I am Jewish. I am a historian. And, as my name attests—I am also Cajun French, so I was most excited to write a post about some Jewish history down in Cajun country.
My father’s family hails from the Alexandria, Louisiana area; specifically, a small town called Marksville. My grandparents were farmers, and I have fond memories of picking pecans on visits during the summer so that my mamaw could turn them into her heavenly pecan pralines. (To this day, I still can’t figure out her recipe so if you hear of one that includes dates, contact me!)
About two and a half hours up the road lies Donaldsonville, or “la Ville de Donaldson,” often referred to as the metropolis of the Sugar Belt. The town boasts a rich Jewish legacy. In fact, Donaldsonville had the most Jewish mayors in the South, with 9 men, serving 14 terms in total. One Jewish mayor, Marx Schoenberg, was killed during a standoff with militia troops after a dispute over counting ballots although some accounts suggest he was targeted and murdered by a political rival.
It may not have any living Jews now, but in May, the people of Donaldsonville honored the town’s Jewish heritage by making the town’s Jewish synagogue into a historic monument.
The campaign was spearheaded by ISJL former board member Mary Ann Sternberg. She wrote a wonderful article detailing the historical evolution of the synagogue, Bikur Cholim.
Built in 1872, the synagogue served as the only synagogue along River Road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and the second oldest extant synagogue building in Louisiana. Jewish residents of Donaldsonville were careful to observe Jewish laws. Services were typically well attended and Jewish businesses closed on Sabbath mornings. Intermarriage with the local Catholic Community diminished the Jewish community and by the late 1940s, the synagogue was closed.
The building was deconsecrated in 1955 and made into a car dealership. In 1977, it became an Ace Hardware store. Visitors to the store will find a poster in the store’s window commemorating its history with a historic photograph of the Bikur Cholim exterior along with a drawing of what the interior was believed to look like.
The Jewish community thrived throughout much of the 19th century, especially in 1871 when railroad service was offered to New Orleans. A city publication from 1900 wrote that Jews residents were “among the most liberal minded citizens, and are associated with every progressive move.” The town was especially attractive to French speaking Alsatian Jews that were looking for a future in the new world. They made a living despite the major destruction of Donaldsonville in 1862. In fact, there were at least 16 Jewish stores of the 69 located in Donaldsonville in the late 1800s.
From humble beginning, Jacob Lehman built up a large commercial business enterprise. In 1877, he built what would become the oldest continuing department store in Louisiana until the 1980s. Described as the “finest Italianate commercial building in any river town north of New Orleans,” it now houses the historic Donaldsonville museum. Inside is a reproduction of the entryway to the town’s synagogue along with local Jewish artifacts and papers.
What is most notable about Donaldsonville is its Jewish cemetery, which is still maintained by a trust fund set up by the proceeds from the sale of the synagogue. The headstones are engraved in a mixture of several languages, demonstrating the pluralistic nature of the community. While some are in Hebrew and English, many are in various combinations of French, German, Hebrew and English. A few of the oldest graves have no English at all, reflecting the spoken languages of the region: Jewish merchants typically spoke Hebrew to each other, German to customers of German descent, French to the Cajuns, and French or English to African Americans.
If you have the time, be sure to pay the gateway to the Cajun country a visit to soak up its Jewish heritage. And other opportunities for delving into local history abound. For instance, the River Road African-American Museum is devoted to African Americans of the nearby plantations, from the slavery era to today. Be sure to stop at the Grapevine café for hearty Cajun fare, right on the banks of the Mississippi river. Soak in the history, the modern culture, and when in Cajun country, of course—laissez les bons temps rouler!
Post updated July 9, 2014, to clarify the area wherein it was the sole synagogue.
In the mid-nineteenth century, thousands of Jewish immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine came to America and made new lives for themselves in the Deep South. Last week, some Alsatian Jews embarked on the same journey (made much more convenient by intercontinental air travel) to learn about Jewish history and heritage in the South.
Traveling up from New Orleans, last Friday this group of 33 Jewish Alsatian tourists found themselves spending a day with ISJL staff in Jackson, Mississippi. We have worked with tour groups in the past, but never in a different language! While many of them did speak English, the group leader translated every presentation into French. Take a look at this short clip I filmed of Dr. Rockoff presenting to the group…
From our office we went on our usual tour of Jackson sites, stopping at Tougaloo College, the COFO Civil Rights Education Center and the Medgar Evers House Museum. These sites mainly focus on the events of the Civil Rights movement, so I did my best to explain how that history has shaped this region. Questions like why so many buildings were empty downtown, why students pay so much for a college education, and inquiries regarding contemporary race relations, covered huge topics that while difficult to explain easily in English, are especially challenging to explain in French, to an audience without a native understanding of American history.
The cultural exchange went both ways, as I got to hear about the French Jewish experience as well. One woman asked me about how Southerners practice Judaism, and if they still identify as Jewish if they aren’t active in a congregation. She explained that while there are many secular Jews in France, many strongly identify as racially Jewish because of their direct connection to the Holocaust. The leader told me later that a few of the visitors were hidden children during the war. I also found it interesting in discussing our ISJL education program when a few of the guests then explained to me that their children never had any formal Jewish schooling; they simply learned Jewish practices and customs in the home.
It was a great learning experience and such a wonderful opportunity to spend the day with this group. We’re happy that they chose to spend their time in our neck of the woods and I hope this post will encourage some of you with fewer oceans to travel across to make plans to join us soon for your own Southern Jewish experience!