I wrote a book about Jews in the Appalachian coalfields, titled Coalfield Jews. In fact, it is the only book ever written about Jews in Appalachia.
I lived in West Virginia during the 1990s and attended grad school at WVU, and I can tell you the exact day I became interested in this topic: the day of the Italian Heritage Festival in Clarksburg, W.Va., in 1993. The fact that Clarksburg had something called an Italian Heritage Festival was my first clue that not everything in the region was the way I had pictured it. Who knew there were Italians in West Virginia? Not me.
In exploring the town of Clarksburg, I came across a synagogue on the edge of downtown. This was an even more amazing discovery. It never had occurred to me that there might be Jews living in small Appalachian towns. This wasn’t just a stereotype about the region being filled only with Scots-Irish, it was also a stereotype of Jews: that all Jews live in big cities.
So here were two of my own preconceptions exploded in one moment—one, about the very ethnic and religious group to which I belong. I became interested in finding out how this group of Jews got to West Virginia, what they were doing there, and what it all means. That was the genesis of my study, which eventually focused on the coalfields of southern West Virginia and southeastern Kentucky.
What interested me about the topic of Jews in Appalachia is that it allowed me to explore both groups at the same time, and to show how oversimplified—or just plain wrong—are our perceptions of each.
I wanted to do more than talk about how others viewed these two groups. I also wanted to look at the question of identity: How have Appalachian Jews defined themselves? How have they expressed their different identities as Appalachian and Jewish? What does it mean to them to be Appalachian and Jewish?
The Jewish people I interviewed—almost without exception—had fond memories of growing up in small-town Appalachia. Their families were part of the middle class of these towns, and they experienced little or no anti-Semitism. In the towns I studied Jewish groups and Christian groups got along well and contributed to each others’ causes. Both Christians and Jews donated money to help each other build synagogues and churches. The level of interfaith cooperation was much greater than what you would see in a large city.
What bothered people I interviewed, in ways large and small, was that most felt that their Appalachian and Jewish identities were somewhat in conflict. To fully experience Jewish culture, they had to leave the mountains to visit relatives in places like Baltimore and New York. They felt different from their big-city relatives, and they also felt different from their friends and neighbors back home. But feeling “different” was not necessarily a bad thing. Many people told me they felt enriched by having this sort of dual heritage. They appreciated the closeness of their communities and the way neighbors helped each other out. Although many ended up leaving these small towns in search of larger horizons, they valued the places they had left.
I’m reminded of a story of a non-Jewish woman from Keystone, West Virginia, who married a local Jewish boy. Mary Marsh, daughter of a Protestant southerner and an Irish Catholic coal miner, was raised a Baptist before marrying into a Jewish family. Her husband, Isadore, was the youngest child in his family, and not the first to marry a non-Jew. Late into the twentieth century Mary loved to prepare her mother-in-law’s recipe for matzo ball soup, which she sent over to the local Catholic priest when he took ill. For fifty years, Mary played the organ at Baptist, Catholic, Jewish, and Methodist services. I call her my one-woman example of coalfield multiculturalism.
Mary’s Jewish father-in-law had been a jack-of-all trades in Keystone. He worked as a mechanic and a plumber. At various times, he owned a steam laundry, restaurant, and grocery store. He was even a bicycle repairman.
These are the kind of people who have lived in Appalachia through the years. Diversity, in my view, is at the heart of the Appalachian experience. Jews who came to the region not only added to this diversity, they benefited from it. Though they were forced to confront issues involved in having a dual identity, for most of them, this was an experience that they found rewarding.