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.
Today marks 22 years since the passing of Charles Paul “Chuck” Selber.
In honor of his yahrzeit, and to conclude our three part series on his life and work, we wanted to share his own words, as well as a few words about him.
In his own words
Chuck left behind many words, in the form of letters, essays, and a play called “In Defense of the Committee.” His play was described as “a tragic comedy about gay civil rights, AIDS, religion, sex, government, and medicine.”
It received a staged reading at the Turner Art Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, while Chuck was still alive to direct it. The premise of his play is that an underground coalition of AIDS activists sabotaged U.S. government officials, infecting their children with HIV in order to motivate them to find a cure. An excerpt follows:
Had your brother belonged to any underground or terrorist groups before he formed The Committee
My brother is not a terrorist and The Committee never accomplished its mission as you will hear later. If I had a picture of Laurence’s bedroom with me tonight, you would know my brother like I do. You would see a bedroom that looks like an AIDS Souvenir Shop. You would see a PWA Silver Bracelet to be melted when the epidemic ends. It’s on his dresser. His tennis shoes from the AIDS walk are on the floor in front of the dresser. A sleeve from a designer jeans AIDS jacket is nailed to the wall. His “Torch Song Trilogy” stubs are also on the dresser…
The play is still in draft form, as Chuck passed away before it could be completed.
Remembering Charles Selber
When Chuck Selber passed away, his obituaries spoke to who he was as a person. This one in particular seems to capture his spirit: “Our community is sadly diminished this Christmas Day because of the death of Chuck Selber. The customary phrase is: He died after a long battle with AIDS. The customary phrase is much more a fundamental truth in Mr. Selber’s case, because he carried the battle to the enemy. It was not AIDS that was after him, but Chuck Selber who pursued his for with relentless zeal…”
His memory lives on in the hearts and minds of his mother, siblings, nieces, nephews and all who knew him. His fight lives on in the fight of the Philadelphia Center of Shreveport, Louisiana against the spread of AIDS and for the rights and improved quality of life for people living with AIDS. His words live on in his writing. May we see a final victory over AIDS and may this disease and others be driven from our earth.
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Last week, I was privileged to be the invited guest at First United Methodist Church in the very small town of Amite, Louisiana, to participate in a question and answer session on Judaism.
Amite is an hour away from New Orleans, where I live, so I was given the choice of just being available for a phone interview instead of driving, but chose to go to the church instead. Being keenly aware that we are all responsible for each other was my motive for the drive. There’s no substitute for being there in person. Body language, tone, eye contact and just the opportunity for Christians to meet a Jewish person, possibly for the first time, and be able to feel a human kinship is more important than answering any single question.
If a group simply wants information, all of it can be found online. The interaction is the most important part of interfaith learning. When one of us connects in a positive way with 15 Christians, we can help positively shape their perception of Jews for the rest of their lives! And the next time one of them hears a Jewish slur, they are much more likely to react with disapproval, thereby changing the opinions of others, as well.
So how did it go in Amite? Well, the questions about basic Judaism were ones I have answered hundreds of times. However, once we got comfortable with each other, the church members bravely asked the more personal and sometimes difficult cultural questions that too often don’t get asked.
Some of the more difficult questions:
- “Is a Jew ‘Jewish’ because of religion, or because of their culture or lineage?”
- “Why do some Jews keep kosher and others don’t? If one deviates from Biblical teachings, how are they still Jewish?”
- “Why are Jews associated with bargaining, unfair money lending and the slur Jewing someone down?”
The truth is that I think the biggest question modern Jews wrestle with among ourselves is what makes someone Jewish? There is no one single answer… and if we, the Jews, are conflicted – then is it any wonder that non-Jews are a bit confused as well?
So we discussed the differences between the denominations: Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Ultra Orthodox Judaism, and how no one anymore lives exactly according to Biblical law. We disagree on many things as being central to being Jewish, but we all use the Torah – whether we believe it was written by God or inspired by God or a historical document – as a base. Another thing most Jews have in common is that we believe in the central concept that God is one. We also talked about how the technical definition of “who is a Jew” also varies along with each movement – those who believe only in matrilineal descent or Orthodox conversion, or at the other end of the spectrum someone with just one Jewish parent who identifies as Jewish, or anyone who converts to Judaism.There are Jews who go to synagogue every week, or from time to time, or who only celebrate Passover or the high holy days – and in modern Judaism, any set “line” is left purposely not drawn. Exclusion and judgments are unproductive; rather outreach and inclusion are central to our faith.
To address the hard question about the Jewish stereotypes related to greed and money, we had to talk about a long history. I explained that in medieval Europe, Jews were not allowed to own land, therefore, they were not farmers and ranchers and their income options were limited. Most were merchants and peddlers, buying and selling things. When a person is successful as a peddler, their main goal, like any modern retailer, is to buy low and sell high. Whether it was clothing, jewelry, food or household goods, these peddlers were as vital to the economy as the current retailers are today – but that meant they too could be blamed for high prices. Another way Jews earned money without owning land was to become money-lenders. A Christian was not allowed to earn interest on a loan to another Christian, and Jewish money wasn’t tied up in land, and so they loaned money to Christians to build their churches and homes and keep their farms going. It was a great business deal for everyone. However, trouble would come when, for instance, a church defaulted on a loan. Then the Jew was put in the impossible position of foreclosure. No one looks upon the banker fondly when they are foreclosing on a home or church, even if it is justified! And if someone was looking for a reason to act with hate towards Jews, this was a ready-made excuse.
These conversations can be hard, but are so rewarding. And as usual, we learn as we teach! The session opened with a prayer, which I expected, but what I have never heard was the content of this prayer. This opening prayer was asking God for forgiveness as Christians for the history of maltreatment of Jews during the last 2,000 years. Pope John II made great strides in reconnecting Jews and Christians, and the facilitator made reference to the prayers of this Pope as the start of the healing process between us.
I hope I continue to be invited throughout my life and I encourage all Jewish people to do the same. I hope the next time you are asked to answer questions, your answer will be YES!
Have you ever been a participant in a program like this? What did you think?
(Image in this post from jerusalemprayerteam.org)