Discovering My Southern Jewish Family… After I Moved Down South

At first blush, I might not seem like a very “Southern” Jewish girl: I grew up in Chicago, after all. But when I found my way down South, I discovered that my family had more connections here than I would have guessed.

I first came down to Mississippi to intern for the ISJL’s history department in the summer of 2012. When he heard about my destination, my Grandpa Bernie mentioned that when he was stationed at the naval base in Gulfport, Mississippi, during the Second World War, he’d spent some time visiting relatives in “some town that started with a P” elsewhere in the state. But he couldn’t remember the name of the town, and I didn’t discover any long-lost relatives that summer.

Two years later, when I decided to move down to Jackson for a full-time two-year position as an Education Fellow, my dad poked around a bit to see if he could find some more specific information. What he found was a small slip of paper that listed Gedalya Fine, my great-grandfather’s uncle, as the co-owner (along with his son Joe) of a pair of clothing stores in Laurel and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Sure enough, the ISJL’s online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish History mentioned the family’s store in the entry for Laurel. This was my first good lead.

Then, when I visited my grandparents last spring, I found a cache of telegrams sent to my great-grandparents by folks who were not able to attend their 1924 wedding in upstate New York. Included in the bound leather book were five telegrams from family living in towns south of the Mason-Dixon line: Sulligent, Alabama; Montgomery, Alabama; Picayune, Mississippi; and, best of all, Jackson, Mississippi – my own current city!

Obviously, I had no choice but to start poking around to piece things together and see if I could connect with any of my Southern Jewish family members who might still be in the area. The telegram from Jackson was sent by “H. Botnick.” H. Botnick, who I assumed was a man, had wished my great-grandparents that their wedded life “be one beautiful honeymoon.” H. Botnick, it turns out, is Harris Botnick, married to a sister of Gedalya Fine, which makes him another great-great-uncle of mine. He, his wife Lena Fine Botnick, and one of their daughters are buried in the Beth Israel Cemetery, right here in Jackson.

Abby with Flora and Marvin.
Abby with Flora and Marvin.

But that’s not all– and, thankfully, the local cemetery isn’t the only place where I still have family in the South. It turns out that Harris Botnick’s great-nephew, Marvin Botnick, is editor and publisher of The Jewish Georgian newspaper. Since I happen to work with one of the ISJL’s Atlanta-area partner congregations, I arranged to meet Marvin during my most recent visit there. We had lunch with Flora Rosefsky – a cousin by marriage through my great-grandmother, rather than my great-grandfather – who I had met a few times in the past.

There I was, with two not-quite-cousins, each somehow-connected to me through different lines of my ancestors, finally learning about my own family’s southern connections! It was such a nice small world reminder, and a moment to realize just how interconnected our lives can be.

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