Jewish Settlement in Tennessee

The settlement of Jews in Tennessee reflected the larger migration and settlement patterns of Jews within the United States over the last two centuries. These patterns created distinctive forms of Jewish life in the major Jewish communities of Tennessee: Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and the Tri-Cities.

The earliest Jewish settlers arrived in Tennessee in the 1830s and 1840s, having fled the political turmoil of German-speaking areas with other Central Europeans. Most Jewish immigrants of this period came from small towns and villages and, in general, were not Orthodox in religious practice. Often they were drawn to the South because of its rural character, warmer climate, and economic opportunities. Many established themselves as peddlers, shopkeepers, and artisans as they gradually spread into the small southern towns and cities. A number of Jewish merchants founded successful shops and general stores throughout the state, but especially in West Tennessee, including Schwab's (Memphis), Levy's (Halls), Kahn's (Bolivar), Felsenthal's (Brownsville), and Freed's (Trenton).

As the number of Jewish settlers increased and stabilized, thoughts turned to religious life. During the 1840s and 1850s, Jews established community organizations wherever there were enough Jews to sustain the efforts. Cemeteries or Hebrew Benevolent Societies generally developed first, with congregations following a few years later. For example, Memphis Jews established the first Jewish cemetery in 1847 and chartered a synagogue (the forerunner of the current Temple Israel) in 1854. A similar pattern emerged in Nashville, with the founding of the Hebrew Benevolent Burial Association in 1851, followed by the first synagogue in 1854.

The Civil War disrupted the slow development of Jewish life in Tennessee. During the war, Jews could be found on both sides, although most supported the loyalties of their local communities. Julius Ochs (whose son Adolph Ochs later bought and developed the Chattanooga Times and the New York Times) was a notable exception. Ochs remained a staunch Unionist while his wife Bertha supported the Confederacy. As a result of their role in commerce, many southern Jews became involved in smuggling goods around the Union embargoes.

After the war Jewish life in urban Tennessee changed considerably. Many local communities initially organized to deal with the Jewish wounded and dead. As a result, southern Jewish communities established closer ties with the larger Jewish communities of the North and Midwest. In some cases, northern Jewish soldiers, who remained in the postwar South, encouraged the creation of these expansive efforts. During this period both Chattanooga and Knoxville established the first burial societies and congregations in those cities. The postwar economic recovery and industrialization spurred growth in the Jewish communities, especially in Memphis and Nashville. In addition, a number of national Jewish organizations established chapters in the revitalized Jewish communities of the South, including the Order of B'nai B'rith, which founded chapters in Brownsville, Chattanooga, Memphis, (3) and Nashville.

The next major wave of Jewish immigration began in 1881 and lasted until World War I, fueled by political upheaval in Russia and other areas of Eastern Europe. The Jews in this wave of immigration were more traditional and Orthodox in their religious life than their German predecessors. In the majority of cases, these immigrants arrived penniless and without marketable skills and remained in the port cities of Boston and New York, where they could fulfill their need for Jewish communal institutions such as synagogues and kosher butchers. As a result, large traditional, Yiddish-speaking ghettos emerged in the cities of the Northeast. This immigrant wave brought some 2.5 million Jews to America to add to the American Jewish population of 250,000.

Relatively few of the new immigrants migrated south. Those who did usually followed commercial routes down the Mississippi River and produced significant East European Jewish settlements in port cities like Memphis. By the turn of the century Memphis included a Yiddish-speaking ghetto known as “the Pinch,” which was located along Auction, Market Commerce, and Beale Streets. To deal with the social and religious needs of the new immigrants, well-established German Jews and some Eastern Europeans created new organizations and associations. By the time the Russian Revolution and World War I ended this wave of immigration Jewish life in Tennessee consisted of a complex web of intersecting and sometimes competing organizations, clubs, synagogues, and associations. Today, Memphis continues to boast the largest single Orthodox congregation in the country.

In the years following World War I, the new immigrants gradually acculturated and assimilated as their children attended public schools, went to college, and moved out of their Jewish neighborhoods. By the 1950s Tennessee Jews, whether of German or Eastern European background, were well assimilated into the life of the state.

During World War II Tennessee's newest Jewish community was founded with the establishment of Oak Ridge. A number of Jewish scientists and engineers from across the country found themselves thrown together to aid the war effort. Many remained to staff the postwar laboratories and research facilities. As they established their own communal organizations during the 1940s and 1950s, these Jews created Tennessee's most diverse Jewish community.

In the last decades of the twentieth century the Jewish population of Tennessee underwent significant demographic change. Jewish communities in the smaller towns disappeared as older members died and younger generations of Jews left for college and careers. In addition, large numbers of Jewish professionals and businesspeople moved into the state from other areas, enlarging the urban communities and bringing new interests and needs. In 1996 the Jewish population of Tennessee numbered just under 20,000, with almost 9,000 Jews in Memphis and close to 6,000 in Nashville.

Suggested Reading

Eli N. Evans, The Provincials: A Personal History of the Jews in the South (1973); Leonard Dinnerstein and Mary Dale Palsson, eds., Jews in the South (1973); Fedora Frank, Five Families and Eight Young Men: Nashville and Her Jewry, 1850-1861 (1962) and Beginnings on Market Street: Nashville and Her Jewry 1861-1901 (1976); Selma Lewis, A Biblical People in the Bible Belt: The Jewish Community of Memphis, Tennessee, 1840s-1960s (1998)

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  • Article Title Jewish Settlement in Tennessee
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018