by Sandee Brawarsky Special To The Jewish Week
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The hairpin turns along the Blue Ridge Parkway reveal astonishing vistas, with deepening shades of blue and green, mountains and their shadows, around each bend. So too, a last-minute vacation to visit friends in Greensboro, N.C., attend a bluegrass festival, and travel in the Blue Ridge Mountains, turned into a detour into Southern Jewish history. We bumped into family stories in unexpected places, and later picked up subsequent chapters.

One of the first things a New Yorker notices in Greensboro is the gentle and polite way people speak.  I guess that we must have sounded like New Yorkers as we were sitting in a café on historic Elm Street, the center of town, a few hours after we arrived, when a young man at an adjacent table turned around and suggested that he knew of a place that might interest us. George Scheer then directed us down the street — where 19th-century buildings still have names like Blumenthal and Schiffman engraved on the facades, the Jewish business owners now gone.

The three-story building that housed his family’s surplus supply business is now an artist collaborative called Elsewhere. These days, there’s nothing to buy there, but plenty to see: arrangements of the bolts of fabrics, ribbons, dolls, hats, record albums, buttons that his grandmother Sylvia Gray used to sell, newly assembled by crews of international artists who visit for residencies; a garden; performance spaces. Gray worked in the 58-year old family business, adding an element of a thrift shop, until the week she died in 1997.  Scheer began excavating and creating a few years later and has had support from, among other places, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

That was our introduction to Greensboro, and it was a sign that Jewish history was inscribed all over the city.

Greensboro is a city of about 250,000 people, with about 2,500 Jews. Rabbi Eliezer Havivi, who has led the Conservative Beth David Synagogue for 18 years (and is originally from New York), speaks of the high Jewish affiliation rate, with “a remarkably vibrant Jewish life for such a small town.”  On an August Shabbat, his shul was impressively filled, with young people leading the services and an old-timer chanting the haftorah, his deep Southern accent shaping the Hebrew vowels. The community also hosts a Reform synagogue, a day school and the American Hebrew Academy, a boarding high school that draws students from all over the world.

When we passed the sprawling Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, we remarked about how Southerners like biblical names, and only later realized that the Cones were Jewish; they are descended from Herman Kahn, who immigrated from Bavaria, alone at age 17, in 1846. He “Americanized” his name to Cone, as he began his work as a pack peddler in rural Virginia.

In a story that is not atypical of immigrants, he shifted from peddling to owning a dry good business, converting assets to real estate during the Civil War. Later, he later took his sons — the eldest were Moses and Cesar — into his wholesale grocery business and they expanded into supplying textile businesses through the South, then invested in mills and went into clothing manufacturing and fabric finishing. From 1895 to 1905, they established their own three mills in Greensboro — chosen as it was a rail center — and built villages and churches for their workers. In 1920 their mills employed approximately 3,000 of the city’s 20,000 residents.  Very quickly, these former peddlers became industrialists and philanthropists — and they became what is believed to be the largest producer of denim in the world.

Herman Cone had 13 children; others followed Moses and Ceasar into the family business, and their success helped two of their sisters, Etta and Claribel to flourish in Baltimore. The sisters traveled widely, amassed a fabulous art collection and were celebrated for their friendship with Gertrude Stein. Thousands of their paintings and sculptures, with many works by Matisse, Renoir and Picasso, were bequeathed to the Baltimore Museum of Art, and are now considered the museum’s crown jewel.

We encountered a photo of the sisters with Stein a few hours from Greensboro, in the resort town of Blowing Rock, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains at 4,000 feet. The town is named for a natural wonder, actually a geological oddity: a huge outcropping whose rocky walls form a flume, through which the winds sweep with such force that light objects seem to flow upward. This town too, is part of Cone history, predating the Blue Ridge Parkway that crosses through it.
In the 1890s, Moses Cone and his wife Bertha, also the daughter of German-Jewish immigrants, built a country estate on about 3,500 acres, with an ornate mansion in the Colonial revival style, along with a carriage house and stable, a laundry and a bowling alley. When gaslight and telephones were largely unknown in this rural stretch of Appalachia, they brought them to Flat Top Manor, as they named their home after a nearby mountain. Building materials were brought by horse-drawn carriage from the nearest rail station, about 20 miles away. Part of their local legacy was improving local education and promoting citizenship.

