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Eli Evans, ‘poet laureate’ of the Jews of the South, dies at 85

He was best known for his memoir, ‘The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South’

Eli N. Evans was the author of books including “The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South.” (Family photo)
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Eli N. Evans, an author and memoirist who explored through the lens of his family the history of the Jews of the American South — a population that has been called the Dixie Diaspora — died July 26 at a hospital in New York City. He was 85.

The cause was complications from covid-19, said his son, Josh Evans.

Mr. Evans was a Yale-trained lawyer who made his professional life in Washington, as a speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson, and later in New York, where he was president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, a philanthropic organization where he served as president from 1977 to 2003.

But his heart remained forever planted in the South. He was born in North Carolina into one of the many Jewish families whose stories were often overlooked amid the better-known narratives of immigrants who escaped pogroms and persecution in Europe and made new lives in the American Northeast. Mr. Evans recorded those untold stories in “The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South,” a book first published in 1973 and released again in 1997 and 2005.

“The Jews of the South have found their poet laureate,” the Israeli statesman and diplomat Abba Eban was said to have remarked of Mr. Evans.

He described the Jewish South as “my Yoknapatawpha,” a reference to the fictional Mississippi county that was the setting of many of the greatest works of William Faulkner. In “The Provincials,” Mr. Evans evoked the South as he, his parents, his grandparents and generations of Jews before them had known it, weaving autobiography and history to produce a foundational text of the history of Jews in the southern United States.

It “explores the nuances of Southern Jewish identity,” a writer for New York Jewish Week once observed, “and belongs on bookshelves next to Irving Howe’s classic ‘World of Our Fathers,’ ” the seminal 1976 history of the immigration of Eastern European Jews to the United States.

Those Eastern European immigrants included Mr. Evans’s paternal grandfather, who arrived in New York from Lithuania in the late 19th century at age 9. As a young man, he found work in the city’s Garment District but grew weary of the labor and caught a train en route to Florida. When the train stopped in Fayetteville, N.C., he learned a fire was blazing downtown and disembarked to help fight the flames. The train departed without him, leaving him to start a new life for himself, and his descendants, in the South.

Mr. Evans’s father, E.J. “Mutt” Evans, became the owner of a successful chain of general stores, Evans United Dollar, that was said to have offered one of the first integrated lunch counters in the city, and was elected the first Jewish mayor of Durham, holding the office from 1951 to 1963. An uncle served as mayor of Fayetteville. Mr. Evans’s mother, the former Sara Nachamson, was a civic leader who became known, according to the family, as “Hadassah’s Southern accent.”

Mr. Evans offered his family as evidence that “Jews in the South are not aliens in the Promised Land, as some would have you believe,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1997, but rather “part of the bone and marrow of the place.”

To write his book, he traveled through the history of his family and 7,000 miles from Virginia to Texas, interviewing not only “Jews of all ages but also the black ministers and militants, Klansmen and filing station attendants, farmers, churchwomen, and postmasters” who shared their world.

Calvin Trillin, a humorist and staff writer for the New Yorker magazine who has written about the arrival of his Eastern European forebears in the United States via the port of Galveston, Tex., said in an interview that Mr. Evans’s book “made a big difference in trying to understand my family’s story.”

“Like a lot of people from that background,” he added, “my knowledge of my family sort of stopped at water’s edge.”

Mr. Evans recounted moments in his life when he felt distinctly like an outsider, such as one summer night when he found himself swept into the fervor of a revival amid believers proclaiming they had been “saved,” or the time in sixth grade when a teacher assigned him to play Joseph in the annual Christmas pageant.

It was a choice role, but “I knew right away that I couldn’t go through with something that close-in to the manger,” Mr. Evans wrote. When he explained his reservations, he was recast (or rather, “typecast,” he wrote) as the tax collector, “the heartless representative of King Herod.”

Antisemitism was real in the South, but so, too, Mr. Evans wrote, was philosemitism. There were farmers, he recalled, who regarded Jews as God’s chosen people and asked his grandfather to bless their children in Hebrew. The grandfather would oblige, singing “a beautiful brachah in his best tenor,” Mr. Evans wrote, “just like on the Caruso records he owned.”

Such was the nature of Jewish life in the South, Mr. Evans wrote, that when a Christian friend tried to convert him, he did not take offense. The boy was “worried about what was going to happen to my soul,” Mr. Evans said. “It was kind of endearing: I was his friend, and he was concerned for me. Jews in the North find that sort of thing threatening. Southern Jews usually don’t find it as threatening.”

He saw himself not as a “southern Jew” but rather a “Jewish southerner,” one who had “inherited the Jewish longing for a homeland,” he wrote, “while being raised with the Southerner’s sense of home.”

Eli Nachamson Evans was born in Durham on July 28, 1936. According to family lore, Evans was an Anglicized form of the family’s original surname, the Hebrew word for “stonecutter.”

Mr. Evans said his parents taught him to be proud of his Jewish identity. He recalled that his father, while running for office, advertised his leadership in the local synagogue because Southern voters respected involvement in one’s house of worship. As mayor, he was credited with playing a prominent role in the desegregation of Durham in the 1950s and early 1960s

Mr. Evans received a bachelor’s degree in 1958 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was student body president. He served in the Navy before enrolling at Yale University, where he received a law degree in 1963.

After law school, Mr. Evans spent roughly a year working for the Johnson administration. He moved to New York in the late 1960s to become a program executive with the Carnegie Corporation, a philanthropic fund where he worked until joining the Revson Foundation. Under his leadership, the organization provided grants for urban, educational and biomedical programs as well as for Jewish causes. It helped underwrite the 1984 public television production “Heritage: Civilization and the Jews” and “Rechov Sumsum,” an Israeli production of the children’s program “Sesame Street” that sought to promote Jewish-Arab relations.

In North Carolina, Mr. Evans helped establish the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was a 2001 inductee of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

After moving to New York, Mr. Evans met Judith London, a fellow Jewish southerner who had grown up in an Orthodox home in Montgomery, Ala. They were married in 1981. When their son was born, Mr. Evans brought a vial of North Carolina dirt to the delivery room.

“With one hand I held Judith’s hand, and with the other I clutched the Southern soil,” he wrote in “The Provincials.” “I wanted him to know his roots and I believe that one had to begin to create family legends early.”

Judith London Evans died in 2008. Their son, of New York City, is Mr. Evans’s only immediate survivor.

In addition to his memoir, Mr. Evans wrote two other books exploring the history of southern Jews. Those volumes included a 1988 biography of Judah P. Benjamin, who served as the attorney general, secretary of war and secretary of state for the Confederacy, and the essay collection “The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner” (1993).

“A Jew in the South,” Mr. Evans once wryly remarked to the New York Times, “is always teaching.”