I had never heard of the Columbian Country Club until given this assignment, despite being Jewish and having resided in Dallas since 2002. But my life experience suggests that the passing of an exclusively Jewish country club, while deplorable in and of itself, is not a cause for worry as far as the Jewish community of Dallas is concerned. Rather, it may be a long-awaited sign that the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the city has finally become normal.
|CULTURE CLUB: The Jewish Community Center of Dallas, with about 7,000 members, engages the young and old alike. (See below.)
photography by Billy Surface
A quarter of a century ago, my native city—St. Petersburg, Russia—had an approximately 150,000-strong Jewish population, but only two synagogues. With atheism an official government policy and state anti-Semitism rampant, being spotted in one of those could easily end a person’s career. As a result, the synagogues were only visited by those with nothing to lose: retirees, people on the cusp of emigration, and, of course, the otkazniki (those denied permission to leave the country). No other Jewish associations were permitted, and activists trying to set them up were often jailed or banished on trumped-up charges.
Under these circumstances, the Jews of St. Petersburg, as well as of any other Russian city, could socialize only in private. That meant having a party in somebody’s tiny apartment and knocking back a few shots of vodka. One of the hot-button issues in any Jewish company was whether Israel or the United States was a better destination. Facing hostility on all sides, Jews had little choice but to stick and huddle together, or to leave for good.
And leave we did. Jewish emigration swept the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Israel, where we initially moved, at first looked poles apart from Russia. There was a synagogue right across the street, and if its rite or custom was not to our liking (as it actually was, because that particular synagogue followed Sephardic liturgy), another one could be found right around the corner. Educational institutions, both religious and secular, offered an argosy of programs, most of them free of charge. Dozens of political parties and movements aggressively recruited members through all kinds of associations and recreational activities. And all of this was not simply open to Jews—it was Jewish, most of the time exclusively so. That included social facilities, country clubs among them. Unlike the Columbian, Israeli country clubs usually offer tennis rather than golf (in addition to swimming pools and dining), but most, if not all, of them are also Jews-only.
This is precisely what gave me a pause when my early fascination with Israel’s Jewishness began to wear off. Although Jews make up almost 80 percent of the country’s population (excluding occupied territories), there are also sizable minority groups, Arabs being by far the largest of them. It is, of course, natural that Arabs and other non-Jews are never seen in synagogues or yeshivas, but what about country clubs? If these people are excluded or reluctant to join (in most cases, it is both) because of bad blood between them and the Jews, and given that Israel is surrounded by predominantly Arab countries, perhaps (to use Yogi Berra’s words) it is déjà vu all over again. Jews still have no choice but to stick, and huddle, together.
That much became especially clear to me when, after seven years in Israel, my family and I moved to Southern California. Even in the area where we lived, relatively far removed from heavily Jewish neighborhoods and having a Jewish population of only a few thousand, we discovered (right after Disneyland and Death Valley) flourishing Jewish life. The choice of synagogues and Jewish religious, educational, and political organizations rivaled that available in Israel, to say nothing of Russia. In fact, it was even broader, because Reform and Conservative congregations, so common everywhere in the United States and certainly in California, are very few and far between in Israel. But in one important respect, the new environment was a real departure from all our previous experience: exclusively Jewish social clubs were nowhere to be found. In fact, I had an opportunity (if I’d had the money) to join any club of my choice. With no one trying to exclude me as a Jew, I had little reason to stick and huddle with other Jews outside a synagogue or an organization with a specifically Jewish agenda.
The experiences that I have briefly described bear directly on the significance of the Columbian’s demise. When the club was founded, in the late 19th century, the situation of Dallas Jews bore greater similarity to what I lived through in Russia and in Israel than to what I encountered in Southern California. In relative terms, the community was not much smaller than it is today: the 1900–1901 American Jewish Yearbook lists just under 200 “members and seat holders” in the city’s three synagogues, projecting at least 1,000 Jews out of the total population of about 42,000—that is, more than 2 percent. However, the attitude the community had to deal with was markedly different. Just like elsewhere in America, Jews as a rule did not face open hatred (except in the 1910s and 1920s, when Dallas housed the national headquarters of the KKK) and suffered little political and economic discrimination. By contrast, social exclusion was rampant. Even as late as 1970, Encyclopedia Judaica reported that that the notorious “6 o’clock curtain” (with Jews being welcome at the office but not at a party) still applied in Dallas and that, in particular, some social clubs still refused to admit Jewish members.
But with exclusion gradually going away in the 1970s and disappearing altogether in the 1980s, the Columbian’s Jewish membership began to dwindle, and within a decade or two, its Jewish character was irretrievably lost.
Now that we are welcomed by our neighbors in their social clubs, we happily join them in everything except specifically Jewish activities. And although the Jewish population of Dallas is small in comparison to such centers as New York, Los Angeles, Miami, or Chicago (according to a recent estimate, there are about 50,000 Jews in North Texas), my sense is that the choice of such activities is not inferior to the one I had in Southern California and even in Israel. Dallas and surrounding cities have about 20 Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues, several Jewish schools and educational institutions, and chapters of just about all national Jewish organizations—from Bnai Zion to the Anti-Defamation League to the Lubavitch Movement. There is even a local Jewish newspaper, the Texas Jewish Post.
This does not mean, of course, that everything about Jewish life in Dallas is perfect. For example, the supply of good kosher dining in the city and its suburbs is way too small. (By far the best certified kosher establishment I have patronized in Dallas is a South Indian restaurant.) Some recent trends are also worrisome, such as the decline of interest in Jewish education for adults that resulted in this year’s closure of Beyt Midrash of North Texas and the Judaica Lecture Series at SMU’s Bridwell Library. This decline is a cause for serious concern, but the disappearance of a Jews-only country club is not. Rather, the club’s demise is a welcome indication that the city’s Jewish community has finally, after more than a century of existence, won social acceptance, that this community is secure and strong in its diversity. The Columbian may be gone, but the Jews of Dallas are here to stay.
Serge Frolov is associate professor and Nate and Ann Levine Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies at SMU.