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Coalfield Jews explores the intersection of two simultaneous historic events: central Appalachia's coal boom (1880s-1920), and the mass migration of eastern European Jews to America. Traveling to southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southwestern Virginia to investigate the coal boom's opportunities, some Jewish immigrants found success as retailers and established numerous small but flourishing Jewish communities ... Weiner draws on a wide range of primary sources in social, cultural, religious, labor, economic, and regional history. She also includes moving personal statements, from oral histories as well as archival sources, to create a holistic portrayal of Jewish life that will challenge commonly held views of Appalachia as well as the American Jewish experience. 

Table of Contents

1. From Shtetl to Coalfield: The Migration of East European Jews to Appalachia
2. Middlemen of the Coalfields: Jewish Economic Life
3. Jews in the Coalfield Social Scene
4. Insiders and Outsiders: Race, Religion, and Politics in the Coalfields
5. Coalfield Jewish Communities

The book is well-illustrated with photos of coalfield families, synagogues, businesses, street scenes, and more.


Louis Zaltzman came to Keystone, West Virginia, in 1896 at age four with his Russian immigrant parents Bessie and Mose. "The community there was small and rough, no electric lights or water supply, dirt and unpaved streets and roads, and very little law,” he later wrote. "It was a frontier town with fourteen saloons and about fifteen Jewish families." … What were these Jews, immigrants from Eastern Europe and their children, doing in a rough-and-tumble coal town deep in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains?
As in Eastern Europe, Jews in the Central Appalachian coalfields differed from their neighbors in two important realms: religion and economic activity. In the old country, these distinctions reinforced the status of the Jewish population as an often-despised “other." Such would not be the case in the coalfields, where Jews would become stalwart members of a small middle and upper middle class centered in the region's county-seat towns.... As one second-generation coalfield Jew asserted, Jews "assimilated just about as completely as you could be assimilated," while still remaining Jewish.
Their lack of involvement in the coal industry did not insulate Jews from the fierce conflict between miners and operators that periodically wracked the region.... Their retail niche ensured that they felt their own special kind of discomfort during times of labor turmoil. In small towns where everyone knew everyone else, retailers could not afford to offend any segment of the population. As one Jewish merchant put it, “We tried to get along with everyone.” During labor disputes, said another, “We were caught in the middle.... These are your customers, you don’t want to antagonize them.”
Jewish immigrants to the coalfields considered themselves Orthodox but ... inevitably, compromise accompanied the very tenacity with which they clung to their customs. The Northfork Jewish contingent would not ride the train on the high holidays, and would walk on the railroad tracks for one mile to the Keystone synagogue dressed in their holiday best. The women would wear sensible shoes for the trek, carrying their fancier shoes with them—a less-than-satisfactory solution, since Jewish law forbids carrying as well as train-riding on the Sabbath or Yom Kippur.... Food was an important part of Jewish togetherness. In Middlesboro, the restaurant run by “Mother Horr” offered matzo ball soup and chopped liver and served as the main gathering place for the town’s Jews. Louis Morse, proprietor of the Welch Billiard & Bowling Parlor, evidently considered Jewish food enough of a draw to advertise in a 1922 Welch newspaper, “A Pleasant Retreat for Business Men and for all who seek diversion. Kosher meats by the pound.”


Coalfield Jews - An Appalachian History
Deborah R. Weiner