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.
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.
Many of the Jewish communities that I research and write about for our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities are quite small. Very few people are aware that Jews established congregations in places like Lexington, Mississippi, or Owensboro, Kentucky. Finding congregational records or other information about these communities can be a real challenge. Thankfully, I have found a few extremely useful sources at the leading archives of American Jewish history.
The American Jewish Historical Society, whose archives are housed at the Center for Jewish History in New York, owns the records of the Industrial Removal Office. The IRO once helped to relocate poor Jewish immigrants from New York to other cities and towns around the country. The organization’s records are fascinating, but perhaps most useful for me are the surveys they sent out to towns to collect information about the local Jewish community. In 1908, they sent one to Morris Baldauf, one of the leaders of the small Jewish congregation in Henderson, Kentucky. Baldauf took this questionnaire seriously, and gave a precise accounting of the local Jewish population, noting that there were 58 adults and 69 children. He also provided information about the local economy, educational system, and even climate. Such a rich, contemporary description of a Jewish community is the gold standard for us historians.
A few weeks ago, I was able to visit the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives on the campus of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. HUC has a long tradition of serving small congregations through its student rabbi program. The correspondence and paperwork related to the program have been preserved at the archives, and they provide a treasure trove of information. A big reason for this was the foresight of Jacob Rader Marcus, the longtime professor of Jewish history at the college and the founder of the archives. Marcus and the leadership of HUC had each rabbinic student who served a congregation fill out of a detailed form about the local Jewish community. Particularly useful was the form from 1935. While some of the questions were straightforward (how many Jews lived there; what the style of worship was), others were clearly those of a historian hoping to help future researchers: when did Jews first arrive; where are the records of the congregation kept; is there a shochet or moil in town; is there “a distinct cleavage between orthodox and reform Jews”; have Jews ever held elected office in the town; have there been any notable instances of anti-Semitism; are there any intermarried couples and are they raising their children to be Jewish.
Thanks to Dr. Marcus, I was able to use these questionnaires to provide a detailed portrait of several small Jewish communities at a particular point in history. Each year, the student rabbi filled out additional surveys, so I could gauge a congregation’s change over time. For a congregation like Adas Israel in Henderson, Kentucky, which never had more than thirty families and did not produce a long historical record, these documents have proven essential to my writing of its history. In another example, the only way I know that there was once a short-lived congregation in Danville, Kentucky, in the 1940s is through these student rabbi records.
My experience with the IRO Records and the HUC Student Rabbi files got me thinking about the work of our organization, the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Each weekend our education fellows and rabbi hit the road to serve congregations across the South. After a Monday comp day, they return to the office on Tuesday and write a detailed trip report about their visit. One day, these trip reports will be an amazing source of information about southern Jewish communities in the early years of the 21st century. While history is a record of what happened in the past, it can be both sobering and inspiring to realize that one day we will also be part of history.