Last week, we added the final (for now) video clip to the Oklahoma section of the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. The interview excerpt comes from a great conversation I had with Paula and Malcolm Milsten last summer at Tulsa’s Temple Israel. Malcolm, a Tulsa native, and Paula, who moved there before marrying Malcolm in 1959, have both served as temple president. In the clip below, Paula and Malcolm recall a 1984 flood that seriously damaged Temple Israel, as well as the outpouring of support from the entire city in the aftermath of the disaster.
Malcolm, like many people who have contributed their stories to the ISJL Oral History Project, remarks on his congregation’s positive relationship with other local synagogues as well as the general community. These themes—inclusion and cooperation—are common in our interviews. Where someone from outside the South might expect to find stories of isolation, I find, more often than not, exactly the opposite.
Devoid of a Southern accent, people often ask me where I’m from. They are surprised that I’m from Connecticut. The next question is usually to ask how I got here.
I tell them I got to Mississippi on a lucky opportunity. In 2006, I was a junior at Brandeis University, looking for a unique summer internship. I was interested in museums, so when I came upon the listing for an internship at a Jewish museum in Mississippi, I was sold. The only things I had ever learned about Mississippi (or the South in general, really) were that events from the Civil War and Civil Rights movement took place there, and that it was hot. But Jews in the South? That was a story I knew nothing about, so I applied – and, long story short, had one of the most transformative summers of my life. So much so that after graduation, much to my mother’s chagrin, I made the permanent move to Mississippi to work full time for the umbrella organization of that Jewish museum – the ISJL.
I now have the pleasure of welcoming new interns and Education Fellows to Jackson each summer. The mission of the ISJL is so compelling that we recruit students and recent graduates from all over the country. Over the summer, adventurous folks – most of whom are “not from around here” – travel all over the region, learning about cultural traditions, working with community partners, and often breaking down stereotypes they may have had about the South. There’s also usually occasions for ice cream, county fairs, and blues festivals.
This week, the Museum, History, and Community Engagement Departments are posting our new summer intern listings for 2013. If you or someone you know has an adventurous spirit and is interested in getting hands-on experience on a wide range of projects in an alternative part of the country, I highly encourage you to check out our site with more information about the internships.
Since the 1940s, the Jews of Seminole, Ada, Nowata, and Shawnee, Oklahoma, have met at the Seminole Hebrew Center for religious services and social events. In the clip below, which is featured on our Online Encyclopedia article for Ada/Seminole, lifelong Ada resident Henry Katz talks about the origins of the Hebrew Center.
I love this excerpt for a number of reasons. Katz, who descends from German-speaking immigrants who arrived in the United States after the Civil War, alludes to the distinction between his decidedly Reform family and the newer arrivals, who were more observant. Then, as evidence of his family’s assimilation, he uses the word “phylacteries” to describe what most traditional Jews would call “tefillin.” As a professor once told me, “no one who wears phylacteries says “phylacteries.”
The story also illustrates the influence of economics on Jewish (and general) migration patterns. In this case, the arrival of recent immigrants to the booming towns above the Seminole oil field influenced the development of the local Jewish community.
Apparently, people used to play a lot of cards. Bridge, canasta, all types of poker—nearly everyone I speak with reports that they or their parents participated in regular card games, inside or outside the Jewish community. Katz attributes the men’s gambling habits to the oil business, which is a clever connection to make. I would also point out that many of these men were also immigrants from Eastern Europe; it was a gamble, or a series of them, that had brought them to Oklahoma in the first place.
Finally, Katz has a great voice and tells his story with real style. Reviewing his interview and putting together this clip brought back memories of a pleasant morning spent in Ada at the end of a successful research trip to Oklahoma.
I’d like to thank Henry Katz for sharing his story with us. Credit is also due to summer oral history intern Jonayah Jackson for the quality of the video.