Last week, I was on the road with TENT, a week-long traveling seminar on culture, history, and social justice for a group of Jewish twenty-somethings. The group started in New Orleans and finished in Memphis, spending several days in Mississippi along the way.
I accompanied the group from New Orleans to Jackson, and it was a privilege to spend time with such an intelligent, enthusiastic group of young adults. All but one of them hailed from the North, so it was interesting to watch them experience Southern culture and learn about Southern Jewry from trip leader Rachel Myers and their scholar-on-the-road, Professor Eric Goldstein of Emory University.
Some in the group had been to New Orleans, but none of them had been to Natchez, Mississippi, the second stop on our tour.
Natchez, a river port town in Adams County, sits on high bluffs towering over the mighty Mississippi River. Commonly referred to as “The Bluff City,” Natchez is one of the oldest and most important European settlements in the lower Mississippi River Valley. Its economy, firmly rooted in the cotton trade, prospered during the 19th century and attracted people from around the world seeking to profit from the trade. Goods came to the area from ports in New Orleans, St. Louis, Boston, New York, and even Great Britain. As a result of this great success, in 1860 Natchez had more millionaires than anywhere else in the United States.
Though past its economic prime, Natchez continues to attract visitors with its many historic homes and festivals that celebrate life in the Old South. Here, in the so-called “most Southern place on earth,” the group quickly learned that Jews flourished in The Bluff City for over two centuries.
Natchez has thirteen National Historic Landmarks and over 1,000 structures on the National Register of Historic Places. A number of historic churches are scattered throughout the city, including Temple B’nai Israel. The original temple was built in 1870, but burned to the ground due to faulty wiring. B’nai Israel’s new building was dedicated on March 25, 1905, with over 600 people in attendance.
A number of esteemed guests come to B’nai Israel to talk to us about the history of the Natchez Jewish community. Mayor Larry Lynn “Butch” Brown [named for two other Natchez Jews of blessed memory, Larry and Lynn Abrams] spoke about the many contributions Jews made over the years, and invited us to return to the city’s tri-centennial celebration in 2016. Mimi Miller, Executive Director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, shared that the synagogue looks much as it looked in 1905. The bima, lighting fixtures, and chairs are the same. Temple member Beau Baumgardner informed us that lay-lead services are held monthly, despite the fact that the median age of temple members is 74. The congregation is fortunate to have David Goldblatt, a music professor at Alcorn State University, serve as cantorial soloist. To the group’s surprise, Beau also told us that often, more gentiles than Jews are in attendance at Shabbat services.
After visiting the temple, we met Natchez resident Jerry Krouse and toured his historic home. His adorable granddaughters helped lead the tour. Jerry has an exquisite collection of mid-eighteenth-century Rococo furniture and antiques.
Though small in numbers now, the Natchez Jewish community continues to shine in this historic gem of a city. In 1991, Temple B’nai Israel went into partnership with the ISJL (then called the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience) to ensure their temple’s preservation down the road. B’nai Israel is now listed as a Mississippi historical site. In fact, the Historic Natchez Foundation has a riddle on their architectural scavenger hunt: “I alone am surmounted by a dome, but I have few members who call me home.”
The TENT participants visiting Natchez almost all came from towns with large, thriving Jewish communities. We were all impressed by the determination of the Natchez Jewish community to keep their Jewish traditions alive for as long as possible. It was a wonderful way to begin a journey through the Jewish South, and a good lesson: a community can be small, and still be thriving.
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Fully capturing the essence of Jewish life across the South can be tricky, especially in towns without a formal congregation. That’s why we appreciate when people reach out to us with their stories and contributions. Recently, a very interesting inquiry led to a rich research experience – and a fun road trip to Lake Providence, Louisiana.
Louisiana native Spike Herzog wanted to make some donations to our museum collection. His father owned a store, Galanty’s, which had been in business since 1896, and he was left with an array of artifacts. We just needed to come get them.
Museum coordinator Rachel Myers and I thought it would be interesting to do an oral history with Spike and his two sisters while we visited the store in Lake Providence.
After Spike’s father, Alex Herzog, bought Galanty’s, he turned it into a high-end men and boy’s clothing store. The store was famous for its fine suits, and people like comedian Jerry Clower would come in to buy his apparel. Galanty’s worked in tandem with the Stockners, who sold women’s clothing right next door.
Spike recalled that the store served as a gathering place for coffee and conversation. According to Spike and his sisters, a main reason for the store’s success was Alex’s dedication to treating everyone with respect, regardless of their race. After Alex’s death, Spike received a call from a retired African American teacher who told Spike that Alex was the first white person to treat him with respect and dignity.
Alex Herzog married a Methodist woman named Marian, who worked in nearby Transylvania as a social worker for the Farm Security Project. She then went on to become a teacher and eventually was elected town Alderman. Turns out, Marian’s stepmother was Dr. Grace Bordelon. After I did some digging, I found out that Grace’s brother, James Bordelon, was my great-grandfather! I was thrilled to find this connection, and it reminded me how interconnected these small Southern communities can be.
Although Spike and his sisters were raised in the Methodist church, they had strong Jewish role models in their family. They remembered their grandfather, Will, reading through his prayer book every Sunday. As children, they were exposed to Jewish cuisine and traditions at family dinners at their Grandmother Sallie’s house.
My first oral history experience since moving to Mississippi was fascinating. Not only did we learn about the captivating story of the Herzog family (incidentally, Spike’s real name is Walter—his sister Billie Hart nicknamed him “Spike” because she adored Spike Jones, the drummer!), but also we also learned about other Jews in the area.
After a trip to the local library, I was able to confirm that several Jewish families lived in Lake Providence, and most of them ran businesses. Lake Providence in the early to mid-1900s included Rosenzweig’s Grocery, the Good Luck Store, Fisher hotel, Coleman’s Clothing, Stafford’s Café, Pure Food, Kaufmans’s Haberdashery, Sol Stockner’s Ready to Wear; The Fashion Shop, Nevin’s Jewelry, Herzog’s, Leach’s Hardware Store, Smilow Hardware, Minsky’s Drug Store, Levy’s, Goodstein’s Furniture Store and Charles Perry’s. Leon Minsky and his son, Reynold started a pecan picking business in the 1950s that is still in operation today.
From their position as merchants, Jews became a part of the social fabric and dedicated leadership of Lake Providence. Three Jewish men served as mayor: Solomon Dreyfus from 1887-1888; Elias Stockner from 1914-1916; and Elias Leon Minsky from 1970-1974. Although Lake Providence Jews never established a congregation, many faithfully attended services in nearby Vicksburg, Mississippi, Greenville, Mississippi, or McGehee, Arkansas.
Although only a few Jews remain in Lake Providence today, the many who once lived there left a strong legacy in the community. I encourage our readers to keep sharing their stories with us so that we can keep providing rich and nuanced accounts of our Southern Jewish heritage. Some of our best stories start with that contact – like a phone call from a man named Spike.
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!