Friday, October 23, 2009

Yiddish Hillbillies

Or – “An Alternate History of Judaism in the Southern Appalachians”

One of my all-time favorite characters from the history of this area is Sir Alexander Cuming. In 1729, the Scottish baronet came to the colonies and then trekked into Cherokee country to fulfill a vision that his wife had in a dream. Perhaps his wife concocted the vision in order to get a break from her eccentric husband.



From the animated feature, Yiddish Hillbillies

On a whirlwind tour of Cherokee villages in the spring of 1730, Sir Alexander passed himself off as an emissary of King George II. His mission culminated in an elaborate ceremony at Nikwasi Mound (present-day Franklin) where he received a crown, actually a possum-hair hat, as a sign of esteem. Cuming even convinced several Cherokees to return to England with him, where they were received as honored guests, or London celebrities, if you will.

Less well known than his Nikwasi visit was Cuming’s proposal to establish a new Zion on the Carolina frontier. He appealed to the British government to relocate 300,000 Jewish families from Europe to the Southern Appalachians. Cuming argued that a large portion of the national debt could be retired by investing in the resettlement program. The Jewish families would escape the crowded ghettos and start a new life in the mountains, where they could farm and produce commodities useful to the British Empire.

James Adair, an Indian trader who worked in this area after Cuming came and went, could have made the case for a Jewish settlement amongst the Cherokees on the basis of reunification. Adair actually did make the case that the Cherokees were a lost tribe of Israel. Much of his 1775 book, A History of the American Indian, is devoted to “23 Arguments as to why the Cherokee are Hebrew.” If you’re not convinced after carefully considering all twenty-three of Adair’s talking points, then it is unlikely you ever will be.

I can’t tell you much more about Cuming’s Zion…except to say it didn’t come to fruition. A 1796 volume, The Environs of London, explains:

Sir Alexander says in his journal, that whilst he was in America in 1729 he found such injudicious notions of liberty prevail, as were inconsistent with any kind of government, particularly with their dependence on the British nation. This suggested to him the idea of establishing banks in each of the provinces dependent on the British exchequer, and accountable to the British parliament, as the only means of securing the dependency of the colonies. But it was not till 1748 (as it appears) that he laid his plans before the Minister who treated him as a visionary enthusiast, which his journal indeed most clearly indicates him to have been.

He connected this scheme with the restoration of the Jews, for which he supposed the time appointed to be arrived, and that he himself was alluded to in various passages of Scripture as their deliverer. He was not, like a late enthusiast, to conduct them to the Holy Land, but proposed to take them to the Cherokee mountains: wild as his projects were, some of the most learned Jews (among whom was Isaac Netto, formerly Grand Rabbi of the Portuguese synagogue) seem to have given him several patient hearings upon the subject.

When the Minister refused to listen to his schemes, he proposed to open a subscription himself to establish provincial banks in America, and to settle 300,000 Jewish families among the Cherokee mountains. From one wild project he proceeded to another; and, being already desperately involved in debt, he turned his thoughts to alchemy, and began to try experiments on the transmutation of metal.

Sir Alexander Cuming appears to have been a man of learning, and to have possessed talents, which, if they had not been under a wrong bias, might have been beneficial to himself and useful to his country.

From: 'East Barnet', The Environs of London: volume 4: Counties of Herts, Essex & Kent (1796), pp. 9-23. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=45462 Date accessed: 23 October 2009.

And now this...the way it might have been had the Cuming plan succeeded.




But it didn't happen...and that's why we don't have a series of Foxfierstein books today.

While we’re on the subject of Jews in unlikely places, I have to mention Soupy Sales, who died yesterday. I already knew a bit of trivia that some might find surprising: Soupy Sales was a Tar Heel boy, born Milton Supman in 1926. His was the lone Jewish family in Franklinton, North Carolina.

His father was a dry goods merchant in the small town, and sold sheets to members of the Ku Klux Klan. I had to pause for a moment to picture that scene.



Imagine the Grand Dragon and friends strolling into that Franklinton store for a new wardrobe, only to be greeted by Irving Supman:

Sheets? Sheets? Of course, I’ve got sheets. You look like men of discriminating tastes…when it comes to sheets, that is. Look at the fine quality of this merchandise…a thread count of 400…the best Egyptian cotton…and, of course, we can do alterations to give you a perfect fit.


Looking back on those times, Soupy chuckled at the absurdity of the situation, recalling how the Klan members appreciated that his father extended credit. They even invited Irving Supman to join the KKK.

Eventually young Milton, nicknamed "Soup Bone" by his dad, moved on from Eastern North Carolina and became famous for getting smacked in the face with cream pies.



Although he hosted what was ostensibly a children’s program on Channel 5 in New York, it drew a broader audience thanks to his cornball, slapstick humor.

Doing “The Mouse”





With Fess Parker…





Alice Cooper drops by…





And lots of pies…



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