I recently spent two weeks in Philadelphia participating in a two week seminar as part of my Museum Studies masters program at Johns Hopkins University. While there, we met with museum professionals at sites across the city, but one museum in particular reminded me of a truth we know well in the South: sometimes, you find Jewish life in unexpected places.
My most memorable Jewish moment on this trip didn’t happen while at a Jewish museum or site, but while touring the historic Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in 1829 as the most famous and expensive prison in the world, it was known for its grand architecture and strict discipline. Our guide, the assistant director, led us through the enormous campus. We stared into cells, imagining the types of conditions that men and women lived in until it closed in 1971.
As we got to the end of Cell Block 2, our guide led us outside, down a tight alleyway and into a room they had just restored. It was a synagogue, with a full fledged ark, ner tamid, menorahs, benches, just the way it had looked after its renovation in the 1950s. They believe it is the only solely dedicated “Jewish” worship space in a prison. I knew I would enjoy learning about the complicated interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary, but I couldn’t have planned for my feelings about walking into a restored prison synagogue. My little Jewish museum professional heart was racing!
The curators took on the challenge of deciding how to interpret the history of the space to visitors. While they didn’t shy away from telling the stories of the prisoners, the exhibit focused more on the outside Jewish community volunteers who helped to build the synagogue and facilitate Jewish life in the penitentiary.
This example of finding Jewish life isn’t like the surprising anecdotes about Jewish cotton farmers or mayors of small Southern towns. This is finding Jewish life in a more complicated space. For me, whenever a Jewish person or topic comes up in museums or conversations, I usually have the same reaction- a small feeling of familiarity, understanding and most often pride. This feeling happened in the sanctuary space, but it wasn’t until we moved to a different room that they had renovated for a full exhibit on Jewish life in the prison that I realized how out of place that feeling was- to feel familiar and connected to a population of people who had committed heinous crimes. That uncomfortable, “Bad News Jews” feeling.
Often in our work and through this blog, we here at the ISJL try to illuminate the unique characteristics of Southern Jewish Life, while also sharing commonalities among the larger Jewish population. This exhibit at Eastern State worked to do the same thing, explain the unique needs of their Jewish population while successfully creating a space for visitors to make connections to their own lives and practice. It’s an interesting place to consider the importance of communities of faith in different settings, and the diversity of Jewish life and practice. If you are ever in Philadelphia I highly recommend making the visit to Eastern State Penitentiary to see this hidden scared space– and wrestle with it yourself.
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.