In celebration of the completion of the Kentucky section of our online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, we bring you another piece of Kentucky Jewish History.
Beginning in the early 20th century, a handful of Jews settled in the coal country of southeast Kentucky. Most of them owned stores that catered to the local coal miners. Over the years, miners squared off against the coal companies in a series of sometimes violent strikes and labor disputes. As these labor struggles became increasingly virulent, Jews were sometimes caught in the middle.
Polish immigrants Harry and Bina Appleman were one of these Jewish families who were drawn to Kentucky’s coal country, opening a general store in Evarts, Kentucky, thirteen miles from Harlan. After many local miners were fired for joining a union in 1931, the Applemans decided to help their families. They would feed 40 to 50 children each day during the standoff. During Passover, the Applemans ran an ad in the local newspaper stating that they would give away a railroad car full of flour to anyone in need “regardless of color and creed.” Each needy family would be given a 24-pound bag of flour. This donation was a significant expense for the Applemans, who had scrimped and saved the money which they now decided to use to help the needy miners. The Black Mountain Coal Corporation did not appreciate the Appleman’s largesse, and swore out a criminal complaint against the couple for criminal syndicalism. Although the charges were eventually dropped, the Applemans were targeted by company thugs, who shot into their home. Because of these threats, the Applemans left Evarts, moving to Brooklyn.
The Applemans’ story reminded me of the civil rights era, when southern Jews were often caught within the larger social turmoil. Many southern Jews tried to stay out of the conflict, but others, like the Applemans had done three decades earlier in Kentucky, made a courageous public stand at great personal risk.
As always, you can visit our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities for more information.
I was in North Mississippi, visiting my husband’s family for the first time over Thanksgiving when I first heard about “the blind.” Being Jewish and from the North I had never heard this term, but after lunch we drove through the eerily empty and beautiful delta fields out to his father’s duck blind. It was a camouflaged hideout, made to fit eight people and two dogs. They had flooded the field to attract ducks flying south for winter and filled the water with elaborate decoys that, with a flip of a switch flapped their wings, signaling to ducks flying overhead that this was a safe place to land. When I asked about the small camp stove, I learned that the space served more as a clubhouse on early weekend mornings than a place for serious hunting.
I was reminded of that blind when I first spotted this beautifully crafted decoy in our museum collection. Created as a commemorative piece, it’s not bound for the flooded fields, but lives in our collection instead, as a symbol of both Jewish and Southern heritage.
This duck comes from a synagogue in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vickburg’s Anshe Chesed dedicated their first house of worship in 1870. Like all great southern celebrations, the program began with a parade from the B’nai B’rith hall to the new temple, led by a police escort and Jaeger’s Brass Band from New Orleans. The congregation spent over 100 years in the building until the late 1960s, when they decided to move out of downtown and build a smaller temple. Their original building was torn down.
Before the old synagogue came down, though, congregants wanted keep something to remember it by. I can’t imagine a more perfect way to honor an important southern institution than to manifest it in this traditional art form.
Congregants Benji and Betty Lee Grundfest Lamensdorf had a set of these wonderful decoys carved from the wood remnants of the temple, and one of them made its way into our collection. They serve as a reminder of what Jewish life once was, and still is in Vicksburg. The congregation, now over 160 years old, has shrunk significantly, but they still hold lay-led services and social gathering on most Shabbats. You might say these birds of a feather have done a great job sticking together, and we hope they continue to do so for many more Shabbats to come.
By Education Fellow Amanda Winer
I first heard about Women of the Wall as a counselor in training at Eisner Camp in Massachusetts, when the chairperson of the group’s executive board, Anat Hoffman, came to speak to us about her experience in Israel. Women of the Wall, formed in 1988, organizes Torah services on the women’s side of the gender-segregated Western Wall. Their attempts to worship as they see fit, which includes women wearing tallit, at Judaism’s most sacred site have made them the target of lawsuits, arrest, and even verbal and physical harassment. To me, it sounded like a worthy idea, but neither women’s issues nor Israel was my “cause of the moment.” Hoffman also serves as Executive Director of the Israeli Religious Action Center, and that aspect of her presentation was more inspiring to me at the time.
Last Rosh Chodesh (first day of the month), my feelings changed. I was scrolling through Twitter, when a name jumped out at me. Rabbi Elyse Frishman, someone I know, someone whose daughter I shared a bunk with at camp, was among four women detained Friday, December 14th, for wearing a tallis at the Western Wall. Rabbi Frishman, in my experience, is a wonderful rabbi, mother and woman who, in addition to her personal accolades, also edited the Reform prayer book, Mishkan T’filah.
The events surrounding these latest arrests, and the arrest of Anat Hoffman two months ago, brought about an outcry from groups in Israel and the diaspora that promote religious pluralism in Israel. Pluralism, according to Quaker philosopher Parker Palmer, is a three pronged process. First, we must admit that we, both as a people and as individuals, have wants and needs. Then, we must acknowledge that the wants and needs of others may be different, but they are also valid. Lastly, we must decide that there is inherent value in the discussion of the wants and needs of all parties involved. This process makes the seemingly daunting task a bit easier, a bit more real.
After reading that familiar name, Women of the Wall had my attention. I thought about the evolving role of women in Judaism. In the Conservative and Reform movements, and elsewhere, women read Torah, become rabbis and spiritual leaders, and run some of the most philanthropic Jewish organizations worldwide. This is fairly recent. My grandmother, Baba, would never have considered such things at my age; she grew up sitting with her mother on the women’s side of a mechitza. Later, though, she reached a position of leadership within her home synagogue, and on a regional and national level.
I couldn’t shake this. My next thought was about “Southern Belles.” Before I moved to Mississippi, I had in my mind an archetype of what Southern women were like. I pictured The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan—women who were beautiful, kind with a soft demeanor and a dress straight out of Gone with the Wind. I remember thinking, “I read The Help, I’ve got this.”
Based on my experiences in the past six months, I can say that I was not entirely wrong. Many of the women I have met, both professionally and personally, are beautiful, kind and sweet. There is another amazing aspect to them, though. Southern women are passionate people, with varied interests moving forward in the modern world. They are devoted and steadfast, whether to the Crimson Tide or their local Hadassah chapter. I see this especially in the commitment of Jewish women in the South to their religious communities. In fact, the point person for each of the religious schools that I work with is a woman. Witnessing this level of engagement leads me to think about and participate in gender equality activism in a way that I never have before.
The role of women is constantly evolving, and these women are changing with the times, taking active roles in making their realities the best they can and teaching their daughters and granddaughters about all of the possibilities being a woman can bring. These issues are important, and can and should not be taken lightly.
The biggest question to me is: Is religious pluralism possible? In Israel, the Women of the Wall struggle for a more pluralistic vision of Judaism. In the South, the ISJL’s success in working with communities regardless of denominational affiliation suggests to me that there is hope. Progress will take dialogue, and we see from Women of the Wall and others that a few strong, confident women can make it happen. Learning about the journeys and struggles of women like my Baba and Rabbi Frishman inspires me to love and support all the women in my life. And just like that, I guess I’m becoming a Southern belle!