We use the phrase “transplants” often down here—referring to the “Yankees” who for one reason or another found themselves down South. (Transplants like… me.)
In the Southern Jewish communities with which I interact, the transplants are often people who, though lacking “deep Southern roots,” have stepped up as local leaders. They step up alongside those with the deep Southern roots, the ones who have been leaders in their communities for multiple generations. Both the transplants and the long-term residents share an appreciation of and dedication to Jewish communal life—but for the transplants, this passion is often newfound. Even if they weren’t as active “Up North,” they end up serving as leaders in their Southern congregation, and ambassadors in their communities.
When I traveled as an Education Fellow, I would hear from moms and dads in small Southern towns who “never in a million years” thought they would be teaching religious school. In New York, New Jersey, California, places with large Jewish populations, there were plenty of people to do all the things that maintain a healthy and thriving congregation. In smaller communities, it’s more do-it-yourself.
So, what was I doing in Tarpon Springs? It began with a phone call from Joel May, a transplant to Tarpon Springs. But he wasn’t the typical “snowbird” retiree most of us picture when we imagine transplant Jews moving to Florida. Joel is originally from Jasper, Alabama. And while he has lived in many places since, he was a born and bred Southern Jew. He contacted me about a loan of an eternal light for their sanctuary, a process we affectionately call “re-planting”. Being from the region, Joel knew of our museum. He made the connection, and I worked with him and his committee to re-plant a beautiful ner tamid from Gemiluth Chassed, a congregation that had closed in Port Gibson, Mississippi, to his congregation in Florida.
For me, the experience of replanting a Southern Jewish artifact rich in value and history (the ner tamid was originally donated to Gemiluth Chassed, the oldest synagogue in Mississippi, built in 1892) was already incredible. Making it even more meaningful was the Southern Jewish congregant, Joel from Jasper, helping to bring this artifact to his new community. His new a community is one full of transplants, from many places outside the South, but all are now connected to the Southern Jewish experience. It is a remarkable testament to the contribution and quality of the small population of Southern Jewish communities.
My time in Tarpon Springs was lovely. Years ago, I was lucky to drop into communities every other weekend, but I had forgotten what a joyful feeling it is to be warmly welcomed into a new group of people. Food, music, gossip, what could be better! What I soon learned is that while the community was made up of transplants, they weren’t the typical New York Jews I was expecting. All the jokes I had written into my talk about Brooklyn were going to fall flat with the people I was meeting from Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota. (Apparently the west coast of Florida attracts Midwesterners—who knew?!) I admit I felt foolish for coming with preconceived assumptions, when most of what I do each day is try to break down stereotypes of Southern communities.
But I was pleasantly surprised that many of the people in the congregation would find it easier to connect to small town congregational life like Port Gibson. I heard from people telling me about their families immigrating to the Midwest, opening stores or becoming fur traders, very similar narratives of the Southern story that I was planning to share. I listened and learned about the natural connections between Midwest and Southern congregations that I hadn’t previously considered before my visit. This made this replanting all the more special.
The night of the dedication, I met a few people who had come because they did have Southern roots. A woman from Atlanta, a family from Brookhaven, Mississippi, a couple from New Orleans. I liked seeing them seated in the congregation, nodding along with my new Midwestern-ex-pat friends as I talked about the connection between the long and rich history of Jewish communities in the Deep South to the larger national Jewish population. Dedicating a piece of the Gemiluth Chassed sanctuary built a special connection through time and space between these two small congregations, a connection that is important for continuing to support the legacy of Jewish communities in the region.
This eternal light, the ner tamid, will be given the opportunity to shine again and serve a congregation, ensuring the ancestors of small town Jewish communities like Port Gibson will not be forgotten… well, I get goosebumps just thinking about it! I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful celebration.
Last week, I was on the road with TENT, a week-long traveling seminar on culture, history, and social justice for a group of Jewish twenty-somethings. The group started in New Orleans and finished in Memphis, spending several days in Mississippi along the way.
I accompanied the group from New Orleans to Jackson, and it was a privilege to spend time with such an intelligent, enthusiastic group of young adults. All but one of them hailed from the North, so it was interesting to watch them experience Southern culture and learn about Southern Jewry from trip leader Rachel Myers and their scholar-on-the-road, Professor Eric Goldstein of Emory University.
Some in the group had been to New Orleans, but none of them had been to Natchez, Mississippi, the second stop on our tour.
Natchez, a river port town in Adams County, sits on high bluffs towering over the mighty Mississippi River. Commonly referred to as “The Bluff City,” Natchez is one of the oldest and most important European settlements in the lower Mississippi River Valley. Its economy, firmly rooted in the cotton trade, prospered during the 19th century and attracted people from around the world seeking to profit from the trade. Goods came to the area from ports in New Orleans, St. Louis, Boston, New York, and even Great Britain. As a result of this great success, in 1860 Natchez had more millionaires than anywhere else in the United States.
Though past its economic prime, Natchez continues to attract visitors with its many historic homes and festivals that celebrate life in the Old South. Here, in the so-called “most Southern place on earth,” the group quickly learned that Jews flourished in The Bluff City for over two centuries.
Natchez has thirteen National Historic Landmarks and over 1,000 structures on the National Register of Historic Places. A number of historic churches are scattered throughout the city, including Temple B’nai Israel. The original temple was built in 1870, but burned to the ground due to faulty wiring. B’nai Israel’s new building was dedicated on March 25, 1905, with over 600 people in attendance.
A number of esteemed guests come to B’nai Israel to talk to us about the history of the Natchez Jewish community. Mayor Larry Lynn “Butch” Brown [named for two other Natchez Jews of blessed memory, Larry and Lynn Abrams] spoke about the many contributions Jews made over the years, and invited us to return to the city’s tri-centennial celebration in 2016. Mimi Miller, Executive Director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, shared that the synagogue looks much as it looked in 1905. The bima, lighting fixtures, and chairs are the same. Temple member Beau Baumgardner informed us that lay-lead services are held monthly, despite the fact that the median age of temple members is 74. The congregation is fortunate to have David Goldblatt, a music professor at Alcorn State University, serve as cantorial soloist. To the group’s surprise, Beau also told us that often, more gentiles than Jews are in attendance at Shabbat services.
After visiting the temple, we met Natchez resident Jerry Krouse and toured his historic home. His adorable granddaughters helped lead the tour. Jerry has an exquisite collection of mid-eighteenth-century Rococo furniture and antiques.
Though small in numbers now, the Natchez Jewish community continues to shine in this historic gem of a city. In 1991, Temple B’nai Israel went into partnership with the ISJL (then called the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience) to ensure their temple’s preservation down the road. B’nai Israel is now listed as a Mississippi historical site. In fact, the Historic Natchez Foundation has a riddle on their architectural scavenger hunt: “I alone am surmounted by a dome, but I have few members who call me home.”
The TENT participants visiting Natchez almost all came from towns with large, thriving Jewish communities. We were all impressed by the determination of the Natchez Jewish community to keep their Jewish traditions alive for as long as possible. It was a wonderful way to begin a journey through the Jewish South, and a good lesson: a community can be small, and still be thriving.
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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.