Today’s tale of Southern Jewish family, history, and a meaningful road trip comes to us from our summer history intern, Gabe Weinstein, in the last of our “summer intern” series of posts. Thanks, Gabe, and all of our interns for the wonderful work and great reflections!
My Grandma Ethel lived in Cleveland, Ohio for over 50 years, but she never lost her Alabama drawl.
The drawl was her trademark. Her thing. Ethel immediately left the South after she graduated college in 1946. and never lived beneath the Mason Dixon line again. But a part of her heart always remained in northeastern Alabama.
There are over 250 Jewish communities in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. Grandma’s hometown, Piedmont, Alabama is not one of them. It’s easy to see why when you drive down Center Avenue. The storefronts that once housed dry goods stores and clothing stores sit empty, waiting patiently for new tenants that will never arrive.
Grandma Ethel’s family ended up in Piedmont for the same reasons thousands of Jewish families landed in small towns across the south. My great-grandfather George Kass had the opportunity to run a dry goods store. After a failed stint as a jewelry salesman in New York, George packed up the family and moved to Piedmont in the mid-1920s. The move made sense: prior to the New York stint, George had run a dry goods store in Cartersville, Georgia, and his wife Kate had family in Atlanta.
Grandma and my Aunt Louise never felt alienated growing up as Jews in Piedmont. Their friends always came over to socialize and they were always welcomed in their friend’s homes. There was one other Jewish family in town, the Steinbergs, who owned a clothing store next to my great-grandfather’s store and had been in town since 1912. But they were close with their non-Jewish neighbors, too: up until her death in August 2011, Grandma Ethel kept in touch with one of her closest childhood friends from Piedmont, Elizabeth Ellen, AKA “Sis.” Continue reading
This is another post from one of our terrific summer interns, Caroline Kahlenberg, who completed this piece for us as she completed her time with us. Many thanks, Caroline!
Last week, an article in The Forward caught my eye: “When Your Name Screams, ‘I’m Jewish!”
The author of the piece, Lenore Skenazy, wrote: “It’s an issue that Mila Kunis, Jonah Hill, and Lena Dunham never have to deal with, but Jerry Seinfeld, Jeff Goldblum, and Sarah Silverman have: an obviously Jewish last name… For the Goldsteins and Shapiros in life, there’s a Star of David hanging over every introduction.”
Historically, as we know, many Jews tried to dismantle this invisible but palpable Star of David by changing their last names to something less “obviously Jewish.” Hollywood Jews, in particular, have been known to do this: Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas. Jonathan Leibowitz switched to Jon Stewart. In the same tradition, Natalie Herschlag—paradoxically, very well known for her Israeli identity—became Natalie Portman.
Why the name changes? In large part, they were an attempt by Jews to “pass” as “real Americans” in a country rife with anti-Semitism, both latent and blatant.
“Passing” was often seen as a good career move, whether in Hollywood or New York. In 1948, one anonymous Jewish New Yorker explained this rationale in an Atlantic article titled “I Changed My Name.” The anonymous author, who legally switched from a ‘forthrightly Jewish moniker’ to a ‘more universal one,’ wrote:
“I’ve let my new name open doors. I’ve already found things easier, my entrée smoothed, the new way… In giving up my old name I had nothing but a headache to lose.”
Two months later, David L. Cohn of Greenville, Mississippi wrote an impassioned response to this piece in the same publication—this time, titled “I’ve Kept My Name.”
Detailing his own experience with an overtly Jewish name, Cohn wrote, “Gentiles, knowing me to be a Jew, have all my life taken me into their hearts and homes… In Greenville, neither I nor any of my co-religionists, to my knowledge, suffered any indignity or lack of opportunity because of being Jewish.”
Now, before I started my internship at the ISJL, I would have been shocked that such a response came out of Greenville, Mississippi—in the heart of the Delta, which many consider “the most southern place on earth.” Rather, I would’ve guessed that a Mississippi Jew would be the one writing about his experience with anti-Semitism, while the New Yorker would respond as Cohn did. Instead, back in 1948 – the opposite was true.
