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…
I smile. The man stares back at me and I look away, embarrassed. I feel my ears growing hot and I know my face is turning red, too. I am from here. I should know better.
DO NOT SMILE AT PEOPLE ON THE SUBWAY!
Before I moved to Jackson, I lived in New York City for four years of college. I was a pro at navigating the subway, walking quickly, avoiding obstacles on the sidewalk, and crossing the street irrespective of the traffic signal. I did not let people cut me in line and was very capable of intercepting those who tried. I mastered the art of hailing a cab and absolutely did not tolerate people who tried to steal my taxi by standing up-street from me.
In short, I was an excellent New Yorker.
When I moved to Jackson a year ago, I immediately started worrying that I was accidentally rude to people. I just was not used to making small talk with strangers, and oftentimes I didn’t realize strangers to speaking to me because, well, who talks to strangers? I had to learn to call people “sir” and “ma’am.” Where I come from (Massachusetts, then New York), women especially are very offended when you call them “ma’am.” It makes them feel old, and seems rude. But in the South, it is a much appreciated sign of respect. I quickly learned to love these habits. I think it is adorable when the students I work with call me “Miss Allison” and it is so sweet to see people holding doors open for one another.
I recently returned to NYC to visit my college friends. I landed at La Guardia airport, hopped over to the Upper West Side to visit campus, and then caught a train to Tribeca to meet up with my friends after work. That’s when things started to go wrong. I accidentally bumped into someone in the rush to get on the express train, so I said excuse me and let him go through the door first. He just looked at me and sort of smirked. How rude!
I was fortunate enough to find a seat and, like a true New Yorker, plugged in my headphones. Looking around at the other passengers, I smiled each time I made eye contact with someone. Once again, I must reiterate, this is the WRONG THING TO DO on the New York subway. People stared back or looked away or rolled their eyes. I could almost hear them thinking “where the heck is she from?”
This is not to say that New Yorkers are mean, or that Southerners are all quaint, sweet people. Most New Yorkers often offer subway seats to people who need them, and some Southerners drive like inconsiderate maniacs. Individually, I think we are more alike than we realize. Dan Ring discussed various theories of the difference between North and South, City and Small Town, in his blog post a few weeks ago, so I will direct your attention to that post for more details. What I will say here is that I think my ideal world is a combination of the two.
Without offending anyone, I would like to say that in my experience, people in the South are definitely overtly friendlier, but perhaps also a little less hurried—which can be a wonderful quality, or a frustrating one. Meanwhile, Northerners (specifically, New Yorkers!) might not be as gregarious to strangers, but are also a little more hurried—which can be a wonderful quality, or a frustrating one.
And what’s funny is, I always identified with the pace and attitude of New Yorkers… but after only a year in the South, when I went back up to the big city, I felt like a country mouse. I had begun displaying some outward signs of Southernness… and I’m okay with that. I love New York, I love the South, and having lived in both places I am now hoping to embody the best of both worlds.
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This is my first week as the historian for the ISJL. I’ve been so warmly welcomed here—and am already finding connections between my last phase of life, and this one.
I recently completed my PhD at New York University. My focus was on church-state issues in American history, so I had to read a lot of case law. When the opportunity arose to write Jewish history for the ISJL, I jumped on it. Public history has a particular appeal to me because I feel that studying history is not just about studying the past, but also about understanding trends within current society and searching for ways to make positive change.
I was especially pleased to be given an assignment researching a rabbi by the name of Judah Wechsler for the Meridian/Lauderdale County Tourism Association. The association is interested in documenting the Jewish contribution to the Civil Rights movement in Meridian given the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom summer. Through my research, I discovered that Rabbi Wechsler became heavily involved in the issue of African American education as early as the late 19th century.
Like many small towns across the Reconstructionist South, Meridian, Mississippi, had limited free education offerings for African American children. Prior to 1871, an African American school was housed in the local Methodist church, but one of its teachers, Mr. Warren Tyler, was killed during a riot there in 1871. The other teacher, Mr. Price, was forced to leave town. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Henry McElroy and Rabbi Judah Wechsler, the school survived until 1875. Wechsler and others campaigned for a bond issue to construct the first brick public school building for African Americans.
Rabbi Wechsler actually donated $1,000 (close to $25,000 by today’s standard) of his own personal money toward the expense of the school. When the bond issue passed, Meridian’s black community asked that the new school be named in the rabbi’s honor. The Wechsler School still stands today, and is registered as a historic landmark by the National Register of Historical Places.
During the Civil Rights era, there were several instances of Southern and Northern Jews fighting for equal educational rights in Meridian and beyond. For instance, while I was in New York finishing my dissertation, I had the good fortune to get to know Mark Levy. During the summer of 1964, Mark served as a coordinator of the Meridian, MS, Freedom School.
Freedom schools were alternative free schools for African Americans set up by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to mitigate a segregated school system with little resources directed towards African American schools. Many African American children in small towns received little to no education. These schools aimed to empower African Americans in Mississippi to become active citizens and agents of social change. The progressive, experiential curriculum emphasized student-centered teaching and learning by doing.
I spoke with Mark for over three hours. He has devoted his whole life to social justice measures. His passion for tikkun olam is downright contagious. Though I met him first in New York, Mark will be here in Mississippi for the fiftieth anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom summer. This exciting event runs from June 25-29, at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Organizers expect 3,000 activists, elected officials, students, scholars, and veterans of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer to commemorate the achievements of Freedom Summer. This event isn’t just about the past, but will serve as a launching pad for social action focused on four closely-related social issues impacting minorities in Mississippi and beyond: Education, Workers Rights, Healthcare, and Voting Rights within Mississippi and the nation.
(As a further connection, Rabbi Wechsler shares a last name with my dissertation chair, Dr. Harold Wechsler of NYU, who is quite learned and also extremely warm-hearted. I could not trace a blood relationship between the two men, but they share a generous spirit. Just one more way history and community connects to our own stories!)
If you, too, are interested in connecting with living history and making the world better, the ISJL is helping coordinate complimentary special programs focusing on past and potential Jewish contributions to social justice. The event promises to be an enriching and exciting experience and all of us at ISJL encourage you to come. More details are here. I hope to see you in Mississippi!