Review | My
Father's People: A Family of Southern Jews,
If Louis D. Rubin, Jr. wears a cultural mantle, it is as Dean of Southern Literature. As a teacher at Hollins College, he mentored the careers of such writers as Annie Dillard and Lee Smith. As the founder of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, he nourished new talents like Larry Brown, Kaye Gibbons, Clyde Edgerton, and Jill McCorkle. As critic, he has written or edited seminal works that defined a Southern Renascence, a term that he helped coin. His essays on fishing, boating, and baseball reflect the interests of an ethnic Southerner.
One label that he has not worn is "Jewish writer."
In My Father's People: A Family of Southern Jewshis fifty-second bookRubin returns to his origins. Not that he has ever been abashed about the subject. In several scholarly introductions, he notes how being a Jew has given him an oblique perspective on the South, a place that he does not take for granted. His novels The Surfaces of a Diamond and The Golden Weather are coming-of-age stories of a Jewish boy in Charleston, South Carolina. Now Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, approaching his eightieth year, Rubin undertakes a life review. "We are our memory," he explains.
In a ghostly scene in the prologue Rubin revisits his Charleston family haunts and searches again for the absent figures in the landscape. "This book is not a eulogy," he writes, "but an effort to know." The child tries to remember what his parents wanted to forget. Avoiding nostalgia, Rubin holds obvious affection for his subjects, but he also maintains the clear-eyed gaze of the portrait artist. As usual with Rubin's writing, the prose is crystalline.
Rubin himself is descended from a Jewish intramarriage, which was unusual for its time. His paternal grandfather was an East European Orthodox immigrant while his grandmother was a New Yorker with German roots. The family claimed Lithuanian rabbis as well as a Confederate veteran. The Rubins stood on a Jewish ethnic fault line. When his grandparents moved to Charleston about 1886, they gravitated to K. K. Beth Elohim, the socially elite congregation founded in 1749 which gave fitful birth in the early 1800s to American Reform Judaism. Whether a family was Reform or Orthodox, Rubin notes, "became a yardstick of assimilation and therefore of social status."
Ill, impoverished, with seven children, Rubin's grandparents struggled. His father and two elder brothers spent several formative years in the Hebrew Orphans' Home in Atlanta. "Those years in the Orphans' Home were decidedly the generative force in their youthful lives," he observes. Even as the Rubins rose in the world, this early humiliation shaped them in unspoken ways. At times My Father's People reads like a roman à clef into the family secrets. A playwriting uncle titled a drama, "Riddle Me This."
The Rubins' individualism was too eccentric to be contained by any one category of identity, whether Jewish or Southern. Four of the seven siblings never married. None of the boys received a formal education beyond seventh grade, yet all were highly intelligent, autodidacts, who largely invented themselves. There is congenitally cheerful Aunt Dora, a faithful secretary who took tap dance lessons. Uncle Harry was a "Professional Southerner," a merchant who acquired "the local pieties for his own." Uncle Dan escaped Charleston for a journalist's career. As a self-taught dramatist, he had five plays on Broadway and departed for Hollywood. Cagney and Dietrich, among others, starred in his films. Once Hollywood faded, he retreated to a rented room in El Paso. Uncle Manning was a Charleston newspaperman who lived alone with a large library of books and classical records. A mentor to his nephew, he stretched himself through fishing, cycling, and sailing. Aware that Southerners often equated "Jew" with "New Yorker," the brothers outdid the natives as archconservatives on race, McCarthy, and the New Deal.
Unlike his introverted brothers, Rubin's father, the youngest, was "eager for attention, public and private both." Unable to hold steady work because of a botched brain operation, he cultivated his garden. A self-invented man, he became the "Dixie Dynamo" as an electronics merchant and then the "Weather Wizard" as a self-taught meteorologist. He devised a formula based on volcanic activity and cloud formation that gave him prophetic powers of prognostication. The local media in Richmond, where he relocated, trumpeted his uncanny predictions of unusual weather as "Rubin Days," and he drew national attention.
"This is a Southern story," Rubin writes, "what is striking is the swiftness with which the process that sociologists call 'acculturation' took place." Despite the South's mythic distrust of aliens, it has been quick to make strangers its own, and Jews have been eager to conform. Bonds of interest and friendship formed at offices, card tables, ball fields, and fishing piers. When World War I called, the Rubin men rallied around the flag. Given his own Southern assimilation, Rubin observes, "To be both a Reform Jew and a teenager in Charleston in the 1930s was hardly a communal activity." Southern Jews were both insiders and outsiders.
The Rubins' religiosity may have attenuated, but they remained ethnic Jews. The Rubin women were steadfast temple ladies, and his father attended at various life stages. His uncles were too skeptical for belief. Yet, Rubin observes, "None of my father's family ever desired either to deny or to disguise the fact of his or her Jewish identity. I cannot imagine them ever doing so." They held high standards of honor and family pride. When Uncle Dan was recovering from war wounds in a military hospital in Atlanta, he was invited as a veteran to attend a social club but declined to set foot in a place that excluded Jewish members. As Rubin's title suggests, "Southern" is the adjective, and "Jew" is the noun.
Despite their eccentricity and Southern acculturation, the Rubins in many ways typify the American-Jewish experience. Here is the Jewish generational rise from storekeeping and immigrant poverty into the professions. The grandfather who writes fractured immigrant English yields to children who are journalists and playwrights. The grandson becomes a distinguished professor of American literature. In their mobilitytheir search for opportunitythe Rubins follow a well-trod Jewish road. The nuclear family bonds remain tightly knit, stretching to extended family in Richmond and New York. The family history also illustrates the assimilation and low birth rates that have exhausted Southern-Jewish communities. (For the first time in a century, no Rubins now reside in Charleston.)
In a concluding chapter Rubin reflects on the roots of the family's ambition, creativity, and self-absorption. "Where, then, did it come from?" he asks. "The obvious place to look is across the ocean." He traces the family's "lofty, absolute ethical standard" to their rabbinic forebears. The Rubins pursued their "intellectual and creative vocation," whether writing plays or predicting weather, with the religious devotion that their Lithuanian ancestors applied to holy texts. In a free society their energies escaped religious bounds into the larger culture, which very much welcomed them. The children of the Hebrew Orphans' Home were "Americans, and they were Jews," Rubin concludes. "These were enough."