Skip to comments.Southern Jews a Dying Breed as Small-Town Communities Dwindle Fast
Posted on 04/29/2013 6:05:40 PM PDT by SJackson
A