In the mid-nineteenth century, thousands of Jewish immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine came to America and made new lives for themselves in the Deep South. Last week, some Alsatian Jews embarked on the same journey (made much more convenient by intercontinental air travel) to learn about Jewish history and heritage in the South.
Traveling up from New Orleans, last Friday this group of 33 Jewish Alsatian tourists found themselves spending a day with ISJL staff in Jackson, Mississippi. We have worked with tour groups in the past, but never in a different language! While many of them did speak English, the group leader translated every presentation into French. Take a look at this short clip I filmed of Dr. Rockoff presenting to the group…
From our office we went on our usual tour of Jackson sites, stopping at Tougaloo College, the COFO Civil Rights Education Center and the Medgar Evers House Museum. These sites mainly focus on the events of the Civil Rights movement, so I did my best to explain how that history has shaped this region. Questions like why so many buildings were empty downtown, why students pay so much for a college education, and inquiries regarding contemporary race relations, covered huge topics that while difficult to explain easily in English, are especially challenging to explain in French, to an audience without a native understanding of American history.
The cultural exchange went both ways, as I got to hear about the French Jewish experience as well. One woman asked me about how Southerners practice Judaism, and if they still identify as Jewish if they aren’t active in a congregation. She explained that while there are many secular Jews in France, many strongly identify as racially Jewish because of their direct connection to the Holocaust. The leader told me later that a few of the visitors were hidden children during the war. I also found it interesting in discussing our ISJL education program when a few of the guests then explained to me that their children never had any formal Jewish schooling; they simply learned Jewish practices and customs in the home.
It was a great learning experience and such a wonderful opportunity to spend the day with this group. We’re happy that they chose to spend their time in our neck of the woods and I hope this post will encourage some of you with fewer oceans to travel across to make plans to join us soon for your own Southern Jewish experience!
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.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. They had arranged a viewing of the College World Series because our very own Mississippi State Bulldogs were playing in the championship.
I must admit that although I was raised an avid Yankees fan and then secretly (well, now not-so-secretly) converted to being a Red Sox fan when I moved to Boston in 2004, I haven’t watched a single baseball game since I moved to the South. Besides a rogue Atlanta Braves fan you might stumble across every now and then, football reigns in these parts. But when your local team makes it to a national championship, you buckle down, eat a hot dog, and show your support.
Typical of a museum nerd, I was wandering through the exhibits during most of the game while my friends gathered around the multiple TV screens. It was the bottom of the 6th inning by the time I sat down, and Mississippi State was behind. The crowd was quiet and the mood was sullen. I looked up at the screen. They were showing aerial views of Omaha, Nebraska, the city where the College World Series had been held for the past 63 years.
“So..why is this in Omaha?” I asked my fellow fans.
“Not sure, it’s just always been there,” one fan answered.
Not sure? Not acceptable. I pulled the internet out of my pocket. I read the information from the College World Series site aloud “The College World Series was first played in Omaha in 1950 and total attendance was 17,805. Although the College World Series is now a profitable event, it lost money for 10 of the first 12 years that it was in Omaha – 1950-1961. Four Omahans who maintained their faith and interest in the College World Series during those lean years are due much of the credit for the tournament’s continued presence in Omaha. They are the late Ed Pettis of the Brandeis Stores, the late Morris Jacobs and the late Byron Reed, both of Bozell & Jacobs, and the late Johnny Rosenblatt, Mayor of Omaha and an avid baseball fan.”
“Jews!” I exclaimed.
“Oh, right. The old stadium was Rosenblatt field,” my fellow fan replied.
I spent the rest of the short and sad innings reading about Johnny Rosenblatt, the mayor of Omaha, Nebraska, from 1954 to 1961. He was one of six children born to Jewish immigrant parents, and played semi professional baseball for 20 years.
My reaction to “Jews in Omaha” is probably pretty similar to the reaction people have when they hear about “Jews in the South.” I don’t know much of anything about Omaha (except something about steaks and that it’s home to one of our favorite scholars, Dr. Ron Wolfson). I would have never guessed it was a hub not only for college baseball, but also for Jewish community involvement.
I look for these instances often. After all, I’ve had to arm myself with similar Southern Jewish trivia bits when I’m asked about Jews in the South. Locally, my favorite response actually involves Mississippi State fans again, when I surprise them that their voice of the Bulldogs local sports announcer Jack Cristil is Jewish and from Tupelo, Mississippi.
Clearly, I enjoy the feeling of discovery – and luckily, we’ve got resources like Wikipedia, Google, and more specifically, for those not familiar with Southern cities, we’ve got the great Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities to help make these discoveries more often.
Living with these resources makes it a great time to be curious, especially during boring sports events. Have to sit through another little league tournament this weekend? Here are a few searches to get you started:
For the music lover- Where was Dinah Shore from and what was her original name?
For the history student- Who was the secretary of state for the Confederacy?
For the traveler- Who came up with these crazy South of the Border signs?
Have fun discovering!