Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to conduct a workshop on oral history techniques at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. While there, I met Ruth Frenkel, who has lived in Conway since 1958. (Full disclosure: her daughter, Ellen Kirsch, heads up Hendrix’s Crain-Maling Center of Jewish Culture and had coordinated my visit). When Ruth told me that her family had escaped from Germany in 1937 and settled in McGehee, Arkansas, I had to hear more. Fortunately, I had my equipment with me on the trip.
So, the next morning, I went over to Ruth’s house and conducted a short oral history interview.
Here is an excerpt:
Ruth’s uncle Adolph was not only in contact with his family, but he managed to visit Germany in advance of the coming war. According to Ruth’s telling, he already knew enough about conditions there to secure visas for the family before his trip.
Even with years of experience in the culture and history of Southern Jews, I have trouble shaking the assumption that rural Jewish communities were cut off from international news and the families they had left in the Old Country, whatever it might be. Stories like Ruth’s constantly remind me that many Jews in the American South, even in the years before television, were keenly aware of the challenges that Jews faced in Europe. While Jewish life in McGehee and other southern towns was marked by geographical isolation, the families who settled there participated in transnational Jewish networks, whether through international aid organizations, the Jewish press or, in this case, family connections.
Today’s blog comes to us from Michael Goodman at Goodman Writes, another “Southern & Jewish” voice. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Last week, I made an online and somewhat anonymous contribution to the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. I had heard about the group from a college classmate from Mississippi with whom I shared stories of growing up Jewish in the South. Now, I want to be more outright in my support of the organization’s work because I am sure they will use my money well.
So why is this important to me?
My paternal grandfather came to this country in the early 1900s and settled in the Deep South, traveling across the region from Mississippi, to Louisiana, to Texas, to Arkansas. He was not a deeply religious man, from what I am told, but he had his own way of keeping Judaism alive. He was a peddler and a butcher by trade. He slaughtered and cut up meat for a living, and the meat he used in his own household was slaughtered in a kosher way. It was one important vestige of Judaism that he tried to maintain.
He eventually settled with his wife and most of his 12 children in the tiny town of Calion, Arkansas, not far from the semi-booming metropolis of El Dorado, probably in the mid to late 1920s. According to the entry on El Dorado in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, the city became a boom town in the 1920s when oil was discovered there. The boom led a number of Jewish merchants to come to El Dorado to open stores, deal in real estate, and establish oil-related businesses.
Now, it is important to know the luck of my family when it comes to oil. I can remember visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousins in the late 1950s in the unlikely-named town of Oil City, Louisiana, near Shreveport. Looking out from their backyard I could see oil well, oil well, oil well, then my uncle’s property, then oil well, oil well. What’s wrong with this picture? I am told that if I had visited my Aunt Libby in Kilgore, Texas, I would have seen a similar plethora of oil wells with a blank space on her property. And my mother says my grandfather suffered a similar plight on his land near El Dorado. It seems that we Goodmans were destined not to get rich quick (or even rich at all).
While he failed to prosper, my grandfather did continue to practice his brand of Judaism. He must have had a decent voice because he often served as Cantor for the High Holidays in El Dorado’s Ohev Zedek congregation. Sadly, that congregation slowly died out and was disbanded for good in 1936. My grandmother died in 1937, and my father left the El Dorado area to move in with his brother in OilCity. Three years later, he arrived as a serviceman in Savannah, where he met my mother and settled down. Like his father, my father was not a religious man, but he always hosted a Friday night dinner, observed the holidays, and supported my mother in establishing and maintaining a kosher home all of his adult life.
My father’s story was not typical of his siblings. Only two other children in his family married Jewish spouses and only one other—that uncle in Oil City—brought up his children as Jews. Intermarriage and the malaise of Judaism in the Delta took their toll. Other small branches of my father’s family in the Greenville,Mississippi, area did manage to keep Judaism alive. And there is a family legend told of my Aunt Fannie Schwartz who used to invite Jewish servicemen in the Greenville area during World War II to come to Friday night dinner, often entertaining as many as 20 for a mostly kosher meal. (My aunt always brought her own kosher plate and kosher food to luncheons in Greenville and went to Memphis periodically to get the kosher meat she kept in her own personal deep freezer.)
Which brings me back to the ISJL and its mission. There are still a large number of very small Jewish communities spread out in small and large towns in the Deep South. Providing support to these communities for simchas and sad occasions, offering information on Jewish history and learning, and providing a means to store elements of our own history is so very important. So I decided to make a small monetary contribution, and to write this blog post to perhaps stir others to find out more about the organization, and to continue my efforts to learn and write more about my family’s Jewish roots so my children can have something to hold on to and something important to add to their own foundation.
This blog originally appeared on Lutheran Confessions, and is re-posted here with permission from the author, Pastor Clint Schnekloth.
Although I in no way mean to imply that Lutherans and the Jewish community in Northwest Arkansas are identical, it is true some of us wear similar t-shirts (I have a t-shirt that reads “The Lord be with y’all”).
It was our honor and privilege to attend Hanukkah celebrations at Temple Shalom in Fayetteville this evening. The evening began with a blessing over the separation (Havdallah, the candle lighting to end Sabbath).
This included a nice hymn, “A good week. A week of peace/May gladness reign and joy increase.” Also the Kiddush, and blessings over the spices and the candles. We sang these standing in a large circle, then danced to the song even most non-Jewish communities know well, the Hava Nagila (let us rejoice).
Two enthusiastic Fellows from the Institute of Southern Jewish Life taught many of the traditions. The Institute sends out nine Fellows each year. They spend their year conducting Sunday school type programs in the synagogues they serve.
I love Temple Shalom’s mission statement, “Temple Shalom is located in the city of Fayetteville, nestled in the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. We are a small, tight-knit, welcoming congregation representing a diversity of practices, and dedicated to serving as the focal point for Jewish life in our small corner of the world.”
Although past years have seen 50-60 participants in programs like the Hanukkah party, this year over 150 people were in attendance, almost all (with the exception of our Lutheran household and a few other visitors) were Jewish. Although I do not know all of the reasons for this growth, my guess is that a) it is an attractive community engaging in effective forms of outreach, and b) more Jewish families and individuals are moving to NWA.
After prayer, we lit the Hannukah candles, and we ate. I think my favorite were the latkes. I’m a huge fan of potato pancakes soaked with sour cream or apple sauce. “Latkes (Yiddish: לאַטקע) are traditionally eaten by Jews during the Hanukkah festival. The oil for cooking the latkes is symbolic of the oil from the Hanukkah story that kept the Second Temple of ancient Israel lit with a long-lasting flame that is celebrated as a miracle.”
Then there was the potluck. Lots of great hot dishes and more latkes of various shapes and flavors. We focused some of our attention on the sweets. I have this evening eaten a chocolate version of the Decalogue. Certainly evocative of Psalm 19: “The law of the Lord is perfect, sweeter than honey.”
But the best part of the party was the fellowship. Although we had to leave early for family bedtimes, we had the opportunity to spend an evening with neighbors and friends we love and deeply cherish.
We share this common story, the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Lutherans and Jews also share a common immigrant story to Arkansas. Here’s to lighting candles together, lights that fend off the darkness and give indication of our joy.