Passover in the Mississippi Delta

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Rabbi Kassoff (far right) singing “Who Knows One?” with Greenville congregants and guests

As Passover draws to a close, I’m reflecting on the seder I attended this year—a small and joyful gathering of Jews in the Mississippi Delta.

Greenville, Mississippi is a community I hold very near and dear to my heart. Though membership at the local synagogue has decreased over the past several decades, there remains a committed group of Jews, maintaining vibrant Jewish life in this Delta town. Their steadfast commitment to Judaism is downright inspiring. Ever since moving from New York back down South, I have been proud to celebrate holidays with this Delta community.

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Seder in Greenville

Rabbi Debra Kassoff did a wonderful job leading the seder. The food, cooked Josephine Bender and Ann Walker, was all terrific. Ann is the temple secretary; Josephine is an African American, Christian Greenville resident who has helped with the cooking at the congregation for years. Josephine’s entire family was there to help serve the Passover dishes, and they all joined us for the fourth cup of wine.

The atmosphere was warm, and the conversations were interesting. I got to visit with two very special ladies, Vivian Piltz and Corkie Goodman, whose memories extend back many decades and who continue to attend the seder every year. They talked of times when they had to bring in extra chairs for High Holiday services.

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Young seder goers in Greenville participate with the rabbi

There were Christians in attendance at this Delta seder; Jews and Christians in small towns like Greenville often support their faith traditions. Rabbi Kassoff was careful to explain the Seder customs to everyone in attendance, including more modern additions such as including an orange was part of the Seder plate. Scholar Susanah Heschel chose to include an orange as a symbol of inclusion of gays and lesbians and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community.

As a historian, another highlight for me when visiting Greenville is to visit the temple’s museum. Benjy Nelkin and Richard Dattel did a terrific job of updating the temple’s museum after part of it was flooded this past year. Preserving the precious past of their community inspired Benjy to begin cultivating this museum, which is small but full of interesting artifacts and memorabilia.

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Rabbi Kassoff and Corky Goodman

Next time you are in the Delta, stop by Hebrew Union Temple and visit the congregational museum. Benjy will be happy to show you around!

A picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ve including several from this year’s seder—perhaps some will the sots of pictures preserved in museums in the future, shedding light on the joyful Jewish celebrations in Greenville, Mississippi.

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