Concordia book review

 CONCORDIA:  A Family Memoir, by Stella Suberman.  Published 1999 by Anchor (Random House Australia), $19.95.

Most Jewish immigrant history of the 20th century – from Central and Eastern Europe – has consisted of stories of “making it” in cities, whether they be New York or Melbourne.  From the Lower East Side to Carlton, Jewish immigrants have embraced their new city locations with a passion not always shared by Irish and Italian immigrants. 

But there is another Jewish immigrant story, told much less frequently:  immigrants who have found their way to small country towns – places like Condobolin or Gundagai, where often as not they are the only Jews in town, and where they are inevitably involved in retail trade.  This is the basis of Concordia by Stella Suberman, which is subtitled “a family memoir”.  The story is that of the Bronson family, and in particular Aaron Bronson (Stella’s father), and the time they spent in “Concordia”, Tennessee (a pseudonymous town) in the 1920s, where they opened a “Jew Store”, as it was then called (dry goods).

The Bronsons are the first (and only) Jewish residents of Concordia, a town of about 5000 – a real slice of small town early modern America.  The Bronson journey to western Tennessee (cotton country) was fascinating in itself.  Russian-born and orphaned as a child, Aaron travelled to the “gold” of New York City, but found the city unfriendly and lonely. After an early experience living in Savannah, Georgia, he found the American south very much to his liking.  So when he met and married Reba (like him, born in Russia), he soon tired of his job as a pushcart peddler in New York and convinced the family to move south.  First stop was Nashville, where they were welcomed by the local Jewish retail community, which assisted them to set up their own shop in the rural west of the state.

Concordia the book operates on many levels:  It is a family history, although clearly one with poetic license, with whole conversations (which took place before the author was born) related word for word.  It is also a social history, of Jewish migrants running up against the “old” rural, Christian south, adapting to the new environment as best they can.  And it is a journey of discovery for the author, the youngest of the family (the only one actually born in Concordia).

Concordia covers some territory as the recent The Color of Water (the Jewish southern shopkeeping experience).  The book’s tone is warm, friendly, and the Concordia residents are described in great detail.  In recent years, Jewish family memoirs have been published with great frequency, and Concordia comes across as pleasant but less than rivetting.  The Bronsons were not that interesting or unusual (like the Color of Water family), and Suberman’s prose is relatively bland, also lacking significant insights beyond the family history.  This book will be of greatest interest for Jews who have grown up or lived in small town Christian communities – where they will inevitably empathise with the experiences.

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