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Y’all come to the South. Southern hospitality the Jewish Way
By Michael Schuman
“We’ll say `Shalom y’all.’ Other people think it sounds funny. We don’t think anything of it.”
Addie Lewis, former staff member
Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience
If you believe in religious stereotypes, Lutherans live in Minnesota, Catholics live in Massachusetts, Baptists live in Mississippi and Jews live in New York.
Yet stereotypes are just that. There are Lutherans in New York and Baptists in Minnesota. But Jews in Mississippi? Can one realistically picture a Jewish man asking his brother, “Hey, Bubba. Y’all gonna pick up a box of matzah for the seder?”
If you live in the South the following facts come as no surprise. For the rest of you, consider that the second and third oldest existing synagogues in the United States are in Charleston, S.C. and Savannah, Ga. respectively. The first Jewish United States senator was Judah Benjamin from Louisiana. He later served as secretary of state in Jefferson Davis’s cabinet of the Confederate States of America from 1861 to 1865. .
Along the Mississippi River Valley, in towns with names like Natchez, Vicksburg and Port Gibson, best known for Civil War battles and bluesmen, Jewish communities thrived in the second half of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. Never large in number, they made up for a lack of people power with a sense of community.
Today there exists a Jewish cultural corridor of the Mississippi River, a self-guided driving tour stretching from Memphis to New Orleans, linking aged Hebrew cemeteries, old synagogues, structures which once housed Jewish-owned department stores and other landmarks with a Jewish cultural connection here in the land of grits and magnolia trees. One of the larger concentrations of Jewish-related site is in the southern Mississippi river towns stretching from Vicksburg to the Louisiana border. Yet the best place to begin a visit is in rural Utica, 24 miles southeast of Vicksburg and the home of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience.
Museum staff member Neola Young reports that about one third of the museum’s visitors are not Jewish, while many who set foot inside are here to drop their children off at the adjacent Henry S. Jacobs Camp for Living Judaism, a summer camp for Jewish children from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and western Tennessee. While the museum is mainly an outlet for rotating exhibits, its sanctuary is dominated by a massive oak altar and ark which graced Temple Anshe Chesed in Vicksburg from 1870 to 1970.
Currently on view is “Alsace to America: Discovering a Southern Jewish Heritage.” Many Jews left the oppression of Alsace, the much disputed territory on the France-Germany border, in the early and mid-19th century to settle in the mid-South. Some were drawn by a kinship with the French culture of New Orleans. Others were lured by the promised opportunity of the burgeoning cotton and sugar-based economies. Jews who had been banned from owning land or managing businesses in Alsace did in Mississippi what they had done in Europe: a reproduced peddler’s wagon, bursting with kitchenware, shoes and the like, represents those who hitched up their mules and sold goods to cash-strapped farmers up and down the riverbanks.
Because the residents were often low on cash, the peddlers took payment in cotton, sugar or other cash crops. In time, many peddlers became shop owners or cotton factors, sort of a combination banker and agent for cotton farmers. They found success lending money to dirt poor farmer who bankers wouldn’t touch.
One such cotton factor was David Shlenker, born and died in Vicksburg, whose 1907 house on Cherry Street is on the grounds of a bed and breakfast complex and open for guided tours. When Shlenker died of Bright’s Disease at the age of 48 in 1913, the Vicksburg Evening News reported on its front page, “A pall of sorrow was cast over the entire community this morning when the news of the death of Mr. D. J. Shlenker became known. Expressions of regret came from all classes, as the deceased was well well-known (sic) and liked in all walks of life.”
The Shlenker House is hardly an archetypal Southern mansion; no grand white pillars or breezy porch grace its front. It was apparently designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright wannabe whose name has long been forgotten, at a time when Wright’s prairie style architecture was cropping up all over the Midwest. No original Shlenker furnishings remain, but owner Betty Jackson spent 18 years renovating the residence and adding period pieces. Her efforts paid off in July 2000 when the house was designated an official Mississippi landmark.
The gist of Jackson’s guided tours of the Shlenker House depends greatly on her audience. She says that about one third of her visitors are interested in the house’s architecture, about one third want to know about the Jewish history connection, and about one third are casual visitors. She caters her tours to visitors’ particular interests.
More evidence of Vicksburg’s once robust Jewish community is adjacent to Vicksburg National Military Park. That’s where one will find historic Anshe Chesed Cemetery. At 721 Clay Street downtown is the former B’nai B’rith Club. Mayor Laurence Leyens recently renovated the building and it is now used for social functions.
