The idea of a Jewish conspiracy to control the world has long been a canard of anti-Semites. Its most infamous example is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious forgery first published in Russia in 1903. Influenced by these claims of an international Jewish conspiracy, U.S. auto magnate Henry Ford published a series of anti-Semitic essays in his newspaper the Dearborn Independent in the 1920s. While southern Jews have certainly faced anti-Semitism, most notably the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915, such claims of secret Jewish power and conspiracy have rarely been made in the South. Perhaps the fact that Jews were such a small minority of the population prevented such beliefs from taking hold.
One fascinating exception to this took place in Guthrie, Oklahoma in 1912. Guthrie had been named the capital of Oklahoma when it became a state in 1907. Jews were active in the new state government, including Leo Meyer, who was appointed assistant Secretary of State in 1907. Some called for the capital to be moved to a larger city, and in 1910 the citizens of Oklahoma voted to move the seat of government to the state’s largest city, Oklahoma City.
The day after the vote, Meyer took the official state seal from the capitol building in Guthrie and moved it to Oklahoma City under cover of night.
The people of Guthrie were enraged after the capital moved as the town lost population, investors, and priority on the railroad lines. Many residents with the means to do so moved to nearby Oklahoma City, including several of Guthrie’s Jewish merchants. In 1912, the Guthrie Daily Leader ran a front-page banner headline announcing that “Shylocks of Oklahoma City Have State by the Throat,” and the sub-header promised to reveal the “Unparalleled Conspiracy on the Part of Jews and Gentiles of a Rotten Town to Loot the State for Twenty-Five Years.”
The article claimed that prominent Jewish businessmen in Oklahoma City had conspired to steal the capital away from Guthrie. The long accompanying article used parodied Yiddish accents to illustrate its claims that the capital move was the result of a conspiracy of Jewish businessmen who wished to profit from increased real estate values in Oklahoma City.
Rabbi Joseph Blatt of Temple B’nai Israel in Oklahoma City publicly attacked these claims as slander, claiming they were “a disgrace to the civilization of our state.” He then called on Oklahomans to band together to combat religious prejudice.
Rabbi Blatt’s bold response helped to quash the paper’s claims as the Leader’s attempt to reclaim Guthrie’s status as the state capital failed and its efforts to blame the Jews were soon forgotten. Today, Oklahoma City has 2500 Jews and two active congregations, while Jewish life in nearby Guthrie is long gone.
The Guthrie episode was an exception. Far more common in Oklahoma and across the South was an elitist anti-Semitism, which sometimes led to the exclusion of Jews from country clubs or social organizations. Despite this, Oklahoma Jews became active in the civic and economic life of their state, thriving and accepted within their communities, as they continue to be today.
Read more fascinating histories of Southern Jewish life in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities.
As I was researching the Jewish history of Tulsa, Oklahoma, I came upon a wonderful photograph in the 50th anniversary book for Congregation B’nai Emunah, published in 1966. The photo shows the victorious B’nai Emunah bowling team which won the city’s Church League in 1953, besting such competition as the First Christian Church, St. Paul Methodist, and First Presbyterian. It was the vintage haircuts and bowling shirts that first drew me to the picture, but it soon got me thinking about the changing nature of our congregations and communities.
In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, Political Scientist Robert Putnam traces the decline of social organizations, like bowling leagues, that used to connect individuals to a larger civic community. In many of the community histories that I write for our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, I mention Jewish involvement in local Masonic Lodges or Rotary Clubs. Today, few people my age join such organizations. B’nai B’rith, which used to connect Jews across the country, is now a shell of its former self. In the Jewish world, we have seen a weakening of ties to our communal institutions, and much effort made to engage a new generation of Jews that evince little interest in joining a synagogue or supporting the Federation.
Earlier in the 20th century, there was a movement to build synagogue-centers, the “shul with a pool” idea, that would bring people to the synagogue for more than just worship or Hebrew School. Indeed, when Tulsa’s Reform congregation, Temple Israel, built a new synagogue in 1932, it had a gymnasium with a basketball court along with locker rooms. Interestingly, the new building did not have a sanctuary, as members met for services in the general purpose auditorium until they could raise enough money to build a proper sanctuary later, (which they never did).
By the 1950s, the time this photo was taken, social organizations, like bowling leagues, were commonplace. It was only natural that a church league would exist in a place like Tulsa, sometimes called the “buckle of the bible belt.” The involvement of a team from B’nai Emunah, an Orthodox (though soon to be Conservative) congregation, reflects both the strong ties within the Jewish community and the integration of Tulsa Jews into the city’s civic life.
What has Jewish life lost, now that so many of us “bowl alone?” Is there something we can learn from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations about bringing individual Jews together to form a cohesive community? Perhaps the answer isn’t a synagogue bowling team, but the Jewish world’s great contemporary challenge is to find ways to bind us together with fellow Jews as well as to the larger community.
With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur just behind us, I thought I would share a little bit about the significance of these holidays from the perspective of historical research.
When I have only one day in a town to research the history of its Jewish community, I don’t have time to scroll through 100 years of daily newspapers on microfilm. Fortunately, there are a few tricks that help me to quickly find a needle (or mention of the local Jewish community) in the haystack of multiple microfilm reels. One useful shortcut is the “High Holiday Research Method.”
I have compiled a list with the dates of every Rosh Hashanah between 1880 and 1960 (thanks to Hebcal!). Usually, the local newspaper will have some mention of the Jewish holidays and often will describe the activities of local Jews. For example, in Lockhart, Texas, I found a mention of a short-lived Jewish congregation that met in a rented hall for the High Holidays in 1922, attracting Jews from several other small towns in the area. This Lockhart congregation did not last for long, and the tiny Jewish population left in town had no recollection of it. Were it not for my finding this Rosh Hashanah notice, this congregation may have been lost to history.
Newspapers from around the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also contain ads run by local Jewish merchants informing their customers that they will be closed on the holidays. These ads are a great way of determining which stores are Jewish-owned, and offer insight about what we here at the ISJL call the “southern Jewish experience.”
One of my favorite of these ads comes from Meridian, Mississippi in 1942. Most of the town’s Jewish merchants banded together to take out one ad, announcing the closing of all of their stores for Rosh Hashanah. The sheer number of businesses, fourteen, attests to the important economic role played in Meridian. Also, notice that the ad declares that the stores would be closed on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Clearly, these stores were usually open on Saturday, the best day of the week for business.
It was almost impossible for a Jewish merchant in Meridian to be shomer Shabbos and make a living. Thus, they had to adjust. In the early 20th century, Meridian’s small Orthodox shul held Saturday morning services at 6 a.m. so members could pray on the Sabbath and then get to their stores in time to open for business. And yet, as the 1942 ad attests, even as they adapted their religious practices, Jews were not willing to give up the high holidays. This was not easy. Indeed, several of these stores opened at 6 p.m. on Rosh Hashanah to try to recoup some of the losses they would incur.
Today, only a small number of southern Jews own retail stores and such ads are largely a thing of the past. Future historians will probably not find much value in the “High Holiday Research Method.” Yet as some aspects of the southern Jewish experience change, some stay the same, as many southern Jews still wrestle with the dilemma of how to maintain their traditions as a tiny minority living in the Christian Bible Belt.