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 This includes temple sisterhood minutes, Jewish store memorabilia and objects from temples that are no longer active.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.
A new congregation in Savannah, Georgia was looking forward to celebrating the high holidays together for the first time, but they needed something pretty important: a Torah.
They contacted our museum to arrange a loan. I had shipped items from our collection before, but I was curious if any special precautions needed to be taken with a sacred artifact like a Torah. Was there any specific ritual? Did it need to receive the Traveler’s Prayer before shipping?
Like most people of my generation, when a question like this arises, I first turn to Google. I typed “shipping a Torah” in the search bar. Nothing. I then consulted with my co-worker, who also happens to be a rabbi, and together we determined with the proper packing the Torah would be safe in the hands of shipping professionals, gentle handling required, but no prayers necessary. So I took the Torah measurements and called FedEx, to find a proper box and get this special delivery underway.
“How about a golf bag box?” The service representative asked. I admitted to him I wasn’t exactly sure how tall or wide a golf bag was but after he gave me the dimensions it seemed to be the best solution to this unusual problem.
I strapped on my Jewish educator cap and walked into the local FedEx with a 41” long Torah in my arms. I carefully squeezed through the doorway and immediately got the attention of the staff and customers in the room.
“How can I help you?” a tall man with a slight Southern accent asked.
I told him I needed a golf bag box, packing materials and a lot of shipping insurance.
“What is it exactly you are trying to ship?”
This could have gone two ways. The first would have been simple enough – I could have just said, it’s a museum artifact. But remember, I had my educator cap on, so I began to explain what a Torah: that it was a scroll containing the five books of Moses, carefully handwritten by a scribe on sheets of parchment sewn together. I told him it was a sacred object that is read from each week in Jewish congregations and contains the story and laws of the Jewish people.
“So … is it okay if I touch it?” he asked.
I smiled and replied “Yes, people have been touching Torahs for thousands of years”
He went beyond his normal service duties and helped me carefully wrap and pack the Torah securely into the box. We decided to list the Torah under Fine Arts and insured the package using its declared value. I thanked him immensely for his help.
The Torah made its way to Savannah, arriving safely within the next two days to the delight of the community – and now, I can officially add “Torah Shipping” to my resume. So if you by chance have found this post by Googling “shipping a Torah”, please send me an e-mail and I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned!
Questions about shipping golf clubs? You may be best to try someone else.
There are 650 miles and 3 states between Fort Mill, South Carolina and Greenwood, Mississippi, but their connection is closer than ever after Michael and Carol Pleskoff made the trek to Jackson, Mississippi, two weeks ago.
The couple, along with other members of Fort Mill’s Temple Solel, met with Rabbi Marshal Klaven on a rabbinic visit to the newly formed congregation in July. They were looking for a Torah to use during the monthly services they hold in a local church. Rabbi Klaven recommended contacting me, and two days later I was helping to arrange the loan of a Torah from the collection of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE).
The Torah once belonged to the congregations of Temple Beth Israel in the Mississippi delta community of Greenwood. Jews arrived in Greenwood in the 1850s, and by 1890 they had begun to organize a Jewish community. In 1897, a group of merchants met in a store house and formed the first synagogue, a Reform temple named Beth Israel.
Beth Israel always remained a small synagogue. In 1940, there were 30 members. By 1957 the temple had 66 members and twenty students in Sunday school. Like many small communities in the region, when people started to leave Greenwood for opportunities elsewhere the Jewish community was not able to replenish itself, and the congregation closed its doors in 1989. The Torah and other religious artifacts were donated to the MSJE.
The end of Beth Israel does not reflect a dwindling of Jewish life in the South. Just the opposite, Temple Solel is an example of Jewish communities growing in different parts of our region as populations shift to larger cities like Atlanta and Charlotte. Michael and Carol are examples of dedicated congregants, traveling that 650 miles to Jackson in their RV, in order to preserve their Jewish traditions. By replanting a piece of Southern Jewish history in their new congregation, Temple Solel will continue the legacy of Jewish life in the South. As congregants read from this Torah they will be reminded of those who read from it before them and how those congregants promoted Jewish life in this region in order to pave the way for thriving communities today.