And after a summer researching the history of these small Southern communities, I’ve come to learn that Southern Jews—while certainly not immune to anti-Semitism—were typically quite respected in their communities as civic and business leaders. And, perhaps because of this, they frequently and proudly used their “obviously Jewish” names for their stores—for instance, advertising the high quality of shoes at “Weinbergs” or cosmetic bargains at “Rosenzweig’s.”
In fact, Southern Jews so frequently employed their conspicuously Jewish names in business that one of the tricks we use to guide our research—in addition to Stuart’s High Holidays research method —is simply driving down a town’s main street looking out for (often faded) Jewish store names on buildings, such as “Goldsmith’s” in Alexandria, VA or “Klotz’s” in Staunton, VA. We also sift through City Directories searching for Jewish-named businesses—of which there were many.
Of course, as historians, we have to carefully cross-check using census records, congregation memberships, and Jewish organization lists, because some “Jewish-sounding” last names, such as my own—Kahlenberg—actually have no Jewish roots at all. Still, it’s a surprisingly effective method, since a) Jews most commonly settled as merchants in the South, and b) often used their last names for businesses.
To be sure, Jewish store names are not unique to the South: think Bloomingdale’s, Calvin Klein, or Katz’s Deli—all based in New York. However, it’s no coincidence, I’d argue, that David Cohn’s animated defense of his Jewish name came from a small southern community, where, it turns out, being a “Goldstein or Shapiro” often came with a certain appreciation and respect.
Nor is it a coincidence, I’d say, that one of the nation’s most successful—and conspicuously Jewish-named—businesses was founded exactly 40 years earlier in that same town of Greenville, Mississippi: Stein Mart. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
What do you think about the blessing or curse of having an “obviously Jewish name?” Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Imagine for a moment that you’re strolling down the main thoroughfare of a bustling city. The year is 1946, and a feeling of contentment surrounds you. All around, familiar signs and aromas fill the air. On either side of the street, stores with Jewish names flaunt their wares and hotels and restaurants advertising kosher meals beckon you inside. You must be in New York City, or Chicago-or perhaps you’re in Hot Springs.
That’s right: Hot Springs, Arkansas!
Thanks to the healing properties of the thermal waters that flowed from Hot Springs Mountains, by the early 1800s this town has already become one of the country’s leading spa destinations. Hot Springs Reservation, the first designation of Hot Springs National Park, was set aside by Congress in 1832 to protect this unique national resource and preserve it for public use, making it the oldest unit in the national park system.
Hot Springs was actually one of my first weekend getaways after moving to Jackson. The main drag downtown is lined with bathhouses, ready to provide visitors with the chance to soak up the water. I remember feeling like I stepped back into 1905 as my bath attendant led me into a large marble room featuring 6 different bathing/torture devices (they don’t call it a needle shower for nothing!) that a dozen half naked women were using to properly extract the medial benefits of the springs. It was a unique and memorable experience, and although my husband would enthusiastically disagree, *I* think you should definitely try it out!
While the Jewish presence in Hot Springs was firmly established in the 1840s, many more Orthodox Jews were drawn to the spa city around the turn of the century, as part of the great migration of East Europeans to the United States.
Over the years, as Hot Spring’s Jewish population swelled, kosher and kosher-style restaurants and hotels flourished. Among the was the popular Knickerbocker Hotel, pictured above. Robert (Bob) Gartenberg, son and grandson of former owners Leo and Peter Gartenberg, recalls the heyday:
“The Knickerbocker was a very popular kosher hotel and has a real nice restaurant serving kosher meals. At one time there were about five or six kosher hotels in Hot Springs. I can remember as a child going to the hotel for the pre Yom Kippur Meal; it was only a block from the Temple.”
According to Mr. Gartenberg the hotel closed in the late 1950s. The property became rental apartment homes for years, until it was sold again in 1974, vacated, and subsequently fell into disrepair. Today, all that remains is a shell, except for the Knickerbocker Hotel sign.
After being left in the parking lot of Congregation Beth Jacob, the sign eventually came under the watchful eye of Congregation House of Israel, until they donated it to the ISJL (Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience) in the winter of 2001. Worn and faded, devoid of the formerly-bright neon, the Knickerbocker Hotel sign nevertheless has a proud legacy. Hopefully one day it will be lifted high again, so that all who see it will come to know the story of the Hot Spring Jewish experience.