My family lives in Greenwood, Mississippi. Nestled in the heart of the Delta, we are proud of our small-but-vibrant shul; even when only a dozen or so folks fill the pews, time spent in our building is meaningful. However, recently we saw our sanctuary overflowing with guests for the first time in years—and we were honored to host an event that led to powerful connections and conversations with our Delta neighbors.
We had two special visitors drawing the crowd in that night: Dr. Amy-Jill Levine (or AJ, as she prefers), and Rabbi Jeremy Simons of the ISJL. Rabbi Simons led a beautiful Shabbat service, warmly welcoming everyone and putting all attendees at ease immediately. I was so proud to have him representing the Jewish faith and standing up there in front of so many, leading everyone in a shared experience of Sabbath peace.
Then, AJ took the stage. AJ is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Department of Religious Studies, and Graduate Department of Religion. She’s a Jewish woman who studies and teaches about Christianity—and thereby she possesses a rare ability to speak the language of both Christians and Jews. She can represent both viewpoints fairly, and help us understand each other. Her opening line was something like: “Faith is more like love than Sudoku. Sudoku only has one correct solution. Love is subjective rather than right or wrong—you can’t control who you love and different people will have different preferences.”
People came from all over to hear her speak; Christians were challenged and enriched by her teachings on Christianity, and Jewish attendees were similarly riveted by her approach to scholarship and religious studies transcending both religions. Though the program took place in a synagogue, AJ knew her audience was primarily Christian. She addressed all equally, and encouraged all to be open to challenge and new notions. As local bookstore employee and program partner Steve Iwanski noted in his wonderful blog following AJ’s presentation: “…she sought to bring light to the parts of Jewish faith that may be unfamiliar to the typical Christian.
The crowd lingered for a long time afterward, and one could pick up smatterings of conversation that sounded exactly like the kind of interpretive dialogue Dr. Levine had implored us to engage in.” Having Rabbi Simons and Dr. Amy-Jill Levine lead and teach from our synagogue’s pulpit to a completely full house was an incredible delight. Everyone there shared in learning, in listening, in strengthening our own individual understanding and also our collective understanding of one another.
As an Ahavath Rayim member, an ISJL board member, a Greenwood resident—I could not have been more proud. It was not just a night of academics, but of spiritual moments. My 86-year-old mother-in-law, Ilse Goldberg, kindled the Shabbat candles and recited the blessings, which was such a moving moment. A lot of planning goes into bringing an event like this together, but moments like this are so precious that all the planning is worth it.
That night, I felt the pride of our ancestors – Ilse in the room, and others no longer with us. If they could have seen the full pews and felt the support and investment of our neighbors, I know how proud the previous generations of the congregation would be. I’m just honored that I could be part of such a wonderful communal experience, and grateful to see our shul stuffed to the gills with long-time supporters and first-time visitors. I hope to see our friends and neighbors joining us in fellowship many more times in the future.
I recently came across this list of the “most and least Jewish states.” The list is derived from a study by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB). Wyoming was denoted as the least Jewish state, measuring 23 Jewish individuals per 100,000 people. New York, of course, was the “most Jewish state,” with a whopping 4,046 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people.
My current state, Mississippi (ranked once again as the most religious state in a recent Gallop poll), boasts 43 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. That places it at #46 on the list.
People tend to have a lot of negative assumptions about being Jewish in Mississippi. In all honesty, despite being a native Texan, I was a little hesitant about moving to the Magnolia State from New York City. I had lived in the “most Jewish state” for five years; my alma mater, NYU, had a thriving Hillel and large Jewish community, and it didn’t take much effort for me to be involved in Jewish life. Down here in the heart of Dixie, the scene is different—but it’s really quite lovely. Several trips to the Delta as this winter began reminded me why that is so true.
Here’s the thing: Jews in Mississippi have historically had to work pretty hard to maintain their Jewish identity. For instance, the ISJL’s founder and president, Macy B. Hart, would ride 80 miles with his family from Winona, Mississippi, to Temple Adath Israel in Cleveland, Mississippi to attend services and go to religious school. In the early 1960s, Cleveland had one of the largest temple youth groups in the state, with its membership including Jewish youth from many small surrounding Delta towns. Devoted Jews from smaller towns across the state made those long drives to participate in Jewish life in places across the state like Cleveland, Greenville, and Greenwood.
Though few in number these days, all three of those towns still hold services, thanks to dedicated community members that put in a lot of effort to maintain Jewish religious practice. I got to see this firsthand on my recent visits to the Delta — place like Greenwood, Mississippi, where ISJL Board Member Gail Goldberg and her family work tirelessly to keep her congregation, Ahavath Rayim, going strong. Her family’s commitment there is downright inspirational.
I also attended services at Adath Israel in Cleveland led by Rabbi Harry Danziger, retired now after a long career in Memphis. The service was intimate, and the congregation was most welcoming. They typically hold a potluck following services—the week I was there, they served fried chicken and latkes. What could be better?
The Chanukah party at Hebrew Union in Greenville, Mississippi, was joyful. Every year, Alan and Leanne Silverblatt prepare 30 pounds of brisket for the part, and everyone helps out making latkes. I got in on the latke-making action, too. (This was my first time making them. I don’t cook, but they weren’t too bad!) Another delightful Delta visit.
Mississippi may not have a lot of Jews, but the ones that call the state home have, in my experience, been steadfast, loyal, and most of all, kind. It seems to me there’s more than one way to calculate “most Jewish”—it’s not just the number of people, it’s the amount of enthusiastic Jewish life. We have plenty of it here. If you haven’t already been, y’all come on down and visit us in the Magnolia State!
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.
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.
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!