Remarks delivered at the Down Home Banner Exhibition
North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, April 4, 2022
By Eric M. Meyers, Duke University
How is it that in the thirty plus years of existence the three presidents of Jewish Heritage North Carolina (JHNC) have been transplants from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut? (Henry Greene, Len Rogoff and Eric Meyers). Why is it that Jews are so fascinated and preoccupied with their shared history? Perhaps it is because Jewish history is focused on remembering, Kaddish and Kiddush, mourning our beloved deceased and blessing creation on the Sabbath. As the immediate past president of JHNC I would like in these brief few minutes to offer an overview of how we came to be and also pay tribute to Henry Greene, our founding president, and our current one, Len Rogoff, our longtime historian of Jews in North Carolina.
The germ of understanding better our Jewish roots in NC began shortly after Robin Gruber wrote her senior thesis with me and Sid Nathans at Duke in 1986: “From Pine St. to Watts St.: an Oral History of the Jews of Durham, NC.” Robin today is a successful lawyer in New York City. Shortly after that a centennial committee, presumably established to celebrate Durham’s 100th anniversary of the Jewish community around that time was formed, with the intent of commissioning a proper history of Durham Jewry to be written. Len has since shown that in Durham that history went back even further than the committee had assumed. Among the members of that committee were Nathans and me, and Steve Shewel, the former mayor of Durham, Albert Heyman and Herb Posner. As you might guess the commission turned to Len Rogoff to write that history and the result was his first major book on Southern Jewish History: “Homelands: Southern Jewish Identity in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina,” published by the University of Alabama Press in 2001.
Meanwhile, in the 1990s, our founding group focused our interest around Judea Reform Congregation in Durham and its small gallery of books and artifacts that had been started by its Rabbi, Ephraim Rosenzweig, one-time Hillel director at UNC-CH, also a skilled craftsman in metal, wood, and stone, and poet. Its first curator was Lenore Ucko. When Judea moved to its new and beautiful synagogue in 2003 we continued to have exhibits of Jewish art and artists under the stewardship of Susan Leeb.
And after Len’s first book appeared in print in 2001, under the superb leadership of Henry Greene, our organization took a new turn and the first result was the traveling exhibition of “Migrations,” (2001-02) focusing on the Jews of Eastern NC and funded in part by the North Carolina Humanities Council.
Around this time we reincorporated and set our minds on telling a broader story about all the Jews in NC. The end result of this period of our history was the second and beautifully illustrated book of Len’s, “Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina,” published by UNC Press in 2010, with the help of JHNC.
During this period we set our sights on doing a new and much larger exhibition, “Down Home: the Exhibit,” which opened in Raleigh at the State Museum of History in 2011 and traveled around the state. Henry Greene’s leadership in that effort was absolutely essential to that effort and will not be forgotten. In that campaign we were able to get Governor Jim Hunt to be the honorary chairman of the fundraising campaign and Leon Levine of Charlotte to be our lead donor. Governor Hunt was an absolute delight to work with and during his terms in office had developed close commercial and cultural ties with Israel.
Also during this time we began preparing a film to tell “our” story and in the process filmed and recorded interviews with many of our Jewish leaders around the state and elders of the community, many of whom are no longer with us. The film appeared to glowing reviews and once again Henry Greene led the way alongside veteran filmmaker, Steve Channing. The outtakes and interviews in video and sound only, along with the old interviews of Robin Gruber, are housed and preserved in Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, along with many other important archival materials in conjunction with the Center for Jewish Studies at Duke.
In 2012 I had the idea that the story of North Carolina Jews would also make a good subject for a musical score, an opera or cantata. Well in Alejandro Rutty, Professor of Music composition at UNC Greensboro, we found a willing partner to compose a cantata. His wife, Lorena Guillen, is director of the Triangle Jewish Chorale. Len and I met with him at my home and turned over to him the tapes that had not yet been acquired by Duke and, in 2013, “Down Home: the Cantata” was first performed here in Raleigh and can be seen and heard on our web site. Every single word sung in the score is taken verbatim from the archives, and in performance we hear the original voice of the person interviewed, and then it is sung and repeated by the chorus.
In addition to all these accomplishments, JHNC has also prepared along the way a curriculum for 4th and 8thgraders to learn about Jewish life and Judaism in teaching guides and videos. They may be obtained on the web site as well. This was intended to be used in the state’s diversity curriculum.
The traveling banner exhibit and small display you see today is one of the ways JHNC makes available to the public the telling of the story of the history of Jews North Carolina more widely. Anyone interested in obtaining them please email email@example.com. We are grateful to our hosts in the North Carolina State Capitol and staff for allowing us to do this once again in this new format and in this historic space built in 1840.
Before letting Len tell you more about the banner exhibit, I want to read aloud from a voice from the past that is attached to one of North Carolina’s most distinguished families, the Cones of Greensboro. The letter, which concludes the cantata in the fifth movement, was selected by our distinguished composer, Alexandro Rutty, an Argentinian Catholic and American citizen, as befitting the elegance and high minded spirit of North Carolina Jewry. It is an excerpt of a letter to Herman Kahn (Cone) from his brother-in-law, Joseph Rosengart, after he emigrated to the U.S. from Germany, first to Richmond in 1846. Herman’s sons, Moses and Caesar of Greensboro, went on to create a textile empire and became great philanthropists, giving back to the State of North Carolina in unprecedented ways. The letter serves as the Cone family covenant to this day; here are a few selections from it:
“Place your trust and full confidence in God, who will send his angels to guard you, do not be discouraged and do not be afraid. You may shed tears because you were leaving your parents’ home, your father, brother, sisters, friends and native land…
Do not sacrifice your faith for worldly goods, they will disappear like dust. And don’t let any business conduce you to violate the Sabbath. On this day, think seriously about your existence and your work. If you become wealthy in that distant land [America] do not think that our knowledge made your wealth but that God gave it to you for good purposes and charity. However, if you don’t become wealthy, be satisfied with what you do have and try to be as comfortable and happy as if you had the greatest treasures.
So dry your tears because you have the sweet hope of finding your second home abroad in a new country, where you won’t be deprived of your rights and where the Jew is not excluded from the society of all men, where you will find a real homeland, where you as a human being may claim to all human rights and dignity. Follow the middle way between avarice and waste and be charitable to the needy. Be glad to help and give part of your bread to the distressed…
Write, trust in God, and fear no man.”
And Rutty adds to the text to conclude the cantata with these words: “Hope, second home, Down Home.”
As you can see, the North Carolina story is a special one and it still needs retelling as it provides a shining example of how an immigrant community can at one and the same time be absorbed by a new culture and yet maintain the rich traditions and ethical culture of its religion and faith. Len Rogoff is that story-teller par excellence today and his most recent book in 2017 is “Gertrude Weil: Jewish Progressive in the New South,” which merely adds to his importance in that role. As one who has studied our most ancient roots and traditions in the Bible and in our original homeland all my life, Israel, Len Rogoff has helped make me a proud Tar Heel. As we embrace our rich Jewish North Carolina roots and traditions, let us welcome and congratulate Léonard Rogoff for giving us the extraordinary gift of our rich history of Jews in the Old North State.
Photos by Linda Fox, North Carolina State Historic Sites: (1) the Jewish Heritage North Carolina Executive Board with Michelle Lanier, Director of N.C State Historic Sites, and Jennifer Farley, West Region Supervisor of N.C. State Historic Sites; (2) Leonard Rogoff, JHNC President & Historian; (3) Lynne Gladstein Grossman, JHNC Executive Assistant