Tent: The South was an immersive learning experience.18 strangers got on a bus and trusted me to show them the Jewish South. Everything that we had worked so hard to put together was experienced, appreciated, and enjoyed by an enthusiastic group of adventurers.
I thought rather than tell you about our adventure – I’d show you the people and places, and describe a few of the surprises and lessons that we explored along the way.
Delta Chinese Reunion: During our afternoon at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, we received a comprehensive and entertaining overview and tour of the Delta region. We discussed the cultural diversity for the region and the influential Chinese population. After stopping for the necessary Fighting Okra memorabilia (surprise- everyone needed a t-shirt!), we made our way to the hotel, where it turned out the the Delta Chinese American Reunion was taking place, in conjunction with the opening of a new exhibition on Delta Chinese heritage. What luck! Everything we had discussed about Jewish communities in the region aligned with the history of Chinese immigrants and communities, and seeing it firsthand further strengthened our understanding of how Jews fit into the story of immigrant communities living and working in the South.
David Feldman: David Feldman wasn’t someone we met, but someone we made a surprise visit to go see. Our Lead Scholar Eric Goldstein alerted me that he had a relative, David Feldman, buried in the Greenwood cemetery. Eric asked if we had time to visit. Based on the schedule, we didn’t. But this trip was turning out to be less about the schedule and more about following the interests of the group so off we went! We found the stone pretty quickly (it’s a small cemetery) and I watched as ISJL Board Member Gail Goldberg took a photo of Eric with the stone. Eric mentioned that he’s not sure anyone from his family has ever visited this grave and Gail said she was honored to be a part of the reunion. I think we all had a moment like that on this trip, some small connection or moment that related us to the larger Southern Jewish story.
This trip was filled with people and places that I’m lucky to work with and visit frequently. But one of the main takeaways expressed during our last night together was how fortunate the participants felt to be able to visit these special Southern places, particularly the congregations that may not be as accessible in the next few years. I never like to use the words “dying” or “diminishing” when referring to these congregations, but rather the phrases of the congregants themselves who describe their “small” or “older” groups. We learned so much this week about the strength and warmth of a small congregation and the dedication it takes to continue Jewish life in rural areas.
Another participant mentioned that she was moved during our Shabbat experience in Tupelo when during the Mi Sheberach the congregants each gave reports on the well being of each of the people on the list. She felt a closer connection to the community and how important each individual member is to the life of a congregation. Of all the congregations we visited, we also got a sense that being a member here is almost like a second time job, whether it’s lay leading services or buying the toilet paper, everyone has a role and pitches in. Participants left the South with a charge to find ways to become more engaged in their own communities.
My own personal takeaway? I couldn’t help be feel that being on a bus with non-Southerners solidified by own Southern Jewish Identity. I may not have been born here, but I’m now a happily committed resident and realized during our discussions I more often support, identify with, and sometimes defend the Southern Jewish way of life. Whether I’m talking to a non-Jewish population about Judaism or a non-Southern population about the South, as an educator, sharing is a vital component of how I communicate.
And one last note that resonated with me came from participant who is currently living in Brunswick, Georgia. She said the trip made her realize that she is the next generation for that historic congregation. Many of our discussions spoke about the future of the Jewish South, and she so eloquently described the weight and honor she felt, continuing Jewish life in her community.
This is already a long post, but there’s so much more to share! I invited participants to share their own experiences so you’ll hear from them but you can also see some of this through their eyes on our Tagboard page. Maybe you’ll be inspired to come down for your own Southern Jewish journey!
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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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Like many people, I’m easily distracted. I once spent the entire duration of a service at the Spanish Synagogue in Prague counting the number of interlaced Stars of David painted on the walls and ceiling. (There were over 900.)
So it wasn’t very unusual that, while attending a recent concert at Temple Beth El in San Antonio, Texas, my eyes wandered around the sanctuary, examining the beautiful stained glass windows all around me. One name, inscribed in black at the bottom of a tall window, caught my attention: Rabbi Ephraim Frisch.
I know that name, I said to myself. He was the rabbi at Temple Beth El for two decades, from the early 1920s through the early 1940s, and I wrote about him in my senior thesis!
My thesis was an examination of the development of Jewish student life at Princeton University over the period 1915-1972. So, Frisch was the rabbi in San Antonio, but my thesis was about Princeton… where’s the connection?
In the mid-1930s, a man and his son visited the Princeton to investigate rumors of anti-Semitism in the admission policy; from the early 1920s through the end of World War II, Princeton maintained under-the-table quotas on Jewish students. The man who came to visit was Rabbi Ephraim Frisch, who sternly admonished the admissions office secretary regarding the rumors. His son was David, who recalled nearly four decades later in an interview with his classmate Henry Morgenthau III: “I’m sure [the secretary] told Dean [of Admission] Heermance, oh you better let him in or he’ll burn the place down, his father Rabbi Frisch will burn the place down.”
His father didn’t burn the place down, and David did attend Princeton University. David graduated with Princeton’s class of 1940, and led Friday evening services for the Jewish community on campus while he was a student at Princeton.
This small-world-realization was striking enough — but just a few days earlier, I’d gotten to see David Frisch’s classmate and interviewer, Henry Morgenthau III! Our paths crossed when I journeyed from a community visit in Williamsburg, Virginia, and stopped over in Washington, DC. I was very excited to see my thesis come up twice in one week in the context of my new role as an ISJL Education Fellow.
And then, when I got back to Jackson and started thinking about this blog post, I realized that the connection between my thesis and where I am now ran even deeper than I could possibly have imagined.
David Frisch’s mother—Rabbi Ephraim Frisch’s wife—was born Ruth Cohen. She was the daughter of Rabbi Henry Cohen, who served as the rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in Galveston, Texas, (a town I visited with some of my new coworkers a few weeks ago) for over half a century. Rabbi Cohen founded the Galveston Project, which brought thousands of Jewish immigrants to the United States through the port at Galveston between 1907 and 1914, deflecting them from the overcrowded cities of the Northeast, and helping to build up the Jewish presence everywhere outside of New York.
And how did Rabbi Henry Cohen (David Frisch’s maternal grandfather) end up in Galveston? At the recommendation of none other than ISJL founder and president Macy B. Hart’s great-grandfather, Isaac T. Hart, who was the president of Congregation Beth Israel in Woodville, Mississippi, where Henry Cohen was the rabbi in the 1880s.
Long story short, if it weren’t for Macy’s great-grandfather, Henry Cohen might not have moved to Galveston, there might not have been a Galveston Project, Ruth Cohen and Ephraim Frisch might not have gotten married, there would have been no David Frisch, and thus no one to lead Shabbat services at Princeton in the late 1930s.
I should probably just get the ISJL logo emblazoned on my thesis now…