Category Archives: History

A Historian’s First Trip to the Jewish Delta

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An image from Greenville’s past

What’s “new” for this historian? Well, at the moment, we are in the process of updating the Mississippi entries for our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish communities, and so I recently took a trip to do some research in the Mississippi Delta.

Driving past miles and miles of open farm fields, I was immediately reminded of childhood visits to my grandparents’ farm in rural Louisiana. While they farmed soybeans and corn, cotton is clearly king in these parts.

This was my first time to visit this part of Mississippi and I was thrilled to experience the warm hospitality there. In addition to doing research at local libraries and archives, I was able to talk with a number of Delta Jews about Jewish history and life in the region. The people I met in the Delta remain committed to do whatever necessary to continue to make it a wonderful place in which to live and thrive.

Chief among them is Greenville resident and local historian Benjy Nelken. Benjy is passionate about Greenville’s history and helped to create a few museums around town, including the Greenville History museum. It provides a unique glimpse into life in Greenville from the late 1800s through the 1970s. The collection includes a fascinating array of memorabilia, artifacts, photographs, and news clippings that takes visitors through each day of the historic 1927 flood as well as other important events and cultural collections indicative of the area.

Benjy took the time to compile research folders on a number of topics available to researches, including one on his own family’s history. Benjy also started the Century of History Museum housed at Hebrew Union Temple. The museum, housed in the library, details the contributions and culture of Greenville’s Jewish residents since 1867. The museum was brimming with resources, and Benjy really did a nice job with tracing a tremendous amount of history with helpful explanatory labels. There was a lot that was not on display (newspaper articles, temple records) that was available for perusal, as well.

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Mayor Rosenthal and Dr. Bordelon in Indianola

I encourage our readers to pay these terrific museums and Hebrew Union Temple a visit. Services at Hebrew Union are led by Rabbi Debra Kassoff twice per month. While you are there, stop over at Jim’s Café for lunch. The people are warm, the portions generous, and the food, authentically Southern. If you have time to stay for dinner, head over to Doe’s Eat Place for one of the best steaks you’ll ever experience.

The next stop in my Delta travels was Indianola, Mississippi. There I had the privilege of meeting some long-time Indianola residents, Alan and Leanne Silverblatt, and the town’s current mayor, Steve Rosenthal. Their histories will be helpful as we add a new entry for the town of Indianola. If you get out to Indianola, a trip to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center is a must.

I continued on to Greenwood. I’ve met longtime Greenwood resident Gail Goldberg a few times already, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of our conversations. Her passion for Ahavath Rayim and the Greenwood community is inspiring. Despite having a small amount of regular members, they get between 50-75 people every Rosh Hashanah. People are drawn to spiritual life there, and she reports that they often get people from very far away that are dedicated to ensuring that worship at the synagogue continues. If you get a chance to visit, services are led by Marilyn Gelman the first Friday of every month.

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Ahavath Rayim, Greenwood

Having experienced it firsthand, I now fully understand why the Delta remains such a special place. Reading about the Delta is quite different than being there and truly experiencing it. What struck me the most was how committed the Delta residents are to keeping this region alive and well for future generations. New industry is coming in and progressive civic initiatives are being offered, providing more resources for a better future. For instance, Mayor Rosenthal initiated the Indianola Promise Community (IPC), a community-based initiative to provide children with the opportunity to succeed in school, graduate, and attend college. It was modeled after Harlem’s Children Zone and they are having a positive impact on the community.

I can’t wait to reveal the new and improved Mississippi entries soon. In the meantime, I invite our readers to share their stories about Mississippi history with me so we can have even more history to share with our readers. With new technology, it has never been easier to make the historical research process more collaborative. Recently, we added a Dropbox option for sharing files, and you can also email me anytime. I look forward to hearing all of your stories!

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Posted on September 12, 2014

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A Different Kind of Jewish “Movement”

“Do you live in the same place where you were raised?”
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The ISJL’s founder, Macy B. Hart, likes to ask people that question. He asked it of me, and like so many others, I had to say no.

I was born in Texas and have lived in many different states—California, Virginia, Maine, Michigan, Connecticut, New York, and now, Mississippi. I recently found this New York Times article, which shows where we came from, state by state, since 1900. As a historian, it fascinated me, and I wanted to share it with our readers here.

In 1900, 86% of Mississippians were born in Mississippi. By 2012, that number dropped to 72% — which is still higher than a lot of states, such as Texas, where only 61% of Texans originally hailing from the state.

The number of native born Mississippian Jews has declined precipitously. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews spread themselves throughout the state. In 1937, Jews lived in 107 different Mississippi towns. It reached its peak in 1927, with 6,420 Jews. Since then, it has declined steadily. In 2012, only 1,500 Jews lived in Mississippi, with Jackson having the largest community. The generation of Jewish merchants produced children who became college-educated professionals and had little interest in taking over family businesses. The decline of Mississippi’s rural economy and the rise of national retail chains have also pushed Mississippi Jews to such booming Sunbelt cities as Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston.

