Natchez, Mississippi: The Place to Be for Jewish History Lovers This Fall

For me, it’s the river that won my heart.

In the summer of 2007, I was traveling in a hot van down from Utica, Mississippi, on my first trip to the port city of Natchez. I had just arrived as the Museum summer intern at the ISJL, and was already being whisked away on a field trip. Before meeting the congregants at Temple B’nai Israel, my guide drove us up and down the shaded streets with beautiful antebellum homes with names affixed to their intricately iron gates. When we reached the bluff, we piled out of the car and looked at the Mississippi River. I remember thinking, this is what all the songs are about.

That’s when I fell for Natchez.

Nine years later, it’s my pleasure to help host the Southern Jewish Historical Society in Natchez for their annual conference November 4th-6th. With the theme “Jews in the Southern Hinterland,” the conference will focus on the experience of Jews in the small towns and rural areas of the South. Natchez has a long and rich Jewish history and will provide the perfect venue to examine how Jews adapted to life and thrived in the small-town South. Natchez’s Temple B’nai Israel, our home congregation for the conference, is a testament to the resilience and commitment of small Jewish communities to survive amidst demographic changes.

So if you’re thinking, “Huh… sounds interesting! Should I come to Natchez for the Southern Jewish Historical Society?”  …here are a few reasons you should say yes!

Have you ever been to Mississippi?
If the answer is yes, come on back down! If the answer is no, well, now is the time. Y’all may have your own preconceptions about this place but until you come and step foot in the state, you can’t begin to understand the nuanced pace and taste of life in this Deep South state. Many have written novels, songs and blog posts about the people here for a good reason. Come explore, so you can go home and tell your friends “I’ve been there, and here’s what it was really like…”

Are you connected to the Natchez Jewish Community?
Since we first published notice that we would be hosting this conference, we have heard from so many folks who have family connections to Natchez. The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience hosted a homecoming in Natchez in 1994 that was attended by over 150 people to celebrate the historic congregation. Now, in 2016, we’re hoping people will return again, or travel for the first time, to again honor the long legacy of the Natchez Jewish community. We’ll be celebrating shabbat together at Temple B’nai Israel, led by ISJL Rabbi Jeremy Simons. We’ll also have an incredible keynote presentation by Chicago-based journalist Robin Amer, based on her radio piece profiling the last Jews of Natchez.

natchez-mississippi-tricentennial-300-circular-logoAre you interested in Southern Jewish History?
Members the program committee have put together a remarkable collection of speakers and panel discussions on a range of Southern Jewish topics just for you! Topics as the impact of disease and natural disasters on southern Jewish communities, the interactions of Jewish congregations and communities with the larger non-Jewish world, important southern Jewish themes in family histories, and southern Jewish memoirs. The call for papers issued by program co-chairs Stuart Rockoff and Michael Cohen elicited a tremendous response, and the program will feature several presenters who will be speaking to the SJHS for the first time. Check out the program line up here.

Do you love a good road trip?
Cool, us too. As part of this celebration of Southern Jewish history, we’re putting together a great road trip from from Jackson through Vicksburg, Port Gibson, and Natchez that includes historic sites, museums and congregation visits to create an immersive learning experience for y’all. We’ll be exploring the streets, tasting the cuisine, and getting to know the people of the region. Plan on meeting us in Jackson on Thursday night to hop on the bus Friday morning to explore Mississippi the best way we know how – road trip!

Would you like to experience real life Southern Jewish hospitality?
Yes, there will be fried chicken and sweet tea. But there will also be the warm welcome of the Natchez community. Natchez is celebrating its Tricentennial year  with a year-long party! Natchez is hosting conferences and conventions every weekend in 2016, which means the city’s historic sites, restaurants and hotels are experts in welcoming visitors to town. During a free afternoon on Saturday, take a carriage ride around town, tour the local brewery and rum distillery, walk through antebellum historic homes, hear authentic blues at Smoot’s, or my personal favorite: Head to Under the Hill and take in the greatness of the Mississippi River. You can also check out the National Park Service Facebook page featuring the Natchez History Minute for daily history lessons about place you’re going to visit.

So now you’re thinking- sounds great. What’s next?

Register for the Conference here and make your plans now to join us for a unique and memorable program. Looking forward to welcoming y’all to Natchez!

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