BY JERRY STERNBERG
During the first half of the 20th century, what I call the Moshe Cohen laws discriminated against Jews in various ways. They were barred from working in certain fields, barred from renting or owning property in certain neighborhoods, barred from resort areas. They weren’t allowed to join elite social clubs, and quotas restricted their access to many colleges.
Most Jews in Asheville worked in retail, small manufacturing, recycling or in one of a handful of professions: medicine, teaching, accounting or the law. That might not sound so bad, but dig deeper and you can start to understand the detrimental social and economic effects of those “laws.” Particularly in smaller towns, exclusionary country clubs were a key factor in maintaining this system.
Country club membership provides access to the power structure in the form of invaluable connections to banks, insurance companies, developers, real estate people and so on. It’s not uncommon in some places for elected officials to be given honorary memberships — or, at the very least, to be frequent guests of members.
Behind closed doors
To this day, many large, far-reaching business and political deals are struck in elite country clubs, whether it’s on the golf course or bellied up to the bar. Access to this inner sanctum, however, is denied to all those who for economic, racial or cultural reasons can’t get past the door.
If, for example, a highly desirable industrial prospect comes to Asheville, they’ll be greeted at the airport by leading officials, the Economic Development Coalition and powerful local business executives. After a tour of the area, they’re taken to lunch at one of our country clubs, which are lavish, commodious and boast very fine golf courses and other amenities.
There they are introduced to more club members: local businesspeople and professionals who will seek to forge advantageous connections in the event that those company representatives decide to open their plant here. If there is a follow-up trip, they often bring their spouses.
On these occasions, the executives go more in depth with the local entourage, maybe looking at additional potential sites and visiting possible suppliers. In the meantime, the spouses are being treated to lunch, and quite often a dinner is arranged for the visitors and the many interested parties.
By the time the new company opens here, the incoming executives are already on a first-name basis with many of the country club’s members. Guess which lawyers and accountants get hired, who gets the service contracts, the insurance contracts and who supplies the goods and equipment the new facility needs.
And meanwhile, the balance of the business community, the folks who never had that privileged access, have to settle for the crumbs. Thus, in addition to emotional pain and suffering, selective membership based on race, color or religion can result in egregious restraint of trade.
The wrong ‘classification’
Even back when I was young, there were two country clubs here.
The Asheville Country Club had many amenities, including a terrific golf course designed by the incomparable Donald Ross. Jews, however, were not allowed to join.
But in the early 1930s, the Great Depression devastated the ACC and substantially reduced its membership. So, out of the goodness of their heart and their financial desperation, the club admitted a handful of prominent Jewish families. Nonmember Jews were only allowed to visit the club as guests of members.
In 1942 Mr. Joseph Dave, one of those few Jewish members, proposed Mr. Charles Roth for membership. Dave had worked for my grandfather’s steel fabricating business before starting Dave Steel, which made an invaluable contribution during World War II. Roth’s family, meanwhile, built movie theaters and distributed films; he also developed a very fine restaurant called Biltmore Plaza and a bowling alley across from the passenger railroad station. I knew the Dave family quite well, and after a chance encounter recently, his grandson sent me an electronic copy of the following letter, which shamelessly proclaims that Mr. Roth, who was otherwise qualified to be a member, belonged to a “classification” called “Jews.”
Although the letter gives no justification for the quota, the clear implication is that if these lesser human beings were allotted additional memberships, it would somehow degrade the quality of the club. And to the best of my knowledge as an active member of the close-knit local Jewish community, no Jews were admitted as members for decades afterward.
The other club in town was the Biltmore Forest Country Club. According to the town’s website, “The country club was first envisioned when an existing country club in North Asheville would not let Edith Vanderbilt smoke on the premises.” So in 1922, she recruited an A-list of local bluebloods who created a new facility across town. This club, however, was even more restrictive. According to everything I saw and heard over many years, Jews were not only barred from membership, but they weren’t even allowed to set foot on the property as guests.
In reporting my experiences as a Jew in this community, I’ve become aware of a puzzling dichotomy. Over the years I’ve visited several local Christian churches for occasions such as weddings. I would often tell members of those congregations what a beautiful church they had or how much I’d enjoyed the choir music. Without fail, they would immediately thank me and invite me to come back on Sunday to worship with them, even offering to come and pick me up.
Christians in the South are often encouraged by their faith to evangelize in order to save souls. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been handed a biblical tract or had one slid under my door.
But here’s my conundrum: I grew up with many youngsters whose families belonged to the country club. We played sports together, visited each others’ homes, attended school and took part in organizations such as the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. In later years, I did business with many of them, and we worked together on various charities and civic activities. They were happy to drink in bars and play golf with me — as long as it wasn’t in the country clubs where those same activities were going on. So, why is it that they were willing to have me take part in their most revered and precious religious activities yet unwilling to challenge the discriminatory membership policies that kept Jews out of those exclusive clubs?
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.