I was in North Mississippi, visiting my husband’s family for the first time over Thanksgiving when I first heard about “the blind.” Being Jewish and from the North I had never heard this term, but after lunch we drove through the eerily empty and beautiful delta fields out to his father’s duck blind. It was a camouflaged hideout, made to fit eight people and two dogs. They had flooded the field to attract ducks flying south for winter and filled the water with elaborate decoys that, with a flip of a switch flapped their wings, signaling to ducks flying overhead that this was a safe place to land. When I asked about the small camp stove, I learned that the space served more as a clubhouse on early weekend mornings than a place for serious hunting.
I was reminded of that blind when I first spotted this beautifully crafted decoy in our museum collection. Created as a commemorative piece, it’s not bound for the flooded fields, but lives in our collection instead, as a symbol of both Jewish and Southern heritage.
This duck comes from a synagogue in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vickburg’s Anshe Chesed dedicated their first house of worship in 1870. Like all great southern celebrations, the program began with a parade from the B’nai B’rith hall to the new temple, led by a police escort and Jaeger’s Brass Band from New Orleans. The congregation spent over 100 years in the building until the late 1960s, when they decided to move out of downtown and build a smaller temple. Their original building was torn down.
Before the old synagogue came down, though, congregants wanted keep something to remember it by. I can’t imagine a more perfect way to honor an important southern institution than to manifest it in this traditional art form.
Congregants Benji and Betty Lee Grundfest Lamensdorf had a set of these wonderful decoys carved from the wood remnants of the temple, and one of them made its way into our collection. They serve as a reminder of what Jewish life once was, and still is in Vicksburg. The congregation, now over 160 years old, has shrunk significantly, but they still hold lay-led services and social gathering on most Shabbats. You might say these birds of a feather have done a great job sticking together, and we hope they continue to do so for many more Shabbats to come.
There are moments as an archivist when something unusual (like a fur muff or a military notebook) sticks out from a standard inventory of confirmation photos and store ledgers. And then, sometimes, you come across a group shot of men in drag.
No, this photo from is not from the Greenwood, Mississippi production of La Cage Aux Folles (written by Jewish composer Jerry Herman, who just so happens to be my first cousin twice removed!). That show wasn’t written until 1983, which puts these men way ahead of their time.
The photo was featured in a newsletter put out by the B’nai B’rith District Grand Lodge No. 7 in 1951. While Jews were active members of local clubs like the Masons or Shriners, exclusively Jewish groups like B’nai B’rith were very important to the continuity of the Southern Jewish identity. Many families that worked and lived in smaller towns traveled to larger cities like Greenwood for Jewish communal life. Potlucks and holiday parties were where they could network, discuss business, and, most importantly, find dates!
The event title alone, “What My Lady Should Not Wear,” gives the impression that this brotherhood of men knew how to get a laugh and certainly shakes any preconceived notions I may have had about conservative Southern men. I just hope they got to keep the outfits.
The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience has a collection of over 3,000 objects and archival materials that tell the story of Southern Jewish communities. This includes temple sisterhood minutes, Jewish store memorabilia and objects from temples that are no longer active. I’m excited to use this space to share some pieces that best illustrate the history of these communities.
I’ll start with one of my favorites, a collection of youth group scrapbooks from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Clarksdale, most famously known as home of the Blues, also happened to have some Jews. We have 8 books from 1962-1975 in our collection but this one from 1970 stands out because of its ornate custom circular design and hand drawn calligraphy. Someone crafty was clearly excited about being yearbook editor.
The Clarksdale Jewish community has a long history, starting with early Jewish settlers in the 1880′s. At its peak in the 1930′s, Clarksdale was home to 400 Jews, but by 1970 the community was only a hundred families; the youth group had 25 members. This group was active in the community and participated in regional conclaves that enabled them to network with other Jewish teens in the SOFTY (Southern Federation of Temple Youth) region.
Here are some of the gems from their scrapbook:
I can’t help but wonder what these kids would have thought about their book being cataloged into this museum archive. Could they have known that their thick rimmed glasses would come back into style 40 years later? Would they have included their “play on marijuana,” featuring a progressive dialogue between teenagers and their parents on the merits of the drug?
These scrapbooks are especially telling of the Southern experience because it was this generation of young people who did not stay in Clarksdale or other Delta towns to grow the Jewish community but moved to larger cities like Memphis for greater opportunity. As a result, the community could no longer sustain the congregation and, like many pieces in our collection, these artifacts are from a temple that had to shut its doors.
They are paper and glue relics of the past since today most of our memories are posted to digital pages on Facebook. These should inspire you to print out your favorite Instagram shots and paste some into a book. You never know what important material (or embarrassing hair cut) you’ll be leaving for historians to blog about in the future.