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Coalfield Jews: An Appalachian History

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Coalfield Jews: An Appalachian History

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Coalfield Jews
An Appalachian History

By Deborah R. Weiner
University of Illinois Press, 2006
ISBN: 0-252-07335-5

Reviewed by Zev Harris - March 3, 2009

In Coalfield Jews: An Appalachian History, Deborah R. Weiner has written a compelling and insightful history of the Jews that settled throughout the Appalachian mountains. This study focuses primarily on the period of the coal boom in central Appalachia that lasted from the early 1880's - 1920. This was also a period during which thousands of Jewish immigrants sailed from Eastern Europe seeking a new life in America. While many of these immigrants settled in major seaport towns, some elected to head toward the last American frontier - Appalachia and its copious coalfields located throughout southern West Virginia, southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky. She not only examines this issue from a regional standpoint, but also looks at individual towns that had Jewish congregations such as Harlan and Middlesboro Kentucky, Pocahontas, Virginia, and a number of town in West Virginia including Beckley, Bluefield, Keystone, Kimball, Logan, Welch, and Williamson.

Within the course of this study, Weiner examines not only what factors brought thousands of Jews, often entire families, to this region, but also the various occupations they pursued that ranged from saloon owners and horse traders to store keepers and hotel owners. She also examines the inter-relationship between these Jewish immigrants and their non-Jewish neighbors, as well as the support network that developed among these Jewish newcomers. What life was like for Jews in these ofttimes backwater and lawless coal towns, is covered in depth, as well as how Jewish communal organizations developed in these towns and throughout the region. In addition, Weiner takes a two-prong approach throughout this study, examining the Jewish presence in the region in relation to Appalachian history, as well as in relation to Jewish American history.

Drawing upon a wealth of primary sources, including oral histories and personal statements, as well as accessing archival information, Weiner has crafted a detailed and informative survey of Jewish immigration and life in the central Appalachian region during this period. Weiner, who is a research historian and the family history coordinator at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore, has written a book that incorporates the latest research and available information on the Jewish presence in Appalachia. It amply illustrates the role that Jews played in the economic and social development of the region, and how this unique region and the coal industry impacted Jewish family and communal life throughout central Appalachia.

"You cannot really be Jewish. There aren't any Jews in West Virginia!" This is a statement that I've heard more than once, and on more than one occasion my response has been to give the speaker a short history lesson on West Virginia Jewry and the long connection Jews have had with the state. I also like to point out to these skeptics that there are still a large number of vibrant Jewish communities located throughout the state, as well as several well attended orthodox and traditional synagogues. Therefore, I was thrilled to discover Coalfield Jews. Not only does it present a compelling overview of Jewish history in Appalachia from the 1880s-1920, but it also provided me with a great deal of new information to add to my "Jews have been in West Virginia since..." speech.

In addition to helping me educate others about the Jewish presence in Appalachia, this book should be added to all public and academic libraries throughout Appalachia, as well as secular and religious Jewish libraries, as it will educate readers on this often overlooked aspect of regional and Jewish history. This book is also well suited for use as a supplemental text in university level courses in Jewish, Appalachian, and immigrations studies, as well as general survey courses in American history. In addition, Weiner's extensive endnotes and detailed list of references will serve as an excellent starting point for anyone wishing to delve deeper into this nearly forgotten aspect of Jewish American history. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Appalachian history or this unique aspect of Jewish history.

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