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.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. They had arranged a viewing of the College World Series because our very own Mississippi State Bulldogs were playing in the championship.
I must admit that although I was raised an avid Yankees fan and then secretly (well, now not-so-secretly) converted to being a Red Sox fan when I moved to Boston in 2004, I haven’t watched a single baseball game since I moved to the South. Besides a rogue Atlanta Braves fan you might stumble across every now and then, football reigns in these parts. But when your local team makes it to a national championship, you buckle down, eat a hot dog, and show your support.
Typical of a museum nerd, I was wandering through the exhibits during most of the game while my friends gathered around the multiple TV screens. It was the bottom of the 6th inning by the time I sat down, and Mississippi State was behind. The crowd was quiet and the mood was sullen. I looked up at the screen. They were showing aerial views of Omaha, Nebraska, the city where the College World Series had been held for the past 63 years.
“So..why is this in Omaha?” I asked my fellow fans.
“Not sure, it’s just always been there,” one fan answered.
Not sure? Not acceptable. I pulled the internet out of my pocket. I read the information from the College World Series site aloud “The College World Series was first played in Omaha in 1950 and total attendance was 17,805. Although the College World Series is now a profitable event, it lost money for 10 of the first 12 years that it was in Omaha – 1950-1961. Four Omahans who maintained their faith and interest in the College World Series during those lean years are due much of the credit for the tournament’s continued presence in Omaha. They are the late Ed Pettis of the Brandeis Stores, the late Morris Jacobs and the late Byron Reed, both of Bozell & Jacobs, and the late Johnny Rosenblatt, Mayor of Omaha and an avid baseball fan.”
“Jews!” I exclaimed.
“Oh, right. The old stadium was Rosenblatt field,” my fellow fan replied.
I spent the rest of the short and sad innings reading about Johnny Rosenblatt, the mayor of Omaha, Nebraska, from 1954 to 1961. He was one of six children born to Jewish immigrant parents, and played semi professional baseball for 20 years.
My reaction to “Jews in Omaha” is probably pretty similar to the reaction people have when they hear about “Jews in the South.” I don’t know much of anything about Omaha (except something about steaks and that it’s home to one of our favorite scholars, Dr. Ron Wolfson). I would have never guessed it was a hub not only for college baseball, but also for Jewish community involvement.
I look for these instances often. After all, I’ve had to arm myself with similar Southern Jewish trivia bits when I’m asked about Jews in the South. Locally, my favorite response actually involves Mississippi State fans again, when I surprise them that their voice of the Bulldogs local sports announcer Jack Cristil is Jewish and from Tupelo, Mississippi.
Clearly, I enjoy the feeling of discovery – and luckily, we’ve got resources like Wikipedia, Google, and more specifically, for those not familiar with Southern cities, we’ve got the great Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities to help make these discoveries more often.
Living with these resources makes it a great time to be curious, especially during boring sports events. Have to sit through another little league tournament this weekend? Here are a few searches to get you started:
For the music lover- Where was Dinah Shore from and what was her original name?
For the history student- Who was the secretary of state for the Confederacy?
For the traveler- Who came up with these crazy South of the Border signs?
Have fun discovering!
As our Monday post indicated, it’s that time of year when we have new staff starting at the ISJL. During orientation we have time to get to know each other, sit around lunch tables discussing our former homes (Florida, Washington, New York, Wisconsin!) when it inevitably comes up—regional differences.
I started using this phrase during my first year as a fellow. I was making my summer visits and found that I was having the same conversations over and over again.
“So Rachel, where are you from?”
“Oh my goodness, it’s so cold there! How are you adjusting!”
“Um.. air conditioning?”
Soon I was having the “the temperature varies in different parts of the country” and “people are interested in different sports teams” conversations over and over again with new host families throughout the region. And so the “regional differences” title stuck.
Someone else must have known it was Orientation Week because this great article with regional dialect surveys was recently posted on the Business Weekly website. Joshua Katz, a Ph. D student in statistics at North Carolina State University, just published a group of awesome visualizations of a linguistic survey that looks at how Americans pronounce words.
It’s a perfect example of the typical regional differences dialogue. My particular favorite is the survey for “pecan.” Early in my ISJL tenure someone on a visit told me the way I pronounced it was not the ingredient featured in pecan pie but that a “pee-can” was something you take on a fishing trip. I always think of the anecdote before I utter the word aloud!
I had never even heard of crawfish, yet alone tried to eat them, before I moved to Mississippi, so I’m not sure my pronunciation would gave mattered. But after spending time in Louisiana, I know how delicious they are!
And of course y’all is always a heated topic of conversation in this office of transplants. I myself could never pick it up.
The diverse make up of our staff makes for a really interesting summer, as new interns and fellows join our team and spend time in the South. I’m going to make sure I figure out where everyone places themselves on these surveys. Where do you fit on the map?