The Workmen’s Circle—Arbeter Ring in Yiddish—is a Jewish fraternal organization devoted to progressive politics, the labor movement, and Yiddish language and culture. In its heyday, there were Workmen’s Circle chapters all across the United States, including here in the South. While most people would associate the group’s secular Yiddishkayt and left-wing politics with the more urbanized North, there were chapters in 15 Southern cities, and also chapters to be found in Florida’s urban hubs of Miami and Miami Beach.
The picture above comes from In Southern States, a Yiddish-language journal published in 1949 for the thirtieth conference of the Workmen’s Circle Southern District. In it, the leaders of Birmingham‘s Branch 303 stand on the front steps of their “lyceum” building, where the group ran a Yiddish lending library, hosted lectures and discussions, and, from 1924 to 1927, operated a Yiddish school in the afternoons.
In Birmingham, like in other cities, the founders and leaders of the Workmen’s Circle Chapter were primarily immigrants who arrived in America in the early years of the twentieth century. Most of them had belonged to the Bund in Europe, and brought their socialist beliefs with them to America. Based on this picture, it seems that Birmingham’s Branch 303 was dominated by the Sokol family, who make up more than a third of the members pictured.
If you are familiar with the Sokol family, or if you know of anyone who might have information on the Workmen’s Circle (Arbeter Ring) in Birmingham or other Southern cities, please be in touch! This is a fascinating aspect of Jewish life in the South, but it has been largely forgotten.
As 2012 draws to a close, we thought we’d share some recent images from our staff’s travels around the South …
Shavua tov, y’all – may you have a good week, may you find your happiness increase!
Recently, I have started my research into the Jewish communities of Kentucky for our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. A few weeks ago I was all over western Kentucky. In Owensboro, I found one of the oldest synagogues in the United States. Adath Israel, dedicated in 1877, is the 12th oldest synagogue in the country still in use today. In the South, only Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina (built in 1840), and Temple of Israel in Wilmington, North Carolina (built in 1876) are older.
I visited with two members of the congregation, Stuart Spindel and Sandy Bugay, who gave me a tour of the small, but lovely building. When the synagogue was dedicated in 1877, the local newspaper ran a large account of the ceremony, calling the building “an enduring monument to the Enterprise and Liberality of Our Israelitish Citizens.” Though a social hall was added on much later, the Moorish Revival building is still remarkably intact.
The congregation has always been tiny. One of the reasons Adath Israel is still in the synagogue is because they never outgrew it. Owensboro never had more than one hundred Jews during the 20th century. In recent years, the congregation has dwindled, but the remaining members are dedicated to maintaining it for as long as they can.
You can read much more about the history of Adath Israel and Owensboro Jewish community when the Kentucky section of the Encyclopedia is completed (early next year), but in the meantime I just wanted to share some of my photographs of this remarkable jewel of a synagogue: