Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to conduct a workshop on oral history techniques at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. While there, I met Ruth Frenkel, who has lived in Conway since 1958. (Full disclosure: her daughter, Ellen Kirsch, heads up Hendrix’s Crain-Maling Center of Jewish Culture and had coordinated my visit). When Ruth told me that her family had escaped from Germany in 1937 and settled in McGehee, Arkansas, I had to hear more. Fortunately, I had my equipment with me on the trip.
So, the next morning, I went over to Ruth’s house and conducted a short oral history interview.
Here is an excerpt:
Ruth’s uncle Adolph was not only in contact with his family, but he managed to visit Germany in advance of the coming war. According to Ruth’s telling, he already knew enough about conditions there to secure visas for the family before his trip.
Even with years of experience in the culture and history of Southern Jews, I have trouble shaking the assumption that rural Jewish communities were cut off from international news and the families they had left in the Old Country, whatever it might be. Stories like Ruth’s constantly remind me that many Jews in the American South, even in the years before television, were keenly aware of the challenges that Jews faced in Europe. While Jewish life in McGehee and other southern towns was marked by geographical isolation, the families who settled there participated in transnational Jewish networks, whether through international aid organizations, the Jewish press or, in this case, family connections.
By ISJL Education Fellow, Sam Kahan
During the annual ISJL Education Conference, Education Fellows traditionally present some sort of “schtick” during meals. This year the Fellows pondered the question: “if you were a Jewish superhero, who would you be?”
As the daughter of an excellent Jewish mother, I know that feeding those you love is both a Jewish value and, at times, a superhuman accomplishment. Having inherited my mother’s drive for preparing and sharing meals, I had to incorporate food into my wished-for superpower.
My passion for feeding others manifests itself in many ways. For one, I love to cook for friends when they stop by my house. It is in my blood, or so my mother tells me. But my desire to share sustenance with others is not limited to friends and family, rather, it extends to the community at large.
A few years ago, a friend and I were involved with an organization that set up a temporary food pantry on the corner of a busy Baltimore intersection during Thanksgiving. There we were: armed with hundreds of thanksgiving meals, donated clothing, blankets and other items essential for surviving a brutally cold winter on the Baltimore streets. As I served a tremendous number of homeless people who stopped by to receive aid, I found myself thinking. I thought of what a mitzvah it was that this group of people took time out of their Thanksgiving, a day reserved for family and friends, to make sure that the larger community was taken care of.
I reflect back on this moment and recognize the teachings of Judaism that not only encourage, but command us to care for those who are hungry. The aspiration to feed friends, family, and community echoes Jewish values and is a Jewish superpower we should all work to develop. Matzah Mama will make her next appearance at Rodef Sholom Temple in Hampton, Virginia, during a Passover program about creating family traditions, be sure to watch out for her!
If you were a Jewish superhero, who would you be?
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.