Eli N. Evans, Who Wrote About Jews in American South, Dies at 85

Eli N. Evans, a courtly Carolina Tarheel who rose to the higher ranks of the New York philanthropic world, however who left his largest mark because the writer of three books exploring the tradition and historical past of Jews within the American South, together with his family, died on July 26 in Manhattan. He was 85.

The loss of life, in a hospital, was confirmed by his son and sole survivor, Joshua Evans, who stated the trigger was problems of Covid-19.

With a legislation diploma from Yale and a stint as a White Home speechwriter, Mr. Evans was a part of a cohort of erudite Southern expatriates who landed on Manhattan’s literary scene within the Nineteen Fifties and ’60s — lots of whom, together with Willie Morris, the Mississippi-born editor of Harper’s Journal, grew to become good associates of his.

Like them, Mr. Evans, who labored on the Carnegie Company earlier than changing into president of the philanthropic Charles H. Revson Basis, interwove his cosmopolitan worldview along with his Southern roots. He might transfer simply amongst diplomats and tycoons, however he additionally cherished taking part in the banjo and unwinding tales about rising up among the many tobacco fields round Durham, N.C.

It was these tales, usually associated over prolonged Sunday brunches, that led Mr. Morris to assign Mr. Evans to put in writing about Southern Jews, and particularly his household of peddlers, retailers and politicians in North Carolina.

The task was a ebook, “The Provincials: A Personal History of the Jews of the South.” Revealed in 1971, it set off a wave of curiosity in a tradition that many individuals exterior the area by no means knew existed.

The truth is, as Mr. Evans identified, till the early nineteenth century there have been extra Jews arriving in port cities like Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., than in cities north of the Mason-Dixon Line. 1000’s of others got here south over land, usually as manufacturing unit employees or peddlers, just like the Evanses and the Nachamsons, his paternal and maternal ancestors.

Mr. Evans was not the primary particular person to review Southern Jews; students, rabbis and historic societies had lengthy documented disparate native communities. However “The Provincials” was the primary try to inform a synthesized regional historical past to a broader public.

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

Mr. Evans’s title was a bit tongue-in-cheek: Jews within the South have been provincial solely within the eyes of their Northern city coreligionists. At house, in distinction, “Jews were not aliens in the Promised Land, but a blood-and-bones part of the South,” he wrote.

Mr. Evans was a gifted author whose sentences resembled the plush lyricism of different midcentury Southerners like James Agee and Reynolds Worth. However he centered these sentences on a tradition that, till then, had been the area 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,” Roy Hoffman, a novelist who lives in Cell, Ala., stated in an interview.

“The Provincials” intersperses Mr. Evans’s private account of rising up because the son of a outstanding businessman in Durham — who was additionally the town’s first Jewish mayor — with chapters grappling with antisemitism, the angst of assimilation and the position of Jews within the civil rights motion.

The ebook revels within the confluences, ironies, overlaps and buried tales of the Jewish South. Ham could be served at a Sabbath meal. Christian mother and father would convey their toddler kids into Mr. Evans’s father’s retailer to have them blessed in Hebrew. He joked that at Passover, nobody wanted to open the door for Elijah, because it was so scorching that each one the doorways have been 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 adopted “The Provincials” with two extra well-received books: a 1987 biography of Judah P. Benjamin, the slave-owning Jewish politician who served because the Confederacy’s secretary of state, and “The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner” (1993), a set of essays.

He additionally grew to become a significant supporter of efforts to construct on his personal work. He helped discovered the Carolina Middle for Jewish Research on the College of North Carolina; he spoke on panels; and he wrote chapters, introductions and blurbs for numerous books that adopted his personal.

“He was something of a patron saint of Southern Jewish history,” stated Shari Rabin, an affiliate professor of Jewish research and faith at Oberlin Faculty in Ohio who’s writing a historical past of Jews within the South.

What Mr. Evans wished above all was to complicate simple assumptions about his individuals and his area, to indicate that Jews have been a particular however central a 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 on July 28, 1936, in Durham, N.C. In line with his son, household lore had it that Evans was an Anglicized model of Eban, the Hebrew phrase for stonecutter. (Coincidentally, Mr. Evans was good associates with the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, although they weren’t associated.)

Mr. Evans’s paternal grandfather, Issac, was born in what’s now Lithuania, and later labored in New York’s garment district. He saved sufficient cash to purchase a pack filled with wares and headed south as a peddler. Because the household story goes, he arrived by prepare in Fayetteville, N.C., the place he noticed a constructing in flames. He bought out to assist struggle it, and within the meantime the prepare departed.

Stranded, he arrange store as a service provider, a commerce adopted by his sons Monroe and Emmanuel, Mr. Evans’s father. Identified round city as Mutt, Emmanuel Evans was a star athlete on the College of North Carolina; based Evans United Greenback, a sequence of low cost shops; and served as mayor of Durham from 1951 to 1963. (Monroe Evans was mayor of Fayetteville within the Sixties.)

Mr. Evans’s maternal grandmother, Jennie Nachamson, based the South’s first chapter of Hadassah, the Jewish ladies’s group. His mom, Sara (Nachamson) Evans, expanded on that dedication as a regional and nationwide organizer; he referred to as her “Hadassah’s Southern accent.”

Mr. Evans excelled on the College of North Carolina, the place he was the primary Jewish president of the coed physique and spent a summer season on a kibbutz in Israel. He graduated with a level in English literature in 1958. After two years within the Navy, he entered Yale Legislation Faculty, graduating in 1963.

He labored for a 12 months as a speechwriter within the White Home, and for one more 12 months as an aide to Terry Sanford, the liberal governor of North Carolina, earlier than transferring to New York to affix the Carnegie Company.

There he led efforts to advertise voting rights within the South, in addition to grants to public tv — he was an early supporter of “Sesame Street.”

In 1977 he grew to become president of the Revson Basis, the place he continued his involvement in tv: He offered crucial funding for applications like “Heritage: Civilization and the Jews” and “Genesis: A Living Conversation,” and he was impressed by the Oslo Accords of 1993 to assist “Rechov Sumsum,” an Israeli model of “Sesame Street.”

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

Although Mr. Evans by no means lived within the South after the Sixties, he visited usually and continued to really feel a deep connection to his house area. When his son was born at a Manhattan hospital, Mr. Evans took alongside a vial of Carolina dust.

“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 couple of years later, when his mom died, he had a cherry tree planted exterior a Hadassah-sponsored hospital in Jerusalem. Beneath it went that very same vial of Carolina dust.