Eli N. Evans, who wrote about Jews in the American south, dies at 85

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Eli N. Evans, who wrote about Jews in the American south, dies at 85
His book “The Provincials” mixed memoir, travelogue and history to tell the story of a culture that many people never knew existed.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- Eli N. Evans, a courtly Carolina Tarheel who rose to the upper ranks of the New York philanthropic world, but who left his biggest mark as the author of three books exploring the culture and history of Jews in the American South, including his own family, died July 26 in New York City’s Manhattan borough. He was 85.

The death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his son and sole survivor, Joshua Evans, who said the cause was complications of COVID-19.

With a law degree from Yale and a stint as a White House speechwriter, Eli Evans was part of a cohort of erudite Southern expatriates who landed on Manhattan’s literary scene in the 1950s and ’60s — many of whom, including Willie Morris, the Mississippi-born editor of Harper’s Magazine, became good friends of his.

Like them, Evans, who worked at the Carnegie Corp. before becoming president of the philanthropic Charles H. Revson Foundation, interwove his cosmopolitan worldview with his Southern roots. He could move easily among diplomats and tycoons, but he also loved playing the banjo and unwinding tales about growing up among the tobacco fields around Durham, North Carolina.

It was those stories, often related over lengthy Sunday brunches, that led Morris to assign Evans to write about Southern Jews, and in particular his family of peddlers, merchants and politicians in North Carolina.

The assignment turned into a book, “The Provincials: A Personal History of the Jews of the South.” Published in 1971, it set off a wave of interest in a culture that many people outside the region never knew existed.

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

Evans was not the first person to study Southern Jews; scholars, rabbis and historical societies had long documented disparate local communities. But “The Provincials” was the first attempt to tell a synthesized regional history to a broader public.

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

Evans’ title was a bit tongue-in-cheek: Jews in the South were provincial only in the eyes of their Northern urban coreligionists. At home, in contrast, “Jews were not aliens in the Promised Land, but a blood-and-bones part of the South,” he wrote.

Evans was a gifted writer whose sentences resembled the lush lyricism of other midcentury 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 for a new generation of Southern Jewish writers,” said Roy Hoffman, a novelist who lives in Mobile, Alabama.

“The Provincials” intersperses Evans’ personal account of growing up as the son of a prominent businessman in Durham — who was also the city’s first Jewish mayor — with chapters grappling with antisemitism, the angst of assimilation and the role of Jews in the civil rights movement."

The book revels in the confluences, ironies, overlaps and buried stories of the Jewish South. Ham might be served at a Sabbath meal. Christian parents would bring their infant children into Evans’ father’s store to have them blessed in Hebrew. He joked that at Passover, no one needed to open the door for Elijah, since it was so hot that all the doors were already ajar.

“I am not certain what it means to be both a Jew and a Southerner,” he concluded, “to have inherited the Jewish longing for a homeland while being raised with the Southerner’s sense of home.”

He followed “The Provincials” with two more well-received books: a 1987 biography of Judah P. Benjamin, a slave-owning Jewish politician who was the Confederacy’s secretary of state, and “The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner” (1993), a collection of essays.

He also became a major supporter of efforts to build on 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 blurbs for countless books that followed his own.

“He was something of a patron saint of Southern Jewish history,” said Shari Rabin, an associate professor of Jewish studies and religion at Oberlin College in Ohio who is writing a history of Jews in the South.

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

“The history of Jews in the South lies not in the cross burnings of the Ku Klux Klan, the bombings, the acts of overt antisemitism,” he wrote in “The Provincials.” “It is found in the experience of growing up Jewish in the Bible Belt, the interior story reflected in family histories and tales and letters home.”

Eli Nachamson Evans was born July 28, 1936, in Durham. According to his son, family lore had it that Evans was an Anglicized version of Eban, the Hebrew word for stonecutter. (Coincidentally, Evans was good friends with Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, although they were not related.)

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 pack full of wares and headed south as a peddler. As the family story goes, he arrived by train in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he saw a building in flames. He got out to help fight it, and in the meantime the train departed.

Stranded, he set up shop as a merchant, a trade followed by his sons Monroe and Emmanuel, Evans' father. 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 1951-63. (Monroe Evans was mayor of Fayetteville in the 1960s.)

Evans’ maternal grandmother, Jennie Nachamson, founded the South’s first chapter of Hadassah, a Jewish women’s organization. His mother, Sara (Nachamson) Evans, expanded on that commitment as a regional and national organizer; he called her “Hadassah’s Southern accent.”

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

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

There he led efforts to promote voting rights in the South, as well as grants to public television — 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 critical funding for programs like “Heritage: Civilization and the Jews” and “Genesis: A Living Conversation,” and he was inspired by the Oslo Accords of 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, Alabama. They married in 1981; she died in 2008.

Although 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 at a Manhattan hospital, Evans took along a vial of Carolina dirt.

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

A few years later, when his mother died, he had a cherry tree planted outside a Hadassah-sponsored hospital in Jerusalem. Underneath it went that same vial of Carolina dirt.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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