Chart from New York Times.

Chart from New York Times.

I never expected to live in Mississippi, but I am so glad to be here and to call Jackson my home. The Jewish community here has been more than welcoming. It is a testament to the fact that despite their small size, Mississippi Jews continue to identify with their heritage, and have kept Judaism alive in the Magnolia State.

Wherever they may end up living, Southern Jews are proud of their heritage. As a native Southern Jew, I am honored to be able to tell those stories. So what about you? Do you or your other family members have Southern roots? I am curious to hear from all of our readers about their journeys so I can continue to share them on our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish communities.

Y’all don’t be shy now!

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Posted on August 18, 2014

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Operation: Understanding – Our History, Our Present

Yesterday, the ISJL hosted students from Operation Understanding, an organization whose mission is to develop a group of young African American and Jewish leaders knowledgeable about each other’s histories and cultures to effectively lead the communities of Philadelphia, PA and Washington, D.C. to a greater understanding of diversity and acceptance.

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Operation Understanding students at ISJL office

I thought I would share with our readers here a little of what I shared with the students in our office.

Having taught high school history for a number of years, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to do a presentation for teenagers on the relationship between Southern Jews and African Americans. This is not an easy talk to give to any age group, because while we like the stories of Jews fighting for civil rights, the historical truth is that those were primarily Northern Jews; most Southern Jews were not actively involved in fighting against the white hierarchy of the South.

Jews in states like Mississippi lived in a climate of fear and intimidation. Southern Jews were acutely aware that any challenge to white supremacy would result in serious social and economic consequences. Synagogue bombings, threats of economic boycott, and violence directed against civil rights workers convinced a lot of Southern Jews to remain relatively silent.

African American activists faced the same challenges, but to a much higher degree. James Chaney – one of three civil rights workers murdered during Freedom Summer by members of the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi – struggled to find support for civil rights among his local community. They were afraid of falling prey to what ultimately happened to Chaney. Chaney knew the risk and accepted it, paying dearly for his bravery. Following his death, his mother Fannie made sure that James’ younger brother Ben would follow his brother’s footsteps. I can’t imagine the kind of courage that would allow a mother to risk such a sacrifice, but she did, and Ben is still an active advocate of civil rights today.

Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, a Jewish activist who came down to Hattiesburg, Mississippi trying to register black voters, elected to leave the danger almost as soon as he arrived. He did not make the decision lightly or at some small act of intimidation, however: he was senselessly beaten with a tire iron in board daylight by white supremacists. A small group representing Hattiesburg’s Jewish community urged him to get out of town, fearful their synagogue would get burned or their members injured or killed. Lelyveld responded: “Don’t worry, I can’t wait to leave.”

These stories illustrate of a larger lesson: when any one of us fights for a social justice cause, we often embark on that journey with the best of intentions and without anticipating all of the dangers, difficulties and tragedies along the way. When that path threatens our safety or the safety of others, we begin to question how far we should go. Despite enduring great risk and suffering great injury, Lelyveld was able to return to the North and never face his aggressors again. Jews within the Hattiesburg community had to live among them with the memory of his beating urging them against anything other than compliance.

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Asking and answering questions

Even still, some very brave Southern Jews did stand up for civil rights in all sorts of ways. Many prominent Southern rabbis called for an end to bombings of African American churches and school segregation. And, despite the threat of boycotts against businesses owned by their husbands and families, many Jewish women worked against the segregationist system through organizations like the Women’s Emergency Committee. The organization was formed to combat the governor’s closing of Little Rock High schools. One Jewish woman, Marilyn Siegel, raised money for the WEC while dying from cancer.

Today, learning and working together, we can use these stories as an opportunity to ask ourselves larger questions about what we would do in similar circumstances. The issue of personal sacrifice for the sake of the common good is at the crux of a democracy. Each of us must inevitably weigh just how much we are willing to sacrifice for others every day in our own lives.

Here are some of the reflections and insights from some of these amazing students:

  • “I think too many people my age assume someone else is going to take care of things and so they don’t do anything but it doesn’t mean we don’t still care.”
  • “In my community, the biggest problem is young black males being incarcerated, but I don’t know how to help because the problem seems so big.”
  • “A bunch of us walked out to protest budget cuts to our public schools, but not everyone because they were scared of being suspended. I think we let fear get in the way of standing up for things we care about.”
  • “I like the fact that my community is so diverse. I think it makes everyone stronger somehow. People tend to look out for one another and that makes me proud to live there.”

What are your observations about diversity in your community? How do historical narratives shape your own understanding? I’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

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Posted on July 25, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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