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’s post was written collaboratively by Education Fellows Elaine Barenblat, Dan Ring, and Allison Poirier
This February, the ISJL launched the Linda Pinkus Memorial Labyrinth in not one, but TWO locations!
First, Elaine, Allison, and Rabbi Marshal Klaven took the labyrinth to a launch party in Greenville, Mississippi. There in the heart of the Delta, we celebrated the memory and legacy of Mrs. Pinkus with several generations of her family. In the same weekend, Dan brought our second labyrinth all the way across the South to Greensboro, North Carolina.
A labyrinth is a two dimensional meditative device. Unlike a maze, which twists and turns into dead ends, a labyrinth has a single path to its center and back. Their history goes back at least 3,500 years, and in Judaism they are often connected with the battle of Jericho. Today, we are using our labyrinth (pictured somewhere on this blog post) as a meditative exercise. We walk the paths in silence, concentrating on slow, even, steps, and reflect on spiritual matters. This project is the brainchild of Rabbi Marshal Klaven, created in memory of Mrs. Pinkus as a way to bring new spiritual experiences into the lives of Jews in the South.
Elaine and Allison check in from Greenville:
“We enjoyed seeing how different participants approach this new experience. We expected children to try to race through, but were also pleased to see that they enjoyed it when we encouraged them to slow down. We were surprised to learn that some people saw the labyrinth as a coordination challenge, and feared they were too clumsy to attempt it. Many adults who did try found that walking so slowly and purposefully did, in fact, change their sense of balance. But all who attempted it were pleased to have had this new experience and said they enjoyed learning about a new Jewish spiritual practice.”
Dan checks in from Greensboro:
“The labyrinth was a huge hit! I used it as a religious school program on Sunday morning, and thanks to the help of Beth David Synagogue’s religious school director and the religious school teachers, it worked out perfectly. It was fantastic to see rambunctious, energetic students completely transformed into contemplative, introspective scholars, discussing in detail the intricate differences between a labyrinth and a maze, and bringing these complicated ideas into a larger discussion about our own lives and life decisions. With the tool of the labyrinth, I believe the students also truly began to understand the power of silence and meditation – a benefit which I’m sure will resonate with most any religious school teacher!”
The two labyrinths will be making the rounds throughout our ISJL region, and we hope you will be excited to bring it to your community soon. In the meantime… did you catch the “Green” connection? Don’t worry – it’s not a community requirement or anything!
This week, we have a special “Snapshots from the Southern Jewish Road” collection of pictures to share with you, from last week’s Deli Day at Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville, MS, right in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.
HUC used to be the largest congregation in the state (you can read more about the history of the Greenville Jewish community here). Now, the membership numbers have diminished- but the spirit has not, and that’s never more evident than on the day that HUC invites the rest of Greenville to come to the congregation for a good old fashioned deli lunch, featuring, of course, corned beef sandwiches with all the “fixin’”s.
This tradition has lasted for 130 years – and this year, several of the ISJL Education Fellows went up to the Delta again to help serve the record 2,000 sandwiches sold at the 2013 deli luncheon. They shared these photographs. Enjoy, and Shabbat shalom, y’all!
If you want to learn even more about this community, and the Deli Day in particular, Vox Tablet did a great mini-podcast story on it two years ago – wherein the interviewees talk about the importance of preserving this tradition. What’s a tradition that your community is committed to preserving?