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 This includes temple sisterhood minutes, Jewish store memorabilia and objects from temples that are no longer active.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.
With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur just behind us, I thought I would share a little bit about the significance of these holidays from the perspective of historical research.
When I have only one day in a town to research the history of its Jewish community, I don’t have time to scroll through 100 years of daily newspapers on microfilm. Fortunately, there are a few tricks that help me to quickly find a needle (or mention of the local Jewish community) in the haystack of multiple microfilm reels. One useful shortcut is the “High Holiday Research Method.”
I have compiled a list with the dates of every Rosh Hashanah between 1880 and 1960 (thanks to Hebcal!). Usually, the local newspaper will have some mention of the Jewish holidays and often will describe the activities of local Jews. For example, in Lockhart, Texas, I found a mention of a short-lived Jewish congregation that met in a rented hall for the High Holidays in 1922, attracting Jews from several other small towns in the area. This Lockhart congregation did not last for long, and the tiny Jewish population left in town had no recollection of it. Were it not for my finding this Rosh Hashanah notice, this congregation may have been lost to history.
Newspapers from around the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also contain ads run by local Jewish merchants informing their customers that they will be closed on the holidays. These ads are a great way of determining which stores are Jewish-owned, and offer insight about what we here at the ISJL call the “southern Jewish experience.”
One of my favorite of these ads comes from Meridian, Mississippi in 1942. Most of the town’s Jewish merchants banded together to take out one ad, announcing the closing of all of their stores for Rosh Hashanah. The sheer number of businesses, fourteen, attests to the important economic role played in Meridian. Also, notice that the ad declares that the stores would be closed on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Clearly, these stores were usually open on Saturday, the best day of the week for business.
It was almost impossible for a Jewish merchant in Meridian to be shomer Shabbos and make a living. Thus, they had to adjust. In the early 20th century, Meridian’s small Orthodox shul held Saturday morning services at 6 a.m. so members could pray on the Sabbath and then get to their stores in time to open for business. And yet, as the 1942 ad attests, even as they adapted their religious practices, Jews were not willing to give up the high holidays. This was not easy. Indeed, several of these stores opened at 6 p.m. on Rosh Hashanah to try to recoup some of the losses they would incur.
Today, only a small number of southern Jews own retail stores and such ads are largely a thing of the past. Future historians will probably not find much value in the “High Holiday Research Method.” Yet as some aspects of the southern Jewish experience change, some stay the same, as many southern Jews still wrestle with the dilemma of how to maintain their traditions as a tiny minority living in the Christian Bible Belt.
While illegal immigration has become a hot button issue in recent years, it is not a new phenomenon. In fact, Jews were once among those who crossed the border from Mexico into the United States without documentation. After the U.S. severely restricted immigration from Eastern Europe in 1921, many Polish and Russian Jews came to the port of Veracruz, Mexico rather than Ellis Island. A good number of them drifted north to the Texas border, often crossing into El Paso illegally. Rabbi Martin Zielonka of Temple Mt. Sinai in El Paso tried to help these immigrants, though he also attempted to convince them to stay in Mexico.
Rabbi Zielonka corresponded with Jewish leaders in New York, urging them to fund an immigrant aid society in Mexico City so these Jews would not feel compelled to enter the U.S. illegally. He was concerned that this illegal Jewish immigration would “jeopardize the good standing” of American Jews and give nativists further ammunition in pushing for greater restrictions on immigration.