Eli N. Evans, who wrote about Southern Jews, dies at 85


Eli N. Evans, a courteous Carolina Tarheel who rose to the upper echelons of New York’s philanthropic world but left her greatest mark as the author of three books exploring the culture and history of Jews in the South of the United States, including his own family, died July 26 in Manhattan. He was 85 years old.

The death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his son and only survivor, Joshua Evans, who said the cause was complications from Covid-19.

A Yale law graduate and White House speechwriter, Mr. Evans was one of a cohort of erudite Southern expats who landed on the Manhattan literary scene in the 1950s and 1960s – many of them, including Willie Morris, the Mississippi-born editor of Harper’s Magazine, became good friends of his.

Like them, Mr. Evans, who worked at the Carnegie Corporation before becoming chairman of the Charles H. Revson Philanthropic Foundation, has intertwined his cosmopolitan worldview with his Southern roots. He could move easily among diplomats and tycoons, but he also enjoyed playing the banjo and telling stories of his childhood in the tobacco fields around Durham, North Carolina.

It was these stories, often told over long Sunday brunches, that led Mr. Morris to commission Mr. Evans to write about the Jews of the South, and in particular about his family of peddlers, merchants and politicians in North Carolina. North.

The mission turned into a book, “The Provincials: A Personal History of Southern Jews.” Published in 1971, it sparked a wave of interest in a culture that many people outside the region were unaware of.

In fact, as Mr. Evans pointed out, until the early 19th century there were more Jews arriving in port towns like Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, than in towns north of the Mason-Dixon line. Thousands more came south overland, often as factory workers or peddlers, like the Evanses and Nachamsons, his paternal and maternal ancestors.

Mr. Evans was not the first person to study Southern Jews; scholars, rabbis, and historical societies had long documented disparate local communities. But “Les Provinciaux” was the first attempt to tell a synthetic regional story to a wider audience.

“I’m one of those people who, when they read ‘Provincials’, feel recognized for the first time,” said Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina who grew up in the ‘Arkansas. interview. “They had never seen their experience of Jewish life reflected in this way.”

Mr. Evans’ title was a bit ironic: Southern Jews were only provincial in the eyes of their northern urban co-religionists. Back home, by contrast, “the Jews were not strangers in the Promised Land, but part of the blood and bones of the South,” he writes.

Mr. Evans was a gifted writer whose sentences resembled the lush lyricism of other mid-century Southerners like James Agee and Reynolds Price. But he centered those sentences on a culture that until then had been the domain of northern Jewish writers like Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow.

“Eli really showed the way; he opened the door to a new generation of Southern Jewish writers,” Roy Hoffman, a novelist who lives in Mobile, Alabama, said in an interview.

‘The Provincials’ alternates Mr Evans’ personal account of his childhood as the son of a prominent Durham businessman – who was also the town’s first Jewish mayor – with chapters grappling with anti-Semitism , the anxiety of assimilation and the role of Jews in civil society. rights movement.

The book revels in the confluences, ironies, overlaps, and buried histories of the Jewish South. The ham can be served during a Sabbath meal. Christian parents would bring their young children to Mr. Evans’ father’s store to have them blessed in Hebrew. He joked that on Passover no one needed to open the door for Elijah because it was so hot that all the doors were already ajar.

“I’m not sure what it means to be both Jewish and Southern,” he concluded, “to have inherited the Jewish desire for a homeland while being raised with a sense of belonging to the southerner”.

He followed “The Provincials” with two other well-received books: a 1987 biography of Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish slave-owning politician who served as Confederate Secretary of State, and “The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner” (1993), a collection of essays.

He also became a major proponent of efforts to leverage his own work. He helped found the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at the University of North Carolina; he spoke on panels; and he wrote chapters, introductions, and introductions for countless books that followed his.

“He was sort of a patron saint of Southern Jewish history,” said Shari Rabin, associate professor of Jewish studies and religion at Oberlin College in Ohio, who writes a history of Southern Jews. .

What Mr. Evans wanted above all was to complicate easy assumptions about his people and region, to show that Jews were a separate but central part of the Southern narrative.

“The history of Southern Jews is not the Ku Klux Klan crossfires, bombings, acts of overt anti-Semitism,” he wrote in “The Provincials.” “It is found in the experience of growing up Jewish in the Bible Belt, the inner story reflected in family histories, storytelling and letters home.”

Eli Nachamson Evans was born on July 28, 1936 in Durham, North Carolina. According to family lore, Evans was an anglicized version of Eban, the Hebrew word for stonemason. (Coincidentally, Mr. Evans was good friends with Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, although they were not related.)

Mr Evans’ paternal grandfather, Issac, was born in what is now Lithuania and later worked in New York’s garment district. He saved enough money to buy a bundle full of goods and headed south as a peddler. According to the family’s story, he arrived by train in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he saw a burning building. He came out to help fight it, and in the meantime the train left.

Failed, he set up as a merchant, a profession followed by his sons Monroe and Emmanuel, the father of Mr. Evans. Known around town as Mutt, Emmanuel Evans was a star athlete at the University of North Carolina. founded Evans United Dollar, a chain of discount stores; and was mayor of Durham from 1951 to 1963. (Monroe Evans was mayor of Fayetteville in the 1960s.)

Mr. Evans’ maternal grandmother, Jennie Nachamson, founded Hadassah’s first Southern chapter, the Jewish women’s organization. His mother, Sara (Nachamson) Evans, developed this commitment as a regional and national organizer; he called it “Hadassah’s southern accent”.

Mr. Evans excelled at the University of North Carolina, where he served as the first Jewish student body president and spent a summer on a kibbutz in Israel. He earned a degree in English Literature in 1958. After two years in the Navy, he entered Yale Law School and graduated in 1963.

He worked for a year as a White House speechwriter, and for another year as an aide to Terry Sanford, the liberal governor of North Carolina, before moving to New York to join the Carnegie Corporation.

There he led efforts to promote suffrage in the South, as well as public television subsidies – he was an early supporter of “Sesame Street”.

In 1977, he became president of the Revson Foundation, where he continued his involvement in television: he provided essential funding for programs such as “Heritage: Civilization and the Jews” and “Genesis: A Living Conversation”, and he was inspired by the Oslo Accords. from 1993 to support “Rechov Sumsum,” an Israeli version of “Sesame Street.”

In Manhattan, he met another Southern Jewish transplant, Judith London, who had grown up in an Orthodox family in Montgomery, Ala. They married in 1981; she died in 2008.

Although Mr. Evans never lived in the South after the 1960s, he visited often and continued to feel a deep connection to his home region. When his son was born in a Manhattan hospital, Mr. Evans took away a vial of Caroline’s soil.

“With one hand I held Judith’s hand and with the other I gripped the southern soil,” he wrote in “The Lonely Days Were Sundays.” “I wanted him to know his roots, and I believe in creating family legends early.”

A few years later, when his mother died, he planted a cherry tree in front of a Hadassah-sponsored hospital in Jerusalem. Below, there was this same vial of earth from Caroline.


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