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…
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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