With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur just behind us, I thought I would share a little bit about the significance of these holidays from the perspective of historical research.
When I have only one day in a town to research the history of its Jewish community, I don’t have time to scroll through 100 years of daily newspapers on microfilm. Fortunately, there are a few tricks that help me to quickly find a needle (or mention of the local Jewish community) in the haystack of multiple microfilm reels. One useful shortcut is the “High Holiday Research Method.”
I have compiled a list with the dates of every Rosh Hashanah between 1880 and 1960 (thanks to Hebcal!). Usually, the local newspaper will have some mention of the Jewish holidays and often will describe the activities of local Jews. For example, in Lockhart, Texas, I found a mention of a short-lived Jewish congregation that met in a rented hall for the High Holidays in 1922, attracting Jews from several other small towns in the area. This Lockhart congregation did not last for long, and the tiny Jewish population left in town had no recollection of it. Were it not for my finding this Rosh Hashanah notice, this congregation may have been lost to history.
Newspapers from around the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also contain ads run by local Jewish merchants informing their customers that they will be closed on the holidays. These ads are a great way of determining which stores are Jewish-owned, and offer insight about what we here at the ISJL call the “southern Jewish experience.”
One of my favorite of these ads comes from Meridian, Mississippi in 1942. Most of the town’s Jewish merchants banded together to take out one ad, announcing the closing of all of their stores for Rosh Hashanah. The sheer number of businesses, fourteen, attests to the important economic role played in Meridian. Also, notice that the ad declares that the stores would be closed on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Clearly, these stores were usually open on Saturday, the best day of the week for business.
It was almost impossible for a Jewish merchant in Meridian to be shomer Shabbos and make a living. Thus, they had to adjust. In the early 20th century, Meridian’s small Orthodox shul held Saturday morning services at 6 a.m. so members could pray on the Sabbath and then get to their stores in time to open for business. And yet, as the 1942 ad attests, even as they adapted their religious practices, Jews were not willing to give up the high holidays. This was not easy. Indeed, several of these stores opened at 6 p.m. on Rosh Hashanah to try to recoup some of the losses they would incur.
Today, only a small number of southern Jews own retail stores and such ads are largely a thing of the past. Future historians will probably not find much value in the “High Holiday Research Method.” Yet as some aspects of the southern Jewish experience change, some stay the same, as many southern Jews still wrestle with the dilemma of how to maintain their traditions as a tiny minority living in the Christian Bible Belt.
While illegal immigration has become a hot button issue in recent years, it is not a new phenomenon. In fact, Jews were once among those who crossed the border from Mexico into the United States without documentation. After the U.S. severely restricted immigration from Eastern Europe in 1921, many Polish and Russian Jews came to the port of Veracruz, Mexico rather than Ellis Island. A good number of them drifted north to the Texas border, often crossing into El Paso illegally. Rabbi Martin Zielonka of Temple Mt. Sinai in El Paso tried to help these immigrants, though he also attempted to convince them to stay in Mexico.
Rabbi Zielonka corresponded with Jewish leaders in New York, urging them to fund an immigrant aid society in Mexico City so these Jews would not feel compelled to enter the U.S. illegally. He was concerned that this illegal Jewish immigration would “jeopardize the good standing” of American Jews and give nativists further ammunition in pushing for greater restrictions on immigration.
At first, it seemed crazy: writing the histories of 55 different Texas Jewish communities for our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. The idea of creating an online resource with the histories of every southern Jewish congregation and community was ambitious enough when we were dealing with Georgia (19 communities) or Alabama (20 communities).
Tackling Texas, though? That was an intimidating task.
It’s … well. Texas. (Read: BIG.)
But after 21 months of traveling Texas with two different sets of summer interns, and countless visits to small town libraries, old synagogues, and cemeteries, Texas is done!
Since we finalized the Texas section, we have been hard at work on Oklahoma. Stay tuned for an exciting announcement about our work in the Sooner state … and in the meantime, dive in to the histories and learn more about the Lone Star State!
The ISJL Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities is designed to present a history of every congregation and significant Jewish community in the South. Currently, we have completed eight states- and will add other states in the future. Click on the highlighted states above to explore each state’s rich Jewish heritage. The Encyclopedia is designed to be a continual work-in-progress. If you have additional information about any of the communities or congregations, please contact us at: email@example.com.