There are moments as an archivist when something unusual (like a fur muff or a military notebook) sticks out from a standard inventory of confirmation photos and store ledgers. And then, sometimes, you come across a group shot of men in drag.
No, this photo from is not from the Greenwood, Mississippi production of La Cage Aux Folles (written by Jewish composer Jerry Herman, who just so happens to be my first cousin twice removed!). That show wasn’t written until 1983, which puts these men way ahead of their time.
The photo was featured in a newsletter put out by the B’nai B’rith District Grand Lodge No. 7 in 1951. While Jews were active members of local clubs like the Masons or Shriners, exclusively Jewish groups like B’nai B’rith were very important to the continuity of the Southern Jewish identity. Many families that worked and lived in smaller towns traveled to larger cities like Greenwood for Jewish communal life. Potlucks and holiday parties were where they could network, discuss business, and, most importantly, find dates!
The event title alone, “What My Lady Should Not Wear,” gives the impression that this brotherhood of men knew how to get a laugh and certainly shakes any preconceived notions I may have had about conservative Southern men. I just hope they got to keep the outfits.
There are 650 miles and 3 states between Fort Mill, South Carolina and Greenwood, Mississippi, but their connection is closer than ever after Michael and Carol Pleskoff made the trek to Jackson, Mississippi, two weeks ago.
The couple, along with other members of Fort Mill’s Temple Solel, met with Rabbi Marshal Klaven on a rabbinic visit to the newly formed congregation in July. They were looking for a Torah to use during the monthly services they hold in a local church. Rabbi Klaven recommended contacting me, and two days later I was helping to arrange the loan of a Torah from the collection of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE).
The Torah once belonged to the congregations of Temple Beth Israel in the Mississippi delta community of Greenwood. Jews arrived in Greenwood in the 1850s, and by 1890 they had begun to organize a Jewish community. In 1897, a group of merchants met in a store house and formed the first synagogue, a Reform temple named Beth Israel.
Beth Israel always remained a small synagogue. In 1940, there were 30 members. By 1957 the temple had 66 members and twenty students in Sunday school. Like many small communities in the region, when people started to leave Greenwood for opportunities elsewhere the Jewish community was not able to replenish itself, and the congregation closed its doors in 1989. The Torah and other religious artifacts were donated to the MSJE.
The end of Beth Israel does not reflect a dwindling of Jewish life in the South. Just the opposite, Temple Solel is an example of Jewish communities growing in different parts of our region as populations shift to larger cities like Atlanta and Charlotte. Michael and Carol are examples of dedicated congregants, traveling that 650 miles to Jackson in their RV, in order to preserve their Jewish traditions. By replanting a piece of Southern Jewish history in their new congregation, Temple Solel will continue the legacy of Jewish life in the South. As congregants read from this Torah they will be reminded of those who read from it before them and how those congregants promoted Jewish life in this region in order to pave the way for thriving communities today.