Eli Evans, ‘Poet Laureate of Southern Jews’ and influential grantmaker, dies at 85

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(JTA) — It was the historic 1993 handshake between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin that inspired Eli Evans to invest, for the third time, in Sesame Street.

As an executive of the Carnegie Corporation in the 1960s, he negotiated the government support that helped launch the American educational television fixture. Then, after becoming the first president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation in 1977, he supported the creation of an Israeli version, “Rechov Sumsum”.

With peace in the air, Evans thought an Israeli-Palestinian version was needed. He set out to convince other funders, Israeli and Palestinian government officials, and renowned artists to join the effort. In the end, dozens of episodes were made even as the real prospects for peaceful coexistence were demolished – a testament to Evans’ unwavering optimism, forged during a childhood in the southern United States, in the power of partnership and creativity to create a fairer society.

Evans died Tuesday, two days shy of his 86th birthday, of complications from COVID-19 in New York City.

“Through his great generosity of spirit, his love of Israel and the Jewish people, his deep belief in the promise of American democracy, and his philosophy of building on bold ideas and talented people, Eli made a powerful contribution to our world a better place,” Revson said. Foundation, which was founded by the Jewish founder of Revlon Cosmetics, said in a statement. “He was a role model and a mentor to those who followed in his footsteps.”

Eli Nachamson Evans was born July 28, 1936, in Durham, North Carolina, to Emanuel “Mutt” Evans, a general store owner who in 1950 would become Durham’s first Jewish mayor, and Sara Evans, founder of the first Hadassah chapter in the South. . His grandfathers were immigrants and peddlers.

In “The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South”, the first of several books Evans would write on the subject, he detailed growing up as a Jew in Durham, then a sleepy town drenched in perfume and money from the tobacco trade. . He said the family had been the subject of anti-Semitic comments and even threats, but his father was generally respected by both the city’s business elite and its black population, in part because of the Mutt’s ability to navigate cultural norms. Campaign literature boasted of Mutt’s presidency of Beth El Synagogue to attract voters loyal to the church, Evans wrote. Meanwhile, he noted the family store was the first in Durham to have a racially integrated lunch counter – but that Mutt removed the seating as a concession to a segregationist backlash.

Evans’ decision to study literature at the University of North Carolina — where he was the first president of the Jewish student body and spent a summer on a kibbutz in Israel — and then pursue law school in Yale after a stint in the US Navy marked the end of the family business. It also meant that he would spend much of his adult life living outside the South, although he returned whenever possible and maintained ties to the region through his philanthropy and writing.

After briefly working in politics, as speechwriter to President Lyndon Johnson and assistant to North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford, Evans joined the Carnegie Corporation. There and later at Revson, he advanced an activist grantmaking philosophy focused on empowering talented people to realize their own visions. His projects helped Marian Wright Edelman launch the Children’s Defense Fund, seed black lawyers in the South who became local civil rights leaders, and connect Israeli and Egyptian scientists after their countries’ peace in 1979. .

“Private philanthropy has the freedom, privilege and responsibility to do what government cannot,” Evans wrote in 1998, on the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Revson Foundation. “She can use her independence to have a long-term vision, to prevent, to support the unpopular, the visionaries, the dreamers and their dreams. It can test new ideas, try out new approaches and bring together people with very different perspectives, disciplines and talents to discover new avenues of mutual understanding.

Although he lived in New York for much of his adult life, Evans maintained deep ties to the South. When his wife gave birth to their son at New York University Medical Center, Evans brought a vial of North Carolina soil into the delivery room.

Eli Evans and son Josh at Josh Evans’ wedding in 2015. (Courtesy of Josh Evans)

“With one hand I held Judith’s hand and with the other I gripped the southern soil,” Evans wrote in “Home,” an essay about Jewish youth in the southern United States. United which was one of many places where he told the story of the delivery room. . “I wanted him to know his roots.”

Evans has written several books on Southern Jews in addition to “The Provincials,” including a biography of Confederate Jewish leader Judah P. Benjamin and a second collection of personal essays in 1994.

Jonathan Sarna, a historian of American Jewry at Brandeis University, said Evans stood out for his humility and openness to new ideas. Sarna recalled a discussion in which Evans questioned whether his family’s success in getting along with the white and black Christian communities of Durham had been the product not just of their own tolerance, but of racial dynamics in which white Jews served as a bulwark against a potential black. majority.

“Eli was a Southern gentleman who interacted with the Jewish establishment and strengthened American Jewish life, without losing his Southern Jewish soul,” Sarna said. “It was a privilege to have known him.”

“The Jews of the South have found their Poet Laureate,” wrote Abba Eban, the 20th-century Israeli scholar and diplomat, in praise of Evans’ second collection of essays, “The Lonely Days Were Sundays.” Evans had been instrumental in supporting “Civilization and the Jews,” a PBS series about Jews hosted by Eban that was one of the Revson Foundation’s first Jewish initiatives in the 1980s.

In a 1999 oral history of his work in philanthropy, Evans said that Revson’s board interest in the series marked a turning point in his thinking.

“I thought, damn it, it might be exciting to try to do, to build a foundation that would have both Jewish concerns, which were very natural to me,” and other concerns, recalls- he.

Eli Evans, seen here in a photo from a trip to Israel in the 1970s, was “also at home in Manhattan, Jerusalem and the southern United States”, according to his family. (Courtesy of Josh Evans)

He has advanced these concerns in 22 years as chairman of the board of the Covenant Foundation, which funds Jewish education initiatives. Evans and his family were active members of the Brotherhood Synagogue of New York for many years, and he traveled frequently to Israel. He was also instrumental in establishing the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at UNC, to which Revson made a major gift in his honor after he retired from the foundation. Evans received an honorary degree from his alma mater in 2009.

“A warm and often exuberant storyteller who played the banjo and wore his Carolina blue Tarheels cap with both professional and casual attire, he was equally at home in Manhattan, Jerusalem and the American South”, reads an obituary of Evans prepared by his family.

Evans’ wife, Judith, died in 2008. He is survived by his son, actor Joshua Evans, who said in the family obituary that he “came to realize that my father’s superpower was its warmth and charm”. Evans will be buried on Friday at his family plot in Durham.

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