In the mid-nineteenth century, thousands of Jewish immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine came to America and made new lives for themselves in the Deep South. Last week, some Alsatian Jews embarked on the same journey (made much more convenient by intercontinental air travel) to learn about Jewish history and heritage in the South.
Traveling up from New Orleans, last Friday this group of 33 Jewish Alsatian tourists found themselves spending a day with ISJL staff in Jackson, Mississippi. We have worked with tour groups in the past, but never in a different language! While many of them did speak English, the group leader translated every presentation into French. Take a look at this short clip I filmed of Dr. Rockoff presenting to the group…
From our office we went on our usual tour of Jackson sites, stopping at Tougaloo College, the COFO Civil Rights Education Center and the Medgar Evers House Museum. These sites mainly focus on the events of the Civil Rights movement, so I did my best to explain how that history has shaped this region. Questions like why so many buildings were empty downtown, why students pay so much for a college education, and inquiries regarding contemporary race relations, covered huge topics that while difficult to explain easily in English, are especially challenging to explain in French, to an audience without a native understanding of American history.
The cultural exchange went both ways, as I got to hear about the French Jewish experience as well. One woman asked me about how Southerners practice Judaism, and if they still identify as Jewish if they aren’t active in a congregation. She explained that while there are many secular Jews in France, many strongly identify as racially Jewish because of their direct connection to the Holocaust. The leader told me later that a few of the visitors were hidden children during the war. I also found it interesting in discussing our ISJL education program when a few of the guests then explained to me that their children never had any formal Jewish schooling; they simply learned Jewish practices and customs in the home.
It was a great learning experience and such a wonderful opportunity to spend the day with this group. We’re happy that they chose to spend their time in our neck of the woods and I hope this post will encourage some of you with fewer oceans to travel across to make plans to join us soon for your own Southern Jewish experience!
I’m thankful for the internet everyday. I’m thankful when it guides me to a new restaurant, tells me the score of the football game, and provides video of the Ohio University marching band playing their version of a new viral music video “The Fox” by Ylvis.
But despite the silly stuff, I was genuinely thankful for the internet this Rosh Hashanah. Trapped in my home due to some semi-serious plumbing problems and a particularly slow moving plumber, I turned to my trusty friend and companion to help me celebrate the holiday.
First, this post on Tablet inspired me to get my hands dirty and bake myself a challah. What better way to celebrate the new year than my stuffing my face all day with sweet sweet carbs? Joan Nathan led me through a tricky six part braid and helped me pull off the most beautiful Jewish cooking moment of my life.
Next, I met up with Congregation Beth Adam, a congregation out of Loveland, Ohio that leads innovative and inspirational services online each week at OurJewishCommunity.org. Dedicated to the celebration of Jewish holidays and life cycle events, Beth Adam approaches Judaism from a humanistic perspective. I was first introduced to Congregation Beth Adam by Rabbi Laura Baum when she presented at last year’s ISJL Education Conference. She gave us a tour of their synagogue, complete with stained glass windows representing the Big Bang and a ner tamid in the shape of a DNA double helix. I knew they would help distract me from the pipes clanging under my house and get me in the mood for the new year.
Rabbi Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr are talented clergy and are magically able to exude warmth and welcoming over the internet. Sweet congregants approached the camera to send good wishes to friends and family watching at home. Besides the fantastic sermons, which really challenge traditional Jewish high holiday liturgy, my favorite part was a chat-bar besides the video stream. Instead of feeling guilty kibitzing with friends in the pews, participants are encouraged to chat simultaneously about the service. I made new friends from all over the world, some with physical disabilities who couldn’t make it to services, some who lived too far way to be there (like me), and others who came specifically for the unique approach of Beth Adam (like me, too!).
I sat in front of the screen, eating my freshly baked challah, apples, and honey and had a sincere and authentic Rosh Hashanah experience. And after 4 hours of jetting and root cutting, the plumber gave me the clear to use the bathrooms in my own home again. A wonderful sign of good things to come in the new year!
What did you do for Rosh Hashanah this year? Would you consider joining an online community for services? Why or why not?
Imagine for a moment that you’re strolling down the main thoroughfare of a bustling city. The year is 1946, and a feeling of contentment surrounds you. All around, familiar signs and aromas fill the air. On either side of the street, stores with Jewish names flaunt their wares and hotels and restaurants advertising kosher meals beckon you inside. You must be in New York City, or Chicago-or perhaps you’re in Hot Springs.
That’s right: Hot Springs, Arkansas!
Thanks to the healing properties of the thermal waters that flowed from Hot Springs Mountains, by the early 1800s this town has already become one of the country’s leading spa destinations. Hot Springs Reservation, the first designation of Hot Springs National Park, was set aside by Congress in 1832 to protect this unique national resource and preserve it for public use, making it the oldest unit in the national park system.
Hot Springs was actually one of my first weekend getaways after moving to Jackson. The main drag downtown is lined with bathhouses, ready to provide visitors with the chance to soak up the water. I remember feeling like I stepped back into 1905 as my bath attendant led me into a large marble room featuring 6 different bathing/torture devices (they don’t call it a needle shower for nothing!) that a dozen half naked women were using to properly extract the medial benefits of the springs. It was a unique and memorable experience, and although my husband would enthusiastically disagree, *I* think you should definitely try it out!
While the Jewish presence in Hot Springs was firmly established in the 1840s, many more Orthodox Jews were drawn to the spa city around the turn of the century, as part of the great migration of East Europeans to the United States.
Over the years, as Hot Spring’s Jewish population swelled, kosher and kosher-style restaurants and hotels flourished. Among the was the popular Knickerbocker Hotel, pictured above. Robert (Bob) Gartenberg, son and grandson of former owners Leo and Peter Gartenberg, recalls the heyday:
“The Knickerbocker was a very popular kosher hotel and has a real nice restaurant serving kosher meals. At one time there were about five or six kosher hotels in Hot Springs. I can remember as a child going to the hotel for the pre Yom Kippur Meal; it was only a block from the Temple.”
According to Mr. Gartenberg the hotel closed in the late 1950s. The property became rental apartment homes for years, until it was sold again in 1974, vacated, and subsequently fell into disrepair. Today, all that remains is a shell, except for the Knickerbocker Hotel sign.
After being left in the parking lot of Congregation Beth Jacob, the sign eventually came under the watchful eye of Congregation House of Israel, until they donated it to the ISJL (Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience) in the winter of 2001. Worn and faded, devoid of the formerly-bright neon, the Knickerbocker Hotel sign nevertheless has a proud legacy. Hopefully one day it will be lifted high again, so that all who see it will come to know the story of the Hot Spring Jewish experience.