Thursday, December 10, 2015

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Mazel Tov, Y'all: The Southern Roots of Jewish Politicians

One of my favorite stumpers when it comes to history trivia (I’m a big-time history nerd) is to ask who was the first Jewish cabinet member in the US. If you had trouble guessing, I’d go on to mention that this person also just so happened to be Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State.

Give up? Well, ever heard of a guy by the name of Judah Benjamin? If not, it may be because I’ve pulled a little trick on you. Though Benjamin actually fulfilled these duties in the geographical US, he was not, however, in the US government.

Confused? Benjamin was actually a Southerner, was active during the Civil War years, and was a part of the Confederate cabinet. Yup, those backwards and prejudiced Southerners made a Jew one of the most prominent persons in their government. And before the war even took place, they had also already elected him a state representative and senator, and a US senator as well. 

It wasn’t just him though. In fact, Jews positively thrived in the South, both before and after the war. Did you know, for example, that Niemann and Marcus (of the Dallas department store) were both Jews, that Adolph Ochs (who would later buy the NY Times) was born in Chattanooga, that the Straus brothers (who would later own Macy’s) grew up in Georgia?

Jewish Political Firsts and the South

Something I just uncovered lends further truth to this fact. I just so happened to be looking at a list in Wikipedia that noted Jewish political firsts in the US – first senator, governor, cabinet member, and so on.

I then started checking out some of these figures’ bios. Of the nine firsts that seemed particularly important (not, for example, the first female Jewish minority mayor), two-thirds of them were Southerners or had Southern roots. So, for the rest of this blog, I’ll just cover those personages, starting with the oldest first. Enjoy!


David Levy Yulee was Florida’s senator for two separate periods, from 1841-1845 and 1855-1861. Born in St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, Yulee would immigrate to Florida as a child, spending almost all of the rest of his life there. 

Yulee was a plantation owner as well as a railroad developer. As a politician, he was a “fire-eater,” one of the more strenuous of the antebellum, pro-slavery Southerners.

Yulee represents our first instance of inter-marriage. He married a well-born Kentucky girl, and the two raised their children as Christians.

There is a town called Yulee in Florida (pop. 11,000). In addition, Levy County (pop. 40,000) is also named after him. 


Lewis Charles Levin was the Representative from Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District from 1845 to 1851. He was, however, born in Charleston, SC, graduated from the University of South Carolina, taught school in Mississippi, and practiced law in Kentucky and Maryland.

Levin was an prohibitionist and nativist, and ran on the Know-Nothing Party platform. In case your antebellum history is a little rusty, the Know Nothings were mostly known for being anti-Catholic. Levin was, in fact, behind riots in Philadelphia that involved dozens killed, hundreds injured, and multiple churches being burned down. 

Levin next claim to fame was being involved in a bribery scandal while running for the US Senate. He would eventually go mad, dying in a Philadelphia asylum.


Washington Bartlett sure doesn’t sound Jewish. In fact, Bartlett was not a practicing Jew, and had his funeral at the local Episcopal church. On the other hand, though, I never found anything that said that he was ever a convert to Christianity.

Anyhoo, Bartlett was the governor of California. He served in the year 1887, dying of the results of a stroke (or perhaps Bright’s Disease – sources conflict) after only 9 months in office. 

Prior to serving as governor, Bartlett was a state senator and mayor of San Francisco. Before politics, he was a book and  newspaper publisher and lawyer.

Oh, the Southern connection? Bartlett was born in Savannah and also lived in Tallahassee. He came to California as a 25-year-old, looking to find his fortune in the Gold Rush. 

Interestingly, he is often confused with Washington Allon Bartlett, who was also a mayor of San Francisco. Our guy was Washington Montgomery Bartlett.

NOTE: Some claim that the first Jewish governor was David Emanuel, of Georgia (1801). All evidence of this, however, seems to be conjectural. There appears to be no hard evidence that he actually was Jewish (and may have even been a Welsh Presbyterian).

Cabinet Secretary

If you don’t count Judah Benjamin, the first Jewish cabinet member was Oscar Strauss, Secretary of Commerce and Labor from 1906 to 1909, and appointed by Teddy Roosevelt.

Though born in Germany, Straus emigrated as a child to the small town of Talbotton, GA. At the end of the Civil War, he went North to go to college, never really returning to the South again.

Prior to his being Secretary, Straus was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and was on the international Court of Arbitration at the Hague. After being Secretary, he was again the Ottoman ambassador, ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York, and was chairman of the NY Public Service Commission.

As famous as Straus was, you may know the members of his illustrious family even better. A grandson, Roger, founded the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux. And his brother Isidor was a US representative, part owner of Macy’s, and one of the more famous Titanic victims. 

Supreme Court Justice

Louis Brandeis was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1916 (by Woodrow Wilson), and served on it until 1939.

A Kentucky native, he left the Bluegrass State for Boston, where he attended Harvard Law School and then started  his own law firm. He was well-known for social justice causes, and was nicknamed the “People’s Lawyer” and the “Robin Hood of the Law.” 

He died only a few years after retiring, and is buried beneath the portico of the University of Louisville’s school of law (which also bears his name). He is also the namesake of Brandeis University, in his adopted hometown of Boston.

NOTE:  Judah Benjamin – yup, that guy again – was actually nominated to the Supreme Court, by Millard Fillmore, but declined the nomination.

Congressional Officer

Congressional officers include whips, leaders, and Speakers of the House. Eric Cantor, the only person on this list who is still alive, was the first two, but not the last.

Cantor was born and raised in Richmond, and represented the city as a state delegate and US representative. He was in the latter position from 2001 to 2014.

He was, however, defeated in 2014 – in the Republican primary no less – by Tea Party candidate Dave Brat. At the time of his resignation, he was the only Republican Jewish member of the US House. Currently, there is only one Jewish Republican in either branch of Congress, Lee Zeldin of NY's 1st Congressional District.

  • Mayor – Moses Bloom, Iowa City, IA
  • Presidential candidate – Barry Goldwater, AZ
  • Vice-presidential candidate – Joe Lieberman, CT

More Information on Southern Jews