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.
I am coming up on my one-year anniversary of working at the Jewish Women’s Archive. It’s a pleasant shock that nearly twelve months have passed since I joined the Jewish communal world; before I came to JWA, I maintained a safe distance from full-time employment with a Jewish organization.
I left my position as executive director of a summer writing camp last spring to figure out my next steps. Like many women my age (I am looking directly into the jaws of turning 50) I knew that the time had come to make a deliberate change. My kids were getting older, I needed more colleagues, more intellectual grist, blah blah blah.
Last month, I had the good fortune of reflecting on the changes of this past year, as I prepared to teach my first workshops with my JWA skirt on. I went to Jackson, Mississippi for the annual education conference of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL). As a guest presenter, I taught about the importance of primary source-based learning, Jews and the music of the civil rights movement, and what inspiring Jewish women like Bella Abzug and Queen Esther can teach us about costumes and identity.
Moments like this are when I know I made the right shift in my career. I am learning a whole new lexicon. A new prism for viewing the world. A history I knew existed, but didn’t really know how to access. A framework for living the next decades of my life. An understanding that feminism is not monochromatic. And, as a result, a passion for the subject matter I get to shepherd(ess) every day.
Which brings me, again, to the ISJL. I listened to music from the civil rights era pretty much nonstop for a few weeks to get me into the mindset for teaching the topic. I learned many new details about Freedom Summer. I read and re-read Heather Booth’s letter to her brother, in which she writes about her “fear and exhaustion” but also the “songs that help to dissipate the fear.” The more I learn about Freedom Summer (I got an early look at the extraordinary new Stanley Nelson documentary which premiered June 24 on PBS), the more I am humbled by the bravery of all the volunteers.
I am also profoundly inspired by the Jewish civil rights workers who comprised an estimated 50% of those college-age volunteers that summer. They went to heal fractured communities, to encourage the disenfranchised to vote, to bring a modicum of dignity to those whose basic democratic freedoms had been denied for over a hundred years, and to try and build a better world for the next generation through the creation of Freedom Schools.
Is it okay to say I had fun preparing for my first conference, even when the topics were tough? I had fun because I discovered new ways to think about my own history and identity and how to translate these discoveries for others. I have a new modus operandi, which I am proud to have and even prouder to impart—I kinda lectured friends at dinner about the important Jewish role models who preceded us, and not only were my friends encouraging, they were thrilled to learn the stories that were new to them.
And I had a great time teaching at the ISJL conference; the educators were smart, eager to learn new materials, and committed to sustaining Jewish life in their home towns. As a northeastern Jewess, I was moved to learn about the many small communities in the South where one Jewish educator nurtures and nourishes the children growing up there, and how, like Bella and Esther, these educators have to wear a few identities to navigate their different orbits.
My time in Jackson also had an unexpected “shining moment.” I met Pam Confer, who was at the hotel to plan for Freedom Summer activities later in the week. I asked her if she would come and sing “This Little Light of Mine” during my presentation on civil rights and music. I had planned on playing a recording of Betty Fickes’ version of the song, but the thrill of having a local artist sing was too tempting to pass up; her beautiful voice filled the room and showed us all how the power of music can bring people together. Everyone was smiling and clapping; the mood in the room was electric.
Thank you, ISJL, for introducing me to Southern Jewish life, and giving me the chance to experience shining a new light. And as we approach the 4th of July holiday, may we continue working toward liberty for all!
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This is my first week as the historian for the ISJL. I’ve been so warmly welcomed here—and am already finding connections between my last phase of life, and this one.
I recently completed my PhD at New York University. My focus was on church-state issues in American history, so I had to read a lot of case law. When the opportunity arose to write Jewish history for the ISJL, I jumped on it. Public history has a particular appeal to me because I feel that studying history is not just about studying the past, but also about understanding trends within current society and searching for ways to make positive change.
I was especially pleased to be given an assignment researching a rabbi by the name of Judah Wechsler for the Meridian/Lauderdale County Tourism Association. The association is interested in documenting the Jewish contribution to the Civil Rights movement in Meridian given the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom summer. Through my research, I discovered that Rabbi Wechsler became heavily involved in the issue of African American education as early as the late 19th century.
Like many small towns across the Reconstructionist South, Meridian, Mississippi, had limited free education offerings for African American children. Prior to 1871, an African American school was housed in the local Methodist church, but one of its teachers, Mr. Warren Tyler, was killed during a riot there in 1871. The other teacher, Mr. Price, was forced to leave town. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Henry McElroy and Rabbi Judah Wechsler, the school survived until 1875. Wechsler and others campaigned for a bond issue to construct the first brick public school building for African Americans.
Rabbi Wechsler actually donated $1,000 (close to $25,000 by today’s standard) of his own personal money toward the expense of the school. When the bond issue passed, Meridian’s black community asked that the new school be named in the rabbi’s honor. The Wechsler School still stands today, and is registered as a historic landmark by the National Register of Historical Places.
During the Civil Rights era, there were several instances of Southern and Northern Jews fighting for equal educational rights in Meridian and beyond. For instance, while I was in New York finishing my dissertation, I had the good fortune to get to know Mark Levy. During the summer of 1964, Mark served as a coordinator of the Meridian, MS, Freedom School.
Freedom schools were alternative free schools for African Americans set up by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to mitigate a segregated school system with little resources directed towards African American schools. Many African American children in small towns received little to no education. These schools aimed to empower African Americans in Mississippi to become active citizens and agents of social change. The progressive, experiential curriculum emphasized student-centered teaching and learning by doing.
I spoke with Mark for over three hours. He has devoted his whole life to social justice measures. His passion for tikkun olam is downright contagious. Though I met him first in New York, Mark will be here in Mississippi for the fiftieth anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom summer. This exciting event runs from June 25-29, at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Organizers expect 3,000 activists, elected officials, students, scholars, and veterans of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer to commemorate the achievements of Freedom Summer. This event isn’t just about the past, but will serve as a launching pad for social action focused on four closely-related social issues impacting minorities in Mississippi and beyond: Education, Workers Rights, Healthcare, and Voting Rights within Mississippi and the nation.
(As a further connection, Rabbi Wechsler shares a last name with my dissertation chair, Dr. Harold Wechsler of NYU, who is quite learned and also extremely warm-hearted. I could not trace a blood relationship between the two men, but they share a generous spirit. Just one more way history and community connects to our own stories!)
If you, too, are interested in connecting with living history and making the world better, the ISJL is helping coordinate complimentary special programs focusing on past and potential Jewish contributions to social justice. The event promises to be an enriching and exciting experience and all of us at ISJL encourage you to come. More details are here. I hope to see you in Mississippi!