Milepost 294 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, built in part by Work Project Administration personnel in the 1930s, is an entrance to Flat Top Manor. These Cones had no children, and after Bertha’s death in 1947, the estate was given to the National Park Service, and is now the heavily-visited Moses H. Cone Memorial Park. The stately house, with its white pillars and wide veranda, looks out over Bass Lake, the carriage trails and the apple orchards they built. Inside, there are no signs of the French and colonial furniture the Cones favored, nor any oriental art or the monogrammed napkins they used at formal dinner parties. The manor now houses a crafts gallery, featuring the work of local artisans.

When I returned from Greensboro, I turned to my friend Eli N. Evans, historian and author of the classic works, “The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South,” and “Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate.” Turns out that Ceasar Cone II tried to court his mother, and came to pick her up in a Stutz Bearcat, the automotive status symbol of its day. As Evans tells the story, she fell instead for his father, who drove a jalopy and went on to serve as mayor of Durham.

“The Cone family transformed this Jewish community – the legacy of their great philanthropic tradition over many years seeped into the souls of future generations and evolved into a DNA of generosity that even today is imbedded in the heart of the Greensboro Jewish community,” he says. “One of the unique reasons is that they gave to non-Jewish causes as well as to Jewish causes.  They believed that a better community for everybody was a better community for the Jewish people.”

Evans introduced me to Benjamin Cone, Jr., who serves with him on the board of the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies. The retired owner of an industrial equipment business based in Greensboro, Ben spends a lot of time at the American Hebrew Academy during golf season, as the team’s $1 a year coach. He is the son of Benjamin Cone, who served as mayor of Greensboro; grandson of Ceasar Cone; great-grandson of Herman Cone. Now 67, Ben’s story adds an unusual twist to this family tree.

While Ceasar and Moses married Jewish women, two of Ceasar’s three sons, Benjamin and Ceasar II, married gentiles. (Moses had no children.) Ben, also known as Benjy, was raised in the Episcopal church. In his cheerful voice and North Carolina accent he recalls, “I was baptized, confirmed, I carried the cross down the aisle, the whole shpiel.”

While a student at Harvard Business School, he became interested in Judaism as a result of the Israel’s Six-Day War, among other influences, and in the early 1970s converted to Judaism; he was already married (to a gentile woman) and they had a child.

“I was Jewish in the image of my father, extremely secular,” he explains, doing philanthropic work on behalf of Israel and the community. In his 50s, he began thinking about spiritual issues, and at age 57 had a bar mitzvah at the Reform synagogue, where Cone now attends regularly. With his wife’s support, they host Passover seders and celebrate the holidays. He takes “great pleasure in donning a prayer shawl and davening in my way,” he says. But even before he converted, his older sister Jeanette met a Jewish man and underwent an orthodox conversion before her marriage. Another sister, a Christian, is now married (in a second marriage) to a Jewish man, and they too celebrate Jewish holidays.

But Cone’s sons and their families are not Jewish, and Jeanette has no children.

“When I go to bar and bat mitzvahs and see a Torah being passed, that didn’t happen for me, nor was I able to do that with my kids. Sometimes I get a tear in my eye. I feel an amazing pull to Judaism, but I caught it too late. When I look at the Ben Cone branch, after I die none will be Jewish.”

Cone Mills is no longer owned by the family but is a unit of International Textile Group. There are still lots of Cones around Greensboro today, with boulevards and institutions named for them, and, as Rabbi Havivi explains, “The Cones are sprinkled throughout the civic leadership of Greensboro, many of them not Jewish, but the Cones are still Cones.”

Judy Groner, head of school at B’nai Shalom Day School, says that her students — who study local history — “are extremely proud of the deep Jewish roots in this city and they carry their heritage confidently as they go off to college and beyond.”

Like many Jews, my own grandparents were immigrants to America too, and their journey wouldn’t have intersected with the Cones, although perhaps my tailor grandfather used flannel that came from the Cone mills and my carpenter grandfather wore denim. The Lower East Side and the Bronx were far from Greensboro and Blowing Rock, the Catskills distant from the Blue Ridge Mountains, but the story of Herman Cone and his descendents, of their spirit, experience and largesse, is clearly another portal to understanding the still-unfolding story of American Jews.