In celebration of the completion of the Kentucky section of our online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, we bring you another piece of Kentucky Jewish History.
Beginning in the early 20th century, a handful of Jews settled in the coal country of southeast Kentucky. Most of them owned stores that catered to the local coal miners. Over the years, miners squared off against the coal companies in a series of sometimes violent strikes and labor disputes. As these labor struggles became increasingly virulent, Jews were sometimes caught in the middle.
Polish immigrants Harry and Bina Appleman were one of these Jewish families who were drawn to Kentucky’s coal country, opening a general store in Evarts, Kentucky, thirteen miles from Harlan. After many local miners were fired for joining a union in 1931, the Applemans decided to help their families. They would feed 40 to 50 children each day during the standoff. During Passover, the Applemans ran an ad in the local newspaper stating that they would give away a railroad car full of flour to anyone in need “regardless of color and creed.” Each needy family would be given a 24-pound bag of flour. This donation was a significant expense for the Applemans, who had scrimped and saved the money which they now decided to use to help the needy miners. The Black Mountain Coal Corporation did not appreciate the Appleman’s largesse, and swore out a criminal complaint against the couple for criminal syndicalism. Although the charges were eventually dropped, the Applemans were targeted by company thugs, who shot into their home. Because of these threats, the Applemans left Evarts, moving to Brooklyn.
The Applemans’ story reminded me of the civil rights era, when southern Jews were often caught within the larger social turmoil. Many southern Jews tried to stay out of the conflict, but others, like the Applemans had done three decades earlier in Kentucky, made a courageous public stand at great personal risk.
As always, you can visit our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities for more information.
One of the foundational ideas behind the ISJL is that mid-size and large congregations should build connections to smaller Jewish communities, especially in small towns where the Jewish population is in decline. That’s why we were so glad to see this set of pictures from the Religious School of Congregation Beth-El in Fort Worth, Texas, on their recent daytrip to nearby Corsicana.
We received the photographs from Hollace Weiner, archivist at Beth-El, historian of Fort Worth and Texas Jewry, and close friend of the ISJL History Department. Describing the field trip in the Beth-El newsletter, she writes, “19 teenagers and six adults from the Religious School visited the colorful town, which is a century removed and 55 miles south of Dallas on Interstate-45.”
The group’s tour guide was Babette Samuels, one of four remaining Corsicana Jews. Babette, originally from Port Arthur, Texas, is also a friend of the ISJL, having shared a delightful oral history with us in July 2010.
The students and chaperones viewed the beautiful “Byzantine-style” synagogue of Corsicana’s Temple Beth-El, which, as Hollace writes, “was built in 1900, restored in the 1980s, and deeded to the city to use as a cultural and community center. An architectural gem, the white clapboard synagogue has two onion-domed towers and three Tiffany stained-glass windows. It is the last synagogue in the Southwest with such lofty Moorish-revival domes.”
In addition to her extensive knowledge of Corsicana’s Jewish history, Babette is also very involved with the upkeep of the Corsicana Hebrew Cemetery, which was the next stop on the group’s field trip. Following the visit, the religious school made a donation to the Corsicana Hebrew Cemetery Association.
Thanks to Hollace Weiner and the Beth-El religious school for sharing this story with us. It is great to see Jewish teens learning about small-town Jewish life!
By ISJL Education Fellow, Sam Kahan
During the annual ISJL Education Conference, Education Fellows traditionally present some sort of “schtick” during meals. This year the Fellows pondered the question: “if you were a Jewish superhero, who would you be?”
As the daughter of an excellent Jewish mother, I know that feeding those you love is both a Jewish value and, at times, a superhuman accomplishment. Having inherited my mother’s drive for preparing and sharing meals, I had to incorporate food into my wished-for superpower.
My passion for feeding others manifests itself in many ways. For one, I love to cook for friends when they stop by my house. It is in my blood, or so my mother tells me. But my desire to share sustenance with others is not limited to friends and family, rather, it extends to the community at large.
A few years ago, a friend and I were involved with an organization that set up a temporary food pantry on the corner of a busy Baltimore intersection during Thanksgiving. There we were: armed with hundreds of thanksgiving meals, donated clothing, blankets and other items essential for surviving a brutally cold winter on the Baltimore streets. As I served a tremendous number of homeless people who stopped by to receive aid, I found myself thinking. I thought of what a mitzvah it was that this group of people took time out of their Thanksgiving, a day reserved for family and friends, to make sure that the larger community was taken care of.
I reflect back on this moment and recognize the teachings of Judaism that not only encourage, but command us to care for those who are hungry. The aspiration to feed friends, family, and community echoes Jewish values and is a Jewish superpower we should all work to develop. Matzah Mama will make her next appearance at Rodef Sholom Temple in Hampton, Virginia, during a Passover program about creating family traditions, be sure to watch out for her!
If you were a Jewish superhero, who would you be?