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Fear Itself: Alfred Uhry and the Jewish Question in Atlanta (posted 10-20-2014)

In Atlanta, Uhry's family was involved in the most-publicized incident of anti-Semitic violence in American history. Alfred's Uncle Sig was owner of a pencil factory which employed Leo Frank, a young Jew from New York. When a local girl was found murdered in the warehouse in 1913, Frank was falsely accused and convicted of raping and killing her. He was suspect because he was an outsider and particularly because he was a Jew. An anti-Semitic mob dragged him from his cell and lynched him.

In Alfred's tenuous Jewish life in Atlanta, his parents and other relatives were afraid to go out at night for years after the Frank lynching. They made few trips away from home. They became as assimilated as possible, as if to avoid detection. Whereas her parents never brought pork into the home and avoided mixing meat and dairy on the table, Uhry's mother Alene, with the sanction of her rabbi, abandoned all kashruth and started eating the forbidden meats.

There were no other familiar Jewish customs: no lox or bagels at the deli, no hora at your wedding and no yarmulkas worn during religious services. Uhry never saw a Bar Mitzvah; there were none at his congregation. And the rabbi was a leader in the American Council for Judaism, which actively opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. "Yes, we were against Zionism," admits Uhry.

His house of worship was the singularly-named The Temple, the institution of choice for the German Jews who settled in Atlanta. Later came other Jews with Eastern European roots who founded Conservative and Orthodox synagogues in Atlanta, but they were shunned by the German Reform Jews.

Alfred speaks of his family's insularity. "Germans are clannish, Southerners are clannish and Jews are clannish. As Southern German Jews we had a triple whammy. We felt a need to have other people below us, and so we lorded it over Eastern European Jews. Some German Jews called these other Jews `kikes.'"

Uhry's Passover experience was limited to one model seder at Sabbath School. Christmas was observed with a tree and big family dinners. There was one distinction between Jews and gentiles in Atlanta and it was this: Jews don't put stars on the tops of their Christmas trees. 

"My parents told us to keep a low profile. Don't speak loudly, and don't be pushy. We tried to appear as non-Jewish as possible, but our noses gave us away. My Jewish face was the cross I had to bear, so to speak," says the author.

The one part of Jewish tradition that seeped through his parents' filter was charity: "We always were urged to help less fortunate Jews with monies for orphanages and for refugees." His parents also taught an appreciation for culture and took him to see plays in New York. When he went away to college, to Brown, Uhry found an Episcopalian girl and married her. Alfred and Joanna have four grown daughters whom he describes as shiksas. Speaking of crosses to bear, Alfred recently discovered a new one when he attended his granddaughter's christening. "It broke my heart," he says, "and my wife said `What did you expect? This is what you get.'

"Joanna always encouraged me to remember my Jewish roots. She would have raised our children Jewish if I felt strongly about it at that time. But I wasn't proud of my Jewishness. I didn't give them a spiritual identity because I had none to give. Joanna felt the kids should have some religious education, so we sent them to a Unitarian church. "Now I'm trying to work out my confusion." Recently Uhry began to make Seders in his home. He credits Joanna: "She pushes me. She always says, `Realize that you're Jewish and do something about it.'"

 

 

Top: Leo Frank
Excerpted from the piece by Steve Cohan, courtesy of Totaltheater.com


 

 

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