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!
Today, as we dwell in this reflective month of Elul and prepare for the high holidays ahead, we also recall this day in our nation’s history. May the memory of all those we lost be a blessing.
From North to South, East to West, and throughout the world, may peace and kindness prevail over terror and violence.
The last thing I imagined to find when I moved to Mississippi? A tabernacle.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about the Mishkan, the encampment the Israelites set up in the while wandering in the desert, the physical space where God dwelled among them. But I never thought I would see a life-size replica… let alone in Pearl, Mississippi.
I read about it online, and was immediately tempted to go see it—but I also felt a bit strange about the fact that this “life-size replica of the Mosaic Sanctuary that God gave instructions to Moses to build in the wilderness” was constructed by a Seventh-day Adventist organization. I wondered what the agenda might be, as the group travels with the tabernacle across the nation.
But my curiosity got the best of me. And so I went to see the Mishkan.
Located in the middle of a large open field, next to a church in Pearl, Mississippi, sat several large tents. Two kind older women welcomed me and handed me an admission ticket that read “tribe of Benjamin.” My father’s Hebrew name, I observed silently. The women asked me why I was in Jackson, where I worked and I told them about the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Although I wasn’t trying to hide the fact that I’m Jewish, I realized I was a bit uncomfortable. Was I coming here “as a Jew”? Was I walking in as a student of religious studies?
Either way, I was probably not their intended audience.
Our tour guide began by explaining the history of the Temple, and Jewish worship at the Temple. I was impressed with the guide’s level of knowledge. He had a lot of dates and important figures memorized, and his information seemed consistent with what I learned in my Jewish day school education.
We walked into the tent, stopping to look at the altar made of “brass” (or plastic spray-painted to look like brass). An unfortunate plush-toy sheep was awaiting a demonstration. The guide explained to us the process of sacrifice, starting with the sin, and ending with the fats and innards burnt on the altar. He shared all the information I was familiar with, but his interpretation was different: for the tour guide in the church’s re-created tabernacle, every part of the sacrifice and worship to God somehow connected to Jesus’ ministry.
We made our way through the tabernacle, beginning from the least holy spot to the most—the Holy of Holies.
Inside the Holy of Holies sat items I knew were supposedly there, but had never pictured. This was perhaps the most interesting thing for me; to see things like manna and Aaron’s staff, depicted in material terms. Manna is something I’ve always learned about as maybe bread, or maybe grain, but definitely heavenly, other-worldly. To see it in a bowl, so obviously of this world, was confusing. Some of the mystery, the ineffable quality was lost.
Perhaps the most jarring interpretation of all: the tour ended in a tent where the High Priest was dressed in a breastplate—and instead of pomegranates and bells around the bottom of his frock, instead Christmas ornaments dangled from the garment.
It was an odd experience, but I’m glad I went. I left this Mishkan feeling confused, but also full of pride. Though our religions look very different today, the Christians who created this tabernacle share many of the same historical roots that connect me to my faith. For my tour guide, the Mishkan was an extraordinary thing that led the way for Jesus’ salvation. For me, it was something that helped shape my people, as a people. Christianity and Judaism both changed drastically over the years, and neither look much like the religion practiced in the desert for 40 years—but both still find meaning in memories and experiences of the Mishkan.