Last week, I was on the road with TENT, a week-long traveling seminar on culture, history, and social justice for a group of Jewish twenty-somethings. The group started in New Orleans and finished in Memphis, spending several days in Mississippi along the way.
I accompanied the group from New Orleans to Jackson, and it was a privilege to spend time with such an intelligent, enthusiastic group of young adults. All but one of them hailed from the North, so it was interesting to watch them experience Southern culture and learn about Southern Jewry from trip leader Rachel Myers and their scholar-on-the-road, Professor Eric Goldstein of Emory University.
Some in the group had been to New Orleans, but none of them had been to Natchez, Mississippi, the second stop on our tour.
Natchez, a river port town in Adams County, sits on high bluffs towering over the mighty Mississippi River. Commonly referred to as “The Bluff City,” Natchez is one of the oldest and most important European settlements in the lower Mississippi River Valley. Its economy, firmly rooted in the cotton trade, prospered during the 19th century and attracted people from around the world seeking to profit from the trade. Goods came to the area from ports in New Orleans, St. Louis, Boston, New York, and even Great Britain. As a result of this great success, in 1860 Natchez had more millionaires than anywhere else in the United States.
Though past its economic prime, Natchez continues to attract visitors with its many historic homes and festivals that celebrate life in the Old South. Here, in the so-called “most Southern place on earth,” the group quickly learned that Jews flourished in The Bluff City for over two centuries.
Natchez has thirteen National Historic Landmarks and over 1,000 structures on the National Register of Historic Places. A number of historic churches are scattered throughout the city, including Temple B’nai Israel. The original temple was built in 1870, but burned to the ground due to faulty wiring. B’nai Israel’s new building was dedicated on March 25, 1905, with over 600 people in attendance.
A number of esteemed guests come to B’nai Israel to talk to us about the history of the Natchez Jewish community. Mayor Larry Lynn “Butch” Brown [named for two other Natchez Jews of blessed memory, Larry and Lynn Abrams] spoke about the many contributions Jews made over the years, and invited us to return to the city’s tri-centennial celebration in 2016. Mimi Miller, Executive Director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, shared that the synagogue looks much as it looked in 1905. The bima, lighting fixtures, and chairs are the same. Temple member Beau Baumgardner informed us that lay-lead services are held monthly, despite the fact that the median age of temple members is 74. The congregation is fortunate to have David Goldblatt, a music professor at Alcorn State University, serve as cantorial soloist. To the group’s surprise, Beau also told us that often, more gentiles than Jews are in attendance at Shabbat services.
After visiting the temple, we met Natchez resident Jerry Krouse and toured his historic home. His adorable granddaughters helped lead the tour. Jerry has an exquisite collection of mid-eighteenth-century Rococo furniture and antiques.
Though small in numbers now, the Natchez Jewish community continues to shine in this historic gem of a city. In 1991, Temple B’nai Israel went into partnership with the ISJL (then called the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience) to ensure their temple’s preservation down the road. B’nai Israel is now listed as a Mississippi historical site. In fact, the Historic Natchez Foundation has a riddle on their architectural scavenger hunt: “I alone am surmounted by a dome, but I have few members who call me home.”
The TENT participants visiting Natchez almost all came from towns with large, thriving Jewish communities. We were all impressed by the determination of the Natchez Jewish community to keep their Jewish traditions alive for as long as possible. It was a wonderful way to begin a journey through the Jewish South, and a good lesson: a community can be small, and still be thriving.
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Fully capturing the essence of Jewish life across the South can be tricky, especially in towns without a formal congregation. That’s why we appreciate when people reach out to us with their stories and contributions. Recently, a very interesting inquiry led to a rich research experience – and a fun road trip to Lake Providence, Louisiana.
Louisiana native Spike Herzog wanted to make some donations to our museum collection. His father owned a store, Galanty’s, which had been in business since 1896, and he was left with an array of artifacts. We just needed to come get them.
Museum coordinator Rachel Myers and I thought it would be interesting to do an oral history with Spike and his two sisters while we visited the store in Lake Providence.
After Spike’s father, Alex Herzog, bought Galanty’s, he turned it into a high-end men and boy’s clothing store. The store was famous for its fine suits, and people like comedian Jerry Clower would come in to buy his apparel. Galanty’s worked in tandem with the Stockners, who sold women’s clothing right next door.
Spike recalled that the store served as a gathering place for coffee and conversation. According to Spike and his sisters, a main reason for the store’s success was Alex’s dedication to treating everyone with respect, regardless of their race. After Alex’s death, Spike received a call from a retired African American teacher who told Spike that Alex was the first white person to treat him with respect and dignity.
Alex Herzog married a Methodist woman named Marian, who worked in nearby Transylvania as a social worker for the Farm Security Project. She then went on to become a teacher and eventually was elected town Alderman. Turns out, Marian’s stepmother was Dr. Grace Bordelon. After I did some digging, I found out that Grace’s brother, James Bordelon, was my great-grandfather! I was thrilled to find this connection, and it reminded me how interconnected these small Southern communities can be.
Although Spike and his sisters were raised in the Methodist church, they had strong Jewish role models in their family. They remembered their grandfather, Will, reading through his prayer book every Sunday. As children, they were exposed to Jewish cuisine and traditions at family dinners at their Grandmother Sallie’s house.