Seeing, as the Biblical cliché goes, the writing on the wall, the remaining congregants at Natchez’s Temple B’nai Israel, roughly ten families, have deeded their house of worship to the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience. The synagogue will become part of the museum when there are not enough active members left to support it. Most are elderly; the youngest are in their 50s.
The sanctuary in the 98-year-old synagogue building has a distinctive Southern touch. The balcony at the rear was not used for a choir. It was there that congregants’ drivers sat waiting for the service to be finished. Think Driving Miss Daisy. Downstairs, in the vestry is a display where visitors can screen a 17-minute video, The Natchez Jewish Experience. Congregation member Gerry Stern say that visitors, especially Jewish people from the North, invariably want to know the prevalence of anti-Semitism here. One reads in an exhibit here that Jews were always a part of mainstream Natchez life. In 1873 Isaac Lowenburg served two terms as mayor less than a decade after arriving in town. In the 1880s, cigar store owner/saloon operator Cassius L. Tillman, a Confederate Army veteran, was the town sheriff.
Was there anti-Semitism here on the buckle of the Bible Belt? Of course, answers Stern, but no more than in any other place where Jews and gentiles live. For over a hundred years, it was African Americans who bore the brunt of organized bigotry here, whether legal or in vigilante forms. However during the 1960s, Stern notes, Jews were threatened but more as civil rights sympathizers than as Jews. She adds that B’nai Israel members are proud of their dual Jewish-Southern heritage, and, “This may be the only place where matzah balls and gravy is served as a side dish.”
The most unusual saviors of a regional Jewish landmark are bed and breakfast owners Martha Lum, her son Doug and daughter-in-law Deborah. Evangelical Christians, the Lums own, maintain and are refurbishing, slowly but steadily, Mississippi’s oldest existing synagogue building. Temple Gemiluth Chassed (Acts of Righteousness) was built in Port Gibson, between Vickburg and Natchez, in 1891. An obvious eye-turner on Mississippi’s famous Highway 61, this Moorish-style structure with its onion dome was destined to have a wrestling match with the wrecking ball when the congregation was on its last legs. One of two remaining members contacted local preservationist Bill Lum, Martha’s late husband, in 1986 to see what he could do not to let the building die. The Lums have been in charge ever since, stating they owe it to both the town of Port Gibson and the Jews in general.
Says Martha Lum, “The Jews are the Lord’s Chosen People. We hold (them) in the highest regard. We neglected our homes to come down here. This had to come first.”
Inside the aging brick building are newly restored original chandeliers and eight brass wall sconces. The ark (compartment where the Torah is stored) is white with gold molding, and the Eternal Light, which Martha Lum discovered in a Natchez antique shop, is a close copy of the original. But there are cobwebs in the doorway and the single classroom and rabbi’s study are used for storage. The Lums admit there is much work to be done, and as money and time become available they will do it..
Like Vicksburg, Port Gibson and Natchez also maintain old Jewish cemeteries. The grave for Leopold Levy in Port Gibson is marked with reverse Hebrew letters. The stone cutter was unaware that Hebrew reads right to left.
Whatever happened to these small Jewish communities? Many residents left after the boll weevil ransacked the cotton crop in 1908. Because of the low number of available Jewish partners, several intermarried. The children of those who stayed often went away to college, then lured by religious, social and career opportunities elsewhere moved to big river cities such as New Orleans, Memphis and St. Louis. So today, along the banks of the Mississippi, the singular relics of a little known tale of the American dream remain.
The Shlenker House, 2212 Cherry Street, Vicksburg , (800) 636-7086, (601) 636-7086 www.cherrystreetcottages.com Temple B’nai Israel, 213 South Commerce Street, Natchez. Call congregant/tour guide Jay Lehman for information or appointments: (601) 442-2744 . Temple Gemiluth Chassed, Highway 61, Port Gibson, (800) 729-0240 or (601) 437-4350. Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, P.O. Box 16528, Jackson, MS 39236-6528; (601) 362-6357. www.msje.org e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Note: The museum publishes two guidebooks listing sites relating to Jewish heritage in the South. One, 13 pages, covers sites along the Mississippi River from Memphis to New Orleans and is free; another more detailed book, 56 pages, lists sites from east Texas through Alabama and is available for $10, postage included.
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|Print article||This entry was posted by Barbara Kingstone on January 18, 2011 at 8:27 pm, and is filed under North America. Follow any responses to this post through RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback from your own site.|