As an ISJL Education Fellow, I hit the road a lot and spend time in communities that are new to me—and many of them might be new to you, too! So I’ll sometimes shine the Southern & Jewish spotlight on one of my new communities… starting today with Midland/Odessa, Texas.
I recently took a trip to Midland/Odessa, Texas. For anyone who hasn’t heard of these twin-cities and the surrounding area, it’s worth a peek at a map. The city of Midland was founded in 1881 as a midway point between El Paso and Dallas on the Pacific Railway. Traditionally, white collar workers lived in Midland, while blue collar workers lived in Odessa. Twenty-three miles separate the cities from one another, but it is clear today that the cities have a symbiotic relationship.
This relationship exists clearly in the business function, the thriving oil industry, but also in other affairs, such as Jewish life. (Speaking of which, there is a full history of the Jewish experience in Midland/Odessa available through the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities!)
When many people think of a combined metro area, some famous ones come to mind: Dallas-Fort Worth, Minneapolis-St. Paul… Most of these metros are less than 15 miles apart. And between the centers of them are suburbs and businesses that serve both cities. Midland and Odessa, however, are 23 miles apart, downtown to downtown, and between the two cities lies almost nothing besides the local “cash crop”: oil fields. The cities only agreed to a combined statistical designation recently, as it allowed for larger companies to come and serve the now combined “Petroplex.”
Though the synagogue building is in Odessa, the membership population is split between the cities of Midland and Odessa.
I spent the weekend hanging out in both Midland and Odessa. Erev Shabbat services on Friday night were at the synagogue in Odessa. I was also hosted overnight in Odessa. A community lunch the next day was held in Midland. Havdalah was at a community member’s home in Midland. I went on a tour of the “Petroplex” with a community member, exploring both Midland and Odessa (including George W. Bush’s childhood home). Religious school on Sunday was in Midland. Last but not least, I was taken to the airport on Sunday afternoon, located smack dab between Midland and Odessa, to spend a little time at the oil fields.
In no place is the symbiotic relationship between Midland and Odessa more obvious than in the Jewish life. There are separate school districts for Midland and Odessa. There are separate Walmarts and other businesses of the like for the two cities. But there is only one synagogue – Temple Beth El, and it draws people from both Midland and Odessa, to observe Jewish traditions, and also to celebrate a longstanding Jewish presence in the Permian Basin.
The Jewish community, small but dedicated, consists of approximately 65 families. There are 8 students in the religious school, all enthusiastic and eager young Jewish children. I had a wonderful time teaching students about the Jewish obligation to social justice and tikkun olam.
You may have noticed that lately at your local gas pump prices have gone down. Some places in the country have even seen prices well below $2. Midland/Odessa is the hub of this gas gala that has led to plummeting petrol prices nationwide. Jews were initially attracted to the Permian Basin in the early 1900s for its oil industry… and while this post isn’t intended to be a plug for Jews to move to Midland/Odessa, hey, if you like the oil industry, this may be the place for you. The Jewish community there really is lovely.
Speaking of lovely Jewish communities you may not have visited… I look forward to sharing the stories of some of my upcoming visits here, there, and everywhere in the Jewish South— with all of you!
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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