My first oral history experience since moving to Mississippi was fascinating. Not only did we learn about the captivating story of the Herzog family (incidentally, Spike’s real name is Walter—his sister Billie Hart nicknamed him “Spike” because she adored Spike Jones, the drummer!), but also we also learned about other Jews in the area.
After a trip to the local library, I was able to confirm that several Jewish families lived in Lake Providence, and most of them ran businesses. Lake Providence in the early to mid-1900s included Rosenzweig’s Grocery, the Good Luck Store, Fisher hotel, Coleman’s Clothing, Stafford’s Café, Pure Food, Kaufmans’s Haberdashery, Sol Stockner’s Ready to Wear; The Fashion Shop, Nevin’s Jewelry, Herzog’s, Leach’s Hardware Store, Smilow Hardware, Minsky’s Drug Store, Levy’s, Goodstein’s Furniture Store and Charles Perry’s. Leon Minsky and his son, Reynold started a pecan picking business in the 1950s that is still in operation today.
From their position as merchants, Jews became a part of the social fabric and dedicated leadership of Lake Providence. Three Jewish men served as mayor: Solomon Dreyfus from 1887-1888; Elias Stockner from 1914-1916; and Elias Leon Minsky from 1970-1974. Although Lake Providence Jews never established a congregation, many faithfully attended services in nearby Vicksburg, Mississippi, Greenville, Mississippi, or McGehee, Arkansas.
Although only a few Jews remain in Lake Providence today, the many who once lived there left a strong legacy in the community. I encourage our readers to keep sharing their stories with us so that we can keep providing rich and nuanced accounts of our Southern Jewish heritage. Some of our best stories start with that contact – like a phone call from a man named Spike.
This past week, two of my co-workers and I attended an interesting lecture by Reverend Ben Matin at Millsaps College, a small liberal arts school here in Jackson. The talk, “People of the Book: Sacred Text and Multi-Faith Conversation,” was part of their Friday Forums lecture series. Rev. Matin described a unique program that brings people of faith together to discuss passages of scripture from one another’s tradition.
Interfaith dialogue is an issue that is near and dear to my heart. I was baptized Catholic, raised Protestant – Southern Baptist, to be exact – and as an adult, converted to Judaism. Helping people understand and appreciate difference has been a huge part of my career. When I was a high school teacher, I designed a comparative religion course that produced a lot of interesting discussions. As a graduate student at NYU, I wrote a book chapter that examined the Face to Faith Program, which uses video conferences to enable students of different faiths across the world to share their world views on issues of social justice. Examples abound of innovative organizations working to cultivate dialogue among people of all faiths and none in order to promote tolerance and understanding.
As an historian, my job is to educate people about Southern Jewry and their relationship with people of different faiths. While it is true that the South has historically been an environment steeped in Christian culture, there are so many examples of interfaith cooperation between Jews and Christians across the South. It was not uncommon for rabbis and ministers to do pulpit swaps. In Cleveland, Mississippi, Adath Israel’s Rabbi Danziger arranged a pulpit swap with the local Episcopal priest in 2013. Danziger gave a series of lectures to the Episcopal congregation and led the Sunday morning service. This sort of cooperation continues to exist among the lay community as well. When I recently talked to the Cleveland synagogue’s president, Ed Kossman, he noted that there are typically more Christians than Jews at services. For instance, there is a local retired Baptist minister who never misses a service. Synagogue attendance of non-Jews in other small towns with declining Jewish populations, such as Natchez, Mississippi, has helped to keep synagogues open.
That interfaith spirit was echoed by the Jews of Canton, Mississippi. Members of the Christian community there not only came but also participated in services. Because no synagogue member ever felt qualified to play the organ or sing prayers during services, Fanethel Wales, a Presbyterian, played the pump organ and a Baptist minister’s wife sung Hebrew incantations during services at B’nai Israel. A most intriguing evidence of interfaith cooperation can be seen in the formation of the Christian Committee for the United Jewish Appeal in 1947 under the leadership of J.F. Barbour, the father of former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. The fund sought to raise money to help Holocaust survivors still living in Displaced Person Camps in Europe. They urged the citizens of Yazoo City to donate money to reach a goal of $6,500, and they were successful in this endeavor.
Interfaith efforts actually helped to curtail racial tension in some Southern towns. Following the Little Rock crisis in 1957, Rabbi Ira Sanders formed the Ministry of Reconciliation which included religious leaders from across the community. After Eisenhower called for a day of prayer during the Little Rock school crisis, the Ministry set up a prayer rally on Columbus Day for congregational members across the city to pray for tolerance. They did this despite bomb threats. Estimated numbers of 8-10,000 people attended services including 500 Jews. In Lexington, Mississippi, town leader and Jewish community member Phil Cohen, African American Pastor James Rodgers, and other town members formed a coalition in 1978 to work out racial strife in the town caused by an economic boycott. Cohen and Rodgers held a prayer session on the south side of town square. Both black and white residents came, and the boycotts ended for good.
As we continue to update our community histories for Mississippi and eventually other states, I encourage our readers to share their stories of interfaith cooperation. And please, send along any other interesting stories as well. The Encyclopedia is a treasured resource for many people of all faiths, and your contributions have helped to bring this history to life.