The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience has a collection of over 3,000 objects and archival materials that tell the story of Southern Jewish communities. This includes temple sisterhood minutes, Jewish store memorabilia and objects from temples that are no longer active. I’m excited to use this space to share some pieces that best illustrate the history of these communities.
I’ll start with one of my favorites, a collection of youth group scrapbooks from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Clarksdale, most famously known as home of the Blues, also happened to have some Jews. We have 8 books from 1962-1975 in our collection but this one from 1970 stands out because of its ornate custom circular design and hand drawn calligraphy. Someone crafty was clearly excited about being yearbook editor.
The Clarksdale Jewish community has a long history, starting with early Jewish settlers in the 1880’s. At its peak in the 1930’s, Clarksdale was home to 400 Jews, but by 1970 the community was only a hundred families; the youth group had 25 members. This group was active in the community and participated in regional conclaves that enabled them to network with other Jewish teens in the SOFTY (Southern Federation of Temple Youth) region.
Here are some of the gems from their scrapbook:
I can’t help but wonder what these kids would have thought about their book being cataloged into this museum archive. Could they have known that their thick rimmed glasses would come back into style 40 years later? Would they have included their “play on marijuana,” featuring a progressive dialogue between teenagers and their parents on the merits of the drug?
These scrapbooks are especially telling of the Southern experience because it was this generation of young people who did not stay in Clarksdale or other Delta towns to grow the Jewish community but moved to larger cities like Memphis for greater opportunity. As a result, the community could no longer sustain the congregation and, like many pieces in our collection, these artifacts are from a temple that had to shut its doors.
They are paper and glue relics of the past since today most of our memories are posted to digital pages on Facebook. These should inspire you to print out your favorite Instagram shots and paste some into a book. You never know what important material (or embarrassing hair cut) you’ll be leaving for historians to blog about in the future.
Clarksdale, Mississippi. To fans of the blues, Clarksdale is the birthplace of the great Sam Cook, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and of course, site of the legendary crossroads of Hwy 61 and 49 where bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil.
To me, however, Clarksdale represents family, and an important part of my childhood.
Growing up in Jackson, I remember our family’s annual “pilgrimage” to Clarksdale, a small town in the Mississippi Delta. Every year before the fall holidays, my siblings, mother and I (Dad was at work) would drive up to the Delta, passing lush farmland and cotton fields, to go to Beth Israel cemetery and “visit” with my mom’s parents, both buried there.
We left early in the morning, got to the cemetery by 11, had lunch – vague recollections of the plate lunch special included fried chicken and black eyed peas – and then visited with my mom’s friend, who we knew as “Aunt” Adele Cohen (who was not an actual relation). And then we turned around and drove home.
My mom treasured this annual road trip. She lived in Clarksdale as a young girl and graduated high school there. My grandparents had a small grocery store in Clarksdale, and lived there until the early 1960s before moving to Jackson.
I left Mississippi when I was 24, and headed to the West Coast. After two decades away, and now with a family of my own, I moved back to Jackson five years ago. By the time I returned to reside in my home state, my mom had passed away.
I don’t really know when my family’s last Clarksdale “visit” took place. But this summer, en route to Memphis, I vowed to go visit. All I had was the street name for the cemetery; no address. I drove up and down Friar’s Point Road – no cemetery. I decided to find downtown Clarksdale – perhaps someone could direct me.
It was a hot day in July – I mean, HOT. Easily 99 degrees, with humidity to match. I made it to Main Street, which has seen better days. Lots of empty stores, a victim of small towns getting smaller and a poor economy in the Delta. But I spotted the Clarksdale Press Register newspaper office, went in, asked if they could point me in the direction of the Jewish cemetery.
Though her companion gave me a confused look, one of the young women said: “Oh sure, it’s just around the corner.”
I quickly got back in the car and made my way to the cemetery.
And there they were. Michael (for whom I’m named) and Shelda Binder, my maternal grandparents. It was a moment that brought a flash of days long gone, as well as a connection to my mom and generations past. I also saw the graves of relatives for whom I have no memories – they were just names to me.
As I placed the stones on their tombstones, I spoke to them; whether it was aloud or simply words in my head, I’m not certain. But I told them: “I’m sorry it’s been such a long time since I’ve been here. I love you.”
I returned to my car and headed back to the highway, feeling a sense of calm and comfort. It won’t be my last visit to Clarksdale.