Last week, we added the final (for now) video clip to the Oklahoma section of the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. The interview excerpt comes from a great conversation I had with Paula and Malcolm Milsten last summer at Tulsa’s Temple Israel. Malcolm, a Tulsa native, and Paula, who moved there before marrying Malcolm in 1959, have both served as temple president. In the clip below, Paula and Malcolm recall a 1984 flood that seriously damaged Temple Israel, as well as the outpouring of support from the entire city in the aftermath of the disaster.
Malcolm, like many people who have contributed their stories to the ISJL Oral History Project, remarks on his congregation’s positive relationship with other local synagogues as well as the general community. These themes—inclusion and cooperation—are common in our interviews. Where someone from outside the South might expect to find stories of isolation, I find, more often than not, exactly the opposite.
Since the 1940s, the Jews of Seminole, Ada, Nowata, and Shawnee, Oklahoma, have met at the Seminole Hebrew Center for religious services and social events. In the clip below, which is featured on our Online Encyclopedia article for Ada/Seminole, lifelong Ada resident Henry Katz talks about the origins of the Hebrew Center.
I love this excerpt for a number of reasons. Katz, who descends from German-speaking immigrants who arrived in the United States after the Civil War, alludes to the distinction between his decidedly Reform family and the newer arrivals, who were more observant. Then, as evidence of his family’s assimilation, he uses the word “phylacteries” to describe what most traditional Jews would call “tefillin.” As a professor once told me, “no one who wears phylacteries says “phylacteries.”
The story also illustrates the influence of economics on Jewish (and general) migration patterns. In this case, the arrival of recent immigrants to the booming towns above the Seminole oil field influenced the development of the local Jewish community.
Apparently, people used to play a lot of cards. Bridge, canasta, all types of poker—nearly everyone I speak with reports that they or their parents participated in regular card games, inside or outside the Jewish community. Katz attributes the men’s gambling habits to the oil business, which is a clever connection to make. I would also point out that many of these men were also immigrants from Eastern Europe; it was a gamble, or a series of them, that had brought them to Oklahoma in the first place.
Finally, Katz has a great voice and tells his story with real style. Reviewing his interview and putting together this clip brought back memories of a pleasant morning spent in Ada at the end of a successful research trip to Oklahoma.
I’d like to thank Henry Katz for sharing his story with us. Credit is also due to summer oral history intern Jonayah Jackson for the quality of the video.
The idea of a Jewish conspiracy to control the world has long been a canard of anti-Semites. Its most infamous example is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious forgery first published in Russia in 1903. Influenced by these claims of an international Jewish conspiracy, U.S. auto magnate Henry Ford published a series of anti-Semitic essays in his newspaper the Dearborn Independent in the 1920s. While southern Jews have certainly faced anti-Semitism, most notably the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915, such claims of secret Jewish power and conspiracy have rarely been made in the South. Perhaps the fact that Jews were such a small minority of the population prevented such beliefs from taking hold.
One fascinating exception to this took place in Guthrie, Oklahoma in 1912. Guthrie had been named the capital of Oklahoma when it became a state in 1907. Jews were active in the new state government, including Leo Meyer, who was appointed assistant Secretary of State in 1907. Some called for the capital to be moved to a larger city, and in 1910 the citizens of Oklahoma voted to move the seat of government to the state’s largest city, Oklahoma City.
The day after the vote, Meyer took the official state seal from the capitol building in Guthrie and moved it to Oklahoma City under cover of night.
The people of Guthrie were enraged after the capital moved as the town lost population, investors, and priority on the railroad lines. Many residents with the means to do so moved to nearby Oklahoma City, including several of Guthrie’s Jewish merchants. In 1912, the Guthrie Daily Leader ran a front-page banner headline announcing that “Shylocks of Oklahoma City Have State by the Throat,” and the sub-header promised to reveal the “Unparalleled Conspiracy on the Part of Jews and Gentiles of a Rotten Town to Loot the State for Twenty-Five Years.”
The article claimed that prominent Jewish businessmen in Oklahoma City had conspired to steal the capital away from Guthrie. The long accompanying article used parodied Yiddish accents to illustrate its claims that the capital move was the result of a conspiracy of Jewish businessmen who wished to profit from increased real estate values in Oklahoma City.
Rabbi Joseph Blatt of Temple B’nai Israel in Oklahoma City publicly attacked these claims as slander, claiming they were “a disgrace to the civilization of our state.” He then called on Oklahomans to band together to combat religious prejudice.
Rabbi Blatt’s bold response helped to quash the paper’s claims as the Leader’s attempt to reclaim Guthrie’s status as the state capital failed and its efforts to blame the Jews were soon forgotten. Today, Oklahoma City has 2500 Jews and two active congregations, while Jewish life in nearby Guthrie is long gone.
The Guthrie episode was an exception. Far more common in Oklahoma and across the South was an elitist anti-Semitism, which sometimes led to the exclusion of Jews from country clubs or social organizations. Despite this, Oklahoma Jews became active in the civic and economic life of their state, thriving and accepted within their communities, as they continue to be today.
Read more fascinating histories of Southern Jewish life in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities.