyhoo epitomize the historical inner conflict of Jews in the South – to fit into “a place that is not Jewish,” while maintaining some of their Jewish identity, said Dr. James Moses, professor of American History at Arkansas Tech University.

Moses drew on his experience growing up Jewish in Shreveport, La., as well as his scholarly research as he talked with students about the themes brought out by the play. “Ballyhoo” was written by Alfred Uhry, who also explored themes around Southern Jews in his play “Driving Miss Daisy.”

Moses pointed out that many Southern Jews moved their weekly services from Friday evenings to Sundays, and replaced traditional chanting with organ music, among other changes, in reaction to anti-Semitism, as well as a desire to assimilate.

Beulah’s family prominently displays a Christmas tree – or “Hanukkah Bush”, as they refer to it, somewhat pejoratively – while distancing themselves from political issues revolving around Jews and the war in Europe.

"Jews want to avoid being seen as ‘the other’," said Moses. "At the same time, they have created an otherness within their group." In addition to embracing Peachy, who, like Beulah, has also discarded many of the outward practices of Judaism, Beulah disparages Joe Farkas, the newly hired employee of the family’s successful mattress and bedding business.

Joe is an “American Jew” while Peachy is an “American who happens to be Jewish,” said Moses. “There is a subtle difference.”

Not only does Joe maintain Jewish traditions and practices, as well as show an interest in news of the war, his family is originally from Eastern Europe, unlike Beulah and her family, who are of German descent.

German-descended Jews like Beulah’s family tended to be more financially prosperous and socially assimilated than Eastern European Jews, said Moses, and many of these more assimilated Jews looked down on Jews from Eastern Europe, who typically had arrived in the United States much more recently.

Like Beulah’s family, many Southern Jews established successful businesses, including numerous retail businesses, which can still be seen today in many communities in Arkansas, said Ozarks Theatre Professor Pat Farmer, who directed the play.

The discussion was the final event in the university sponsored Omega Series of lectures for the 2005-06 school year.