Fully capturing the essence of Jewish life across the South can be tricky, especially in towns without a formal congregation. That’s why we appreciate when people reach out to us with their stories and contributions. Recently, a very interesting inquiry led to a rich research experience – and a fun road trip to Lake Providence, Louisiana.
Louisiana native Spike Herzog wanted to make some donations to our museum collection. His father owned a store, Galanty’s, which had been in business since 1896, and he was left with an array of artifacts. We just needed to come get them.
Museum coordinator Rachel Myers and I thought it would be interesting to do an oral history with Spike and his two sisters while we visited the store in Lake Providence.
After Spike’s father, Alex Herzog, bought Galanty’s, he turned it into a high-end men and boy’s clothing store. The store was famous for its fine suits, and people like comedian Jerry Clower would come in to buy his apparel. Galanty’s worked in tandem with the Stockners, who sold women’s clothing right next door.
Spike recalled that the store served as a gathering place for coffee and conversation. According to Spike and his sisters, a main reason for the store’s success was Alex’s dedication to treating everyone with respect, regardless of their race. After Alex’s death, Spike received a call from a retired African American teacher who told Spike that Alex was the first white person to treat him with respect and dignity.
Alex Herzog married a Methodist woman named Marian, who worked in nearby Transylvania as a social worker for the Farm Security Project. She then went on to become a teacher and eventually was elected town Alderman. Turns out, Marian’s stepmother was Dr. Grace Bordelon. After I did some digging, I found out that Grace’s brother, James Bordelon, was my great-grandfather! I was thrilled to find this connection, and it reminded me how interconnected these small Southern communities can be.
Although Spike and his sisters were raised in the Methodist church, they had strong Jewish role models in their family. They remembered their grandfather, Will, reading through his prayer book every Sunday. As children, they were exposed to Jewish cuisine and traditions at family dinners at their Grandmother Sallie’s house.
My first oral history experience since moving to Mississippi was fascinating. Not only did we learn about the captivating story of the Herzog family (incidentally, Spike’s real name is Walter—his sister Billie Hart nicknamed him “Spike” because she adored Spike Jones, the drummer!), but also we also learned about other Jews in the area.
After a trip to the local library, I was able to confirm that several Jewish families lived in Lake Providence, and most of them ran businesses. Lake Providence in the early to mid-1900s included Rosenzweig’s Grocery, the Good Luck Store, Fisher hotel, Coleman’s Clothing, Stafford’s Café, Pure Food, Kaufmans’s Haberdashery, Sol Stockner’s Ready to Wear; The Fashion Shop, Nevin’s Jewelry, Herzog’s, Leach’s Hardware Store, Smilow Hardware, Minsky’s Drug Store, Levy’s, Goodstein’s Furniture Store and Charles Perry’s. Leon Minsky and his son, Reynold started a pecan picking business in the 1950s that is still in operation today.
From their position as merchants, Jews became a part of the social fabric and dedicated leadership of Lake Providence. Three Jewish men served as mayor: Solomon Dreyfus from 1887-1888; Elias Stockner from 1914-1916; and Elias Leon Minsky from 1970-1974. Although Lake Providence Jews never established a congregation, many faithfully attended services in nearby Vicksburg, Mississippi, Greenville, Mississippi, or McGehee, Arkansas.
Although only a few Jews remain in Lake Providence today, the many who once lived there left a strong legacy in the community. I encourage our readers to keep sharing their stories with us so that we can keep providing rich and nuanced accounts of our Southern Jewish heritage. Some of our best stories start with that contact – like a phone call from a man named Spike.
How we treat others matters. Today, banks and schools and government organizations are shut down for Columbus Day—a national holiday that has grown controversial. After all, Christopher Columbus was an important figure in history, but did not treat others well. Today, many are instead encouraging the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day rather than Columbus Day.
Whether you are observing Indigenous Peoples Day, Columbus Day, a day off, or another Monday, today is different. We mark this day in the middle of an Ebola scare here in the United States, and an Ebola epidemic in Africa.
Ebola is testing our country. It is testing our medical capabilities and the confidence we have in our healthcare system to contain the spread of a deadly and contagious disease. But, it is also testing our values—our compassion and our concern for the dignity of all. It is testing how we treat others.
Dallas, Texas, is where this country’s first Ebola patient, Thomas Duncan, was hospitalized. Dallas County Judge Clay Lewis Jenkins was determined to respect the dignity and well-being of Mr. Duncan’s family, when Mr. Duncan was diagnosed, when he was treated, and when he died.
