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Jewish Slave Owners No Fiction, Though This Book Is

Alan Cheuse's  <em>Song of Slaves in the Desert</em> explores South Carolina plantation life before the Civil War from a Jewish New Yorker's point of view.
H. P. Moore
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Alan Cheuse's Song of Slaves in the Desert explores South Carolina plantation life before the Civil War from a Jewish New Yorker's point of view.

All Things Considered book critic Alan Cheuse has spent more than two decades reviewing other people's work. Now, he's putting himself under the critical microscope with a new novel, Song of Slaves in the Desert.

It's the story — two intertwined stories, really — of a slave-owning Jewish family in South Carolina before the Civil War and a slave girl growing up on their rice plantation.

Cheuse tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that he got the idea for his book from an unlikely fraternity brother. "I went to Lafayette College for a year — that's in Easton, Pa. — and I joined a Jewish fraternity, the president of which was a black guy, Len Jeffries," Cheuse says. "He was a scholar and a gentleman — and a friendly guy."

In the 1990s, Jeffries became a professor at the City College of New York, and gained national prominence with a series of controversial statements. "He declared that black people were 'sun people,' and white people were 'ice people,' " Cheuse says, "and he asserted that the Jews bankrolled the American slave trade."

It prompted Cheuse's decision to research the history of Jewish slave owners. He found that they did exist, though in relatively small numbers. "The sad, pathetic truth of the situation is that some of these Jews, the descendants of the people whom Moses led out of the land of bondage, bought into the system," Cheuse says.

"For me, it's the great existential temptation," he adds. "To have the possibility of holding this great power over someone and taking it, rather than refusing it."

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