This blog post was written by Anna Stusser, a summer intern currently working in the Museum Department at the ISJL.
Vinyl records capture the imagination. In my hometown of Olympia, Washington, independent craft artists fashion bowls to and household items out of vinyl, appealing to the local indie market. In Brooklyn, the hipster set has revived an interest in vinyl records. I, too, have always seen the charm in the shape and vintage appeal of record players – which is why I became so excited when, in my first few days interning at the ISJL, I found some vintage LP records in the ISJL collection.
It is hard to imagine that modern day hipster twentysomethings, smoking cigarettes on a Brooklyn stoop, have anything in common with a small early-twentieth Southern Jewish congregation. (Other than maybe being Jewish – apparently, Jewish hipsters are their own subculture, and they’re into vinyl!)
But here they were, vintage vinyl records that would be prized today in Brooklyn, donated to the ISJL’s museum collection by a congregation in Columbia, Tennessee. Why were these vinyl records important to the daily life of their congregation? Why would Jews have vinyl records that they would consider important enough to donate to a museum that dedicates itself to Southern Jewish ethnography?
After discussing it with my supervisor and reviewing the titles of such records (some example: Kol Nidre and Eili, Eili), I began to understand that these vinyl records had been something less trendy, and more functional. More meaningful.
To listen to Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky Singing Aneinu, as featured on one of the records, you can play this recording on YouTube (unfortunately not available as an embedded video, but worth a listen!).
Jews worshiping in Columbia, Tennessee, in the first half of the twentieth century, had no full time rabbi to guide them. Many of the Jewish people living in the area commuted into Nashville for their spiritual needs. However, in the early part of the 1900s, a group of people started the Khal Kadosh Congregation, a name which means “Holy Community.” Bilingual services were held in Hebrew and English for a congregation of 16, just barely above the size of a minyan, took place on the second floor of community member Isaac Wolf’s store. Although they had no permanent location, the small congregation acquired an Ark and a Torah. The records from Columbia very likely supplemented the services provided. Unfortunately, Khal Kadosh did not survive past 1926, so we do not know for sure.
But it’s a likely conclusion that the Jewish people living in Columbia utilized vinyl records out of necessity, because that was the technology that was available at the time. Back then, vinyl wasn’t vintage. It was cutting edge.
Small congregations like the one once found in Columbia, TN, still exist today. In the South, many of them are served by the ISJL’s rabbinic department, led by Rabbi Marshal Klaven. From Skype B’nai Mitzvah lessons to sending out his Taste of Torah weekly emails, today’s virtual resources have replaced those found on vinyl.
Do you remember vinyl – or as a young adult, are you discovering it for the first time? We’d love to hear your vinyl stories, especially if you’ve ever listened to recordings of Jewish music!
The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was created in 1956 to fight against racial integration. An arm of Mississippi’s state government, the commission investigated the efforts of civil rights groups and activists who posed a threat to the “Mississippi way of life.” When the commission was formally disbanded in 1977, the state sealed its records for fifty years. But a lawsuit sponsored by the ACLU eventually forced the state to open the records to researchers in 1998.
The Sovereignty Commission papers offer a unique look into the state’s efforts to combat the forces of racial progress. But they also offer moments of comic relief, such as when the commission sent two of its investigators to spy on the 1960 regional B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO) convention at the Sun-N-Sand Motel in Biloxi.
A man named N.C. Wingo of Jackson had contacted officials at the Sovereignty Commission and informed them about the meeting, accusing BBYO of being a secretive radical subversive group. According to declassified documents, officials at the Sovereignty Commission had never heard of BBYO and sent two of their top investigators to spy on this convention.
The investigators’ six-page report manages to be both chilling and humorous at the same time. The manager of the Sun-N-Sand led the investigators to a spot where they could secretly eavesdrop and watch the proceedings. Anyone who has ever attended or chaperoned a Jewish youth group event can picture what the report describes: “For the first several minutes, there was so much noise that we could not distinguish anything that was being said…these youth sang songs and a general party atmosphere prevailed.” The investigators added, “we could observe nothing or hear nothing that indicated that they were advocating subversion, integration or anything of a communistic nature.” Eventually, the agents realized that the meeting was likely just “a group of Jewish kids…with no intentions of doing anything other than having a good time.” They even admitted that the kids seemed better behaved than the average group of teenagers. Nevertheless, they stayed through the entire convention to see if they could overhear anything that was “detrimental to our form of government.”
The group consisted of 300 young Jews between the ages of 14 and 18 from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee. The investigators acquired a partial list of conference participants, and also took copies of all the pamphlets and literature that was distributed during the meeting, which they pored over for any sign of radicalism. Apparently, the bulletin of the Bluff City BBG (B’nai B’rith Girls) chapter from Memphis contained a few suspicious articles. One reported that the group had celebrated United Nations Day (a suspect organization from the perspective of the Sovereignty Commission). The bulletin also reported that the group held a program on the topic of intermarriage, though the investigators noted that this referred to religious and not racial intermarriage, and that the girls had concluded that they would not date non-Jews.
The commission agents concluded that the group offered no threat to segregation, though they did admit that for the thirty-minute minyan held each morning they were unable to observe or listen to the proceedings. As the agent reported, “I am very unfamiliar with this organization and the Jewish religion. I have no idea what this ‘Minion’ is, but I do know that they held it in small groups of approximately ten…in the private rooms of individuals at the motel.” While this daily small group meeting seemed suspicious to the agents, they could find no clear evidence of subversion during the BBYO meeting.
This Sovereignty Commission report raises several interesting issues. The first is the absurd nature of the assignment and the “keystone cops” aspect of the Sovereignty Commission. BBYO was certainly not a major player in the civil rights movement. Yet, the national organization of B’nai B’rith was on record as supporting the movement. In 1956, the president of B’nai B’rith urged all members to support desegregation as a human rights issue. And the B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was, and remains, an outspoken opponent of racial prejudice.
What is especially notable is that this report seems to be more the exception than the rule. I have not been able to find any other example of a Sovereignty Commission investigation of a Jewish organization, despite the fact that several Mississippi rabbis were outspoken supporters of racial equality. In fact, Mississippi Jews make relatively few appearances in the commission files. Many southern Jews feared that Jewish civil rights workers from the North would threaten the acceptance southern Jews enjoyed. But as the Sovereignty Commission files indicate, Mississippi’s white supremacist government made key distinctions between local Jews and “outside agitators.”
Except for that time they spied on BBYO.
Share your thoughts in the comments below!
June 12 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers, the first NAACP field secretary for the state of Mississippi and an important leader in the Civil Rights Movement.
Evers’ name has been prominent lately. In addition to the upcoming anniversary, his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, delivered the invocation at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. An article by Jerry Mitchell on the aftermath of Medgar Evers’ assassination by white supremacist terrorists was featured this week in USA Today. Jackson, Mississippi newspaper The Clarion-Ledger also plans to re-publish a 1963 short story on the assassination that was written by Eudora Welty.
In honor of Medgar Ever’s accomplishments and sacrifice, The Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute is sponsoring several commemorative events. Today in Washington, D.C., there will be a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery (10:30 a.m) and a symposium on his legacy at the Newseum (7:30 p.m.) Events continue in Jackson, Mississippi, tomorrow through Sunday. If you are in or near either city, please view the full schedule and consider attending one or more of the ceremonies.
As we each find our freedom bound up in the freedom of others, we should take this opportunity both to celebrate the brave accomplishments of those who came before us and to mourn the loss of Medgar Evers and other activists who sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom. Now is a good time to ask: What have we done and what can we still do to pursue justice, freedom and equality, for ourselves and, most importantly, for others?