Online panel to pay tribute to Eli Evans, Southern Jewry’s “Poet Laureate”

Before there was a Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, a Southern Jewish Historical Society or a Goldring/Woldenberg Institute for Southern Jewish Life, there was Eli Evans.

A remembrance of Evans in the SJHS newsletter states that “his 1973 memoir, ‘The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South,’ inspired the very creation of our field.”

The ISJL, SJHS and several other groups will have an online event on Oct. 9 at 3 p.m. Central, “Poet Laureate of Southern Jews: Personal Remembrances of Eli Evans z”l.”

It was Abba Eban who gave Evans the title of “Poet Laureate” of Southern Jews, in his comments about Evans’ 1994 book, “The Lonely Days Were Sundays.”

Evans died on July 26, two days before what would have been his 86th birthday, from complications due to Covid.

Evans was born in Durham, N.C. His father owned a general store, and when Evans was 14, his father became the first Jewish mayor of Durham, with his campaign materials highlighting his synagogue involvement. His mother founded the first Hadassah chapter in the region.

Evans wrote about the occasional antisemitism he encountered, though his father was respected by the white and Black communities. Their store was the first to have an integrated lunch counter, though white backlash forced the removal of the seats.

Evans was the first Jewish president of the student body at the University of North Carolina. After Yale Law School, he was a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson and North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford.

He then joined the Carnegie Corporation, which issued grants to talented people with a vision that needed start-up assistance. Among those was helping Marian Wright Edelman start the Children’s Defense Fund, and placing Black lawyers throughout the South to become local civil rights figures.

He continued that work with the Revson Foundation, becoming its first president in 1977. When the foundation backed Eban’s PBS series “Civilization and the Jews,” he was inspired to build a foundation that would emphasize Jewish concerns.

That idea became the Covenant Foundation, which he chaired for 22 years, retiring in 2016.

In a statement, the Covenant Foundation called him “a true pioneer who deftly leveraged the power of philanthropy to create deep and meaningful change in the world.”

His leadership also led to the creation of “Rechov Sumsum,” Israel’s version of “Sesame Street,” with an emphasis on peacemaking, and Bill Moyers’ “Genesis: A Living Conversation.”

While his work kept him in New York, he kept his Southern roots. A famous story is how, when his son was born in New York, during the delivery he had a package of North Carolina dirt in one hand and his wife’s hand in the other.

He was instrumental in establishing the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at UNC, and he received an honorary degree in 2009.

“So much of what we do today is made possible because of the leadership and creative vision of Eli Evans,” said Patricia Rosenmeyer, director of the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies. “It is impossible to imagine that we’d have the Center we have today without the benefit of Eli’s wisdom, energy and imagination.”

In addition to his books of personal essays, he wrote a biography of Judah P. Benjamin.

In the introduction to “The Provincials,” he write “The history of Jews in the South lies not in the cross-burnings of the Ku Klux Klan, the bombings, the acts of overt anti-Semitism. 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.”

Among the tales chronicled in his book is how Jews came to Durham — James Buchanan Duke had traveled to New York to offer Russian Jewish immigrants jobs in his new cigarette factory in Durham, giving them their start on the path to becoming traders and wholesalers.

The Oct. 9 panel will remember “the man whose passion for southern Jewish history provided a legacy that has thrived for five decades.” Robert Rosen, an attorney who has written several books on Charleston and Southern Jewish history, will moderate. He is a past president of the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina and chairs Charleston’s arts and history commission.

Marcie Cohen-Ferris, who worked at the MSJE in the early 1990s, is a professor in American Studies at the University of North Carolina, specializing in Southern Jewish foodways. She first saw “The Provincials” in the library while a senior at Brown University, and “it was my doorway into the study of the Jewish South.”

Len Rogoff, past president of the SJHS, writes extensively about the Jewish history of North Carolina, and is now historian for Jewish Heritage North Carolina.

Steve Whitfield is Max Richter Professor of American Civilization, Emeritus, at Brandeis University. He has written numerous pieces on Southern Jewish history, including the Hermans of New Orleans, and the intersection of Jews and Blacks in the South.

Macy Hart, who first established the MSJE at the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in 1986, said Evans “became an integral part of the development of the museum in its earliest years through his advice, hands on assistance, and his comical personality.” Hart was director of Jacobs Camp for 30 years before establishing the ISJL, where he is now president emeritus.

Also on the panel will be Josh Evans, the son of Judith and Eli Evans. He is an actor with numerous television and film credits.

The Zoom is being organized through the American Jewish Historical Society. Register here.