I’m a historian, and a native Texan, and Jewish; I love food and especially food history. So when those interests intersect, I get excited.
That’s why I love writers like Marcie Cohen Ferris, who wrote such great works as Matzo Ball Gumbo and The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region. This week, I have a new little treasure bringing together my interests—this amazing food feature, which chronicles Jewish food and memories of Jewish life in Texas.
I am proud to hail from the Lone Star state. I think the following John Steinbeck quote rings true, “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation, in every sense of the word. And there’s an opening convey of generalities. A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner.” To be sure, Texas is unique, and everything IS really big there; but, this native Texan would like to contest it is still downright Southern. From the chicken fried steak to the homecoming mums worn by girls with hearts as big as their hair, the state is a bastion of both hospitality and more importantly, terrific food.
What was particularly striking to me about the article is that in addition to food, its focus is on growing up Jewish in Texarkana—my mother’s hometown! As a child, I visited Texarkana many times, but I never knew that the town boasted a rich Jewish history.
Reading this article, and re-visiting the Texarkana entries in the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities (a massive historic resource I am now tasked with growing and maintaining), it warmed my heart to know that the town of my mother’s birthplace was home to Jews like clothing merchant Sam Heilbron, bankers Joseph Marx and Leon Rosenberg, café owner Martin Levy, and Joseph Deutschmann, who helped the development of water and gas companies in Texarkana, owned a stake in the city’s first street-cars, and worked in real estate, developing housing in the growing town at the turn of the 19th century.
In Texarkana, Jews were actually present since shortly after the city’s founding in 1874 and were quite instrumental in its development and growth over the course of the twentieth century. The Texarkana synagogue, Mount Sinai, is still going strong. Be sure to stop there for services if you ever find yourself in the part of the country. In the meantime, you can read all about Texarkana right here.
My Texan grandmother never made Jewish delicacies such as matzo ball soup, borscht or stuffed cabbage, but she sure could make a mean raisin pie, and she made her living baking and decorating delicious cakes. I am sure if she had the recipe for kugel, she would have made it all the time for Sunday dinners, making sure that her version had twice the butter the recipe calls for, because why not add more butter?
If you have any fun Southern and Jewish recipes that are a part of your history, please share! As the saying goes, the next best thing to eating food—or being in Texas—is talking about it.
In the summer of 2013, I left a wonderful congregation in North Carolina to pursue an exciting opportunity on the staff of Gann Academy in Massachusetts. Many of the rabbis I work with at Gann Academy take on added responsibilities during the High Holy Days, helping out at Hillels, chavurot, and synagogues in the Boston area. As we swapped sermon ideas and commiserated over cantillation, my colleagues were surprised to learn that I’d be spending the holidays with Temple Emanu-El of Longview, Texas as part of the ISJL’s “Rabbis on the Road” program.
Though I am familiar with the South, even I wasn’t sure what to expect from a community that would fly in a rabbi from 1,700 miles away, sight unseen, to lead their High Holy Day services. As I left the airport, speeding down Route 20 from Dallas, Kol Nidre playing on the rental car stereo, I realized that, for the first time, I was leading the entire High Holy Day service, and I had no idea what the minhag ha-makom [local custom] was in East Texas.
As soon as I arrived in Longview, however, I found everything I could have hoped for in a community: open and supportive, warm and welcoming. And in addition to the southern hospitality I’d been missing in Boston, I discovered one of the most dedicated collections of lay leaders I have ever encountered.
Though the Jewish population of Longview has dwindled over the years, a small cadre of dedicated families has maintained their synagogue both physically and spiritually. The temple building is not only immaculately kept, but also frequently put to use. While rabbinical leadership has diminished from full-time to biweekly to occasional visits from the ISJL, Temple Emanu-El continues to hold lay-led Shabbat services and dinners nearly every week.
Temple Emanu-El doesn’t just serve the longstanding members of the Longview community. As the only synagogue in a 40-mile radius, Jews – and the many, many local friends of the Jewish community – came in from the surrounding communities of Marshall and Kilgore. On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I noticed young couples, new to town and far from home, joining the community for the first time.
Many families had a tradition of inviting their children and grandchildren to spend one of the holidays with them, and more than one family had three generations present at our Yom Kippur service. Practically every synagogue I’ve been to offers separate programming for children, so I was curious as to what the young people would get out of the service. Would they be bored? How would they respond to a worship experience that was not designed for them?
There were some naps, and yes, there were some meltdowns. But there were also helpers at Havdallah, Judaic crayon art created during the sermons, and exuberant demonstrations of cheer routines during the break-fast. Instead of feeling like the rabbi of a very small congregation, I started to feel like a member of a very large family.
My favorite moment of my visit was when, at the end of the Kol Nidre service, at nearly ten o’clock in the evening and following a lengthy, aimed-at-adults sermon, two young sisters shyly approached the bimah, nudging each other and whispering.
“You tell her!”
“No, you tell her.”
Finally, one of them said, “In part of your sermon, you were talking about Jonah, but you said Noah.”
So, they were paying attention…
Celebrating the holidays with Temple Emanu-El certainly kept me on my toes. It also showcased the dedication, commitment, and attention to detail of a community I might not otherwise have had a chance to meet. I headed home feeling that the Jewish future is in good hands. And that’s a great way to start the New Year.
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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…