Last week, we added the final (for now) video clip to the Oklahoma section of the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. The interview excerpt comes from a great conversation I had with Paula and Malcolm Milsten last summer at Tulsa’s Temple Israel. Malcolm, a Tulsa native, and Paula, who moved there before marrying Malcolm in 1959, have both served as temple president. In the clip below, Paula and Malcolm recall a 1984 flood that seriously damaged Temple Israel, as well as the outpouring of support from the entire city in the aftermath of the disaster.
Malcolm, like many people who have contributed their stories to the ISJL Oral History Project, remarks on his congregation’s positive relationship with other local synagogues as well as the general community. These themes—inclusion and cooperation—are common in our interviews. Where someone from outside the South might expect to find stories of isolation, I find, more often than not, exactly the opposite.
Because the Jewish population of the Deep South is small and spread out, it is common for Jews in the region to be the single source of Jewish information for Christian friends and acquaintances. When my son was in school and any Jewish holiday came around, I would make sure he had had enough information to reply to the inevitable questions of his friends: Why do Jews celebrate_____? What does it mean? Why don’t Jews believe in Jesus? Why did “you” kill Jesus? Aren’t you afraid of going to hell? Is Chanukah the Jewish Christmas?
And the truth is that the questions are wonderful! I believe it is our responsibility to be informed and have an understanding of the basics of our faith not only for ourselves but also for the friends and neighbors who—with the utmost respect—want to understand more about our religion. Down here, each of us has to act as an ambassador of Judaism, which means doing our best to answer questions, even “while standing on one foot.”
Just last month I was getting my nails done, when the woman in the chair next to me noticed my Star of David and started overflowing with questions. I could barely answer one before the next one came. It was for her a rare opportunity to ask, and for me it was an honor to answer.
I think the most common misconception about Jewish life in the South is that we are faced with a tremendous amount of Anti-Semitism. The reality is that we are faced with a lot of folks who know little about Judaism and most of the time, they simply want to be better and closer friends and neighbors! The only way to deepen friendships is through understanding and respect. I also believe it is our responsibility to have a basic understanding of what Christians believe. Outreach is a two-way street!
What is your most memorable “While standing on one foot” experience?
Since the 1940s, the Jews of Seminole, Ada, Nowata, and Shawnee, Oklahoma, have met at the Seminole Hebrew Center for religious services and social events. In the clip below, which is featured on our Online Encyclopedia article for Ada/Seminole, lifelong Ada resident Henry Katz talks about the origins of the Hebrew Center.
I love this excerpt for a number of reasons. Katz, who descends from German-speaking immigrants who arrived in the United States after the Civil War, alludes to the distinction between his decidedly Reform family and the newer arrivals, who were more observant. Then, as evidence of his family’s assimilation, he uses the word “phylacteries” to describe what most traditional Jews would call “tefillin.” As a professor once told me, “no one who wears phylacteries says “phylacteries.”
The story also illustrates the influence of economics on Jewish (and general) migration patterns. In this case, the arrival of recent immigrants to the booming towns above the Seminole oil field influenced the development of the local Jewish community.
Apparently, people used to play a lot of cards. Bridge, canasta, all types of poker—nearly everyone I speak with reports that they or their parents participated in regular card games, inside or outside the Jewish community. Katz attributes the men’s gambling habits to the oil business, which is a clever connection to make. I would also point out that many of these men were also immigrants from Eastern Europe; it was a gamble, or a series of them, that had brought them to Oklahoma in the first place.
Finally, Katz has a great voice and tells his story with real style. Reviewing his interview and putting together this clip brought back memories of a pleasant morning spent in Ada at the end of a successful research trip to Oklahoma.
I’d like to thank Henry Katz for sharing his story with us. Credit is also due to summer oral history intern Jonayah Jackson for the quality of the video.