While many of us watched with concern and fear for what Mr. Duncan’s diagnosis meant for the health of all Americans, Judge Jenkins made it a priority to show Mr. Duncan’s family that their dignity mattered. On NBC last week, he said that he intends to see to it that Mr. Duncan’s family is treated just like he would want his family to be treated if he were the one in the hospital. He made it clear that he is not throwing caution to the wind, but acknowledging that even while a family is sequestered, they should be treated well and with humanity.
Judge Jenkins is a mensch. He is striving to do right by the public but is finding every possible way to ensure that it doesn’t come at the expense of others.
When I consider how I would react in a situation where in order to address the needs of many I may have to cut the liberties of few, I can’t say that I would be as determined to consider the dignity of a few. I could only hope that I would, because though it took us some time to get there and though the process is ongoing, ultimately that is what our country was founded upon: the belief that everyone’s rights are important and that the rights of a few need to be protected from being trampled over by the majority.
It is also a Jewish value—recognizing that even when it is difficult, it is important to treat everyone the way we would seek to be treated. Perhaps it is these values that have led me to imagine immigration officials taking the temperatures of any person from Africa and being subjected to an intense screening process before entering our country. As I picture this, I remember the many stories of Jewish immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island during the time of a Cholera scare. After traveling hundreds of miles in a crowded steamship, they had to have a “clean bill of health” before being allowed into this country. They could be scrutinized by one doctor after another, subjected to police intimidation, and unfairly treated. As the MyJewishLearning.com article states: “Currency exchange rates and prices of railroad tickets and food were inflated; bribes were demanded; rudeness and cruelty were rampant,” until in 1902, when “a new commissioner of immigration instituted drastic reforms, heralded by signs everywhere demanding ‘kindness and consideration’.”
Now, at JFK we are incorporating Ebola screenings for passengers arriving from West Africa. There is the risk of ostracizing and marginalizing people. While I continue to hope for the safety of everyone in our country, and the world who is faced with the threat of this awful disease, I also hope for dignity. I admire the efforts of people like Judge Jenkins. I hope that screenings and examinations that take place are done in a way that honors the dignity of all people and reflects the highest standards of “kindness and consideration.”
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I have always derived great pleasure from personal prayer during worship services. Spirituality is core to my identity; the journey of our Shabbat and holiday liturgy is familiar to me and comforting to me. It is my time, which might sound selfish—and I had not realized just how dependent on that selfish time I had become, until recently when I became a Jewish professional.
Last year, in addition to my work with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, I accepted the position of Educator at my home synagogue in New Orleans. Along with this amazing dream of a job comes the awesome responsibility of teaching others how to involve themselves in worship. One way we do this is by teaching the liturgy in Hebrew classes and prayer services; another, for me, is by setting the example of being sincere in my own prayer.
The irony? Sincerity in my own prayer has never been an issue—until now, when I am on “display.”
Trying to strike a balance between teaching, leading, and praying is not an easy task! During the High Holidays last year, I was so very busy trying to keep up and catch up with all of my responsibilities that frankly I did not even attempt very much personal prayer. This year, by contrast, I was totally prepared, and had all of my projects for families and children set up in advance… in an effort to set the stage for my own prayer space once again.
I still wasn’t back to my usual spiritual self. Even with all of the preparation, the holiday experience was still just off-and-on successful. I feared a return to truly meaningful prayer while “on display” might be a lost cause for me, until a good friend and cantorial soloist pointed out something really simple and profound:
My personal prayer and spirituality can be every bit as sincere and meaningful as it once was, if I accept that it will never be the same as it once was.
My cantorial soloist friend taught me that now, my greatest spiritual moments were to be focused on enhancing the worship experience of the congregation. This is where she derives her Shabbat and High Holiday holiness, outside of herself. And this is where I am now learning to do the same thing. Part of this experience is not taking myself so seriously! I began to see the insanity in what I was trying to do, and it made me laugh at my own self, and simply relax and let it be.
With this new role, I also appreciate new elements of prayer. I still, and always will, value my private prayer moments, too. But when I see a kid have an “aha” moment connecting the dots in our liturgy, or lead a prayer with confidence, or an adult catches my eye during a sermon because he or she remembers that we discussed a similar point, or I notice someone following along in the Hebrew because I helped them learn how to do that, these will now be my personal worship experience focus!
What has been your journey as a lay person or a Jewish professional in personal prayer? How is it different as you have aged, grown or changed roles?
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