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Remembering Eli Evans, the “Poet Laureate” of Southern Jews


Photo: Eli N. Evans conversing with Professor Emeritus Oded Borowski at the Judith London Evans Director dedication event on November 22, 2011.

The Tam Institute for Jewish Studies (TIJS) community mourns the passing of our friend and benefactor, Eli N. Evans, who passed away on July 26 in New York City. A native of Durham, North Carolina, where his father was the first Jewish mayor, Eli attended the University of North Carolina (UNC) and received a law degree from Yale. His varied career included working as a speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson and serving as the President of the Charles H. Revson Foundation for nearly three decades.

He was best known, however, for introducing American audiences to the history and culture of Jews in the American South, which he did in a series of books that were well received by both scholarly and lay audiences. Now considered a classic, The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South (1973) blended original research with penetrating autobiographical reflections, leading Israeli diplomat Abba Eban to dub Eli the “Poet Laureate” of Southern Jews. In subsequent years, Eli followed up The Provincials with Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate (1987), which presented the life and career of the controversial 19th-century politician in all its complexity, and The Lonely Days Were Sundays (1993), a collection of essays that delved into the composite and sometimes fractured identities of Southern Jews. Running through all these works was an insightful and compassionate understanding of the challenges faced by his southern landsmen in their attempts to negotiate commitments to both their Jewish heritage and their region.  

In addition to his own writings, Eli contributed to a greater understanding of Southern Jewish history and culture through his support of the Southern Jewish Historical Society. In 1976, he was among the founding group that convened the Society’s first conference in Richmond, Virginia. The talk he delivered there, “Southern Jewish History: Alive and Unfolding,” was later published with other conference proceedings and became a kind of manifesto for the field. 

In the early 2000s, Eli made another major mark on Jewish life in the South by helping to build two major Jewish Studies programs in the region. In 2003, he was a moving force behind the establishment of the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at his alma mater, UNC. Five years later, following the death of his beloved wife, Judith London Evans, he endowed the directorship of TIJS here at Emory, where Judith graduated in the class of 1969. Accompanied by a generous support fund that promotes TIJS’s strategic interests, the Evans Directorship has transformed the Institute’s ability over the past fourteen years to enrich the academic experience for undergraduates, advance faculty research, and serve as a resource to the broader community.

The leadership, faculty, and staff of TIJS extend our heartfelt condolences to the entire Evans family and to the many friends, readers, and admirers who so profoundly mourn Eli’s loss. Inspired by his legacy, we will continue his work of building the field of Jewish Studies in the American South and beyond. May his memory be a blessing.

For more information on Eli Evans and his many contributions, visit

Published 8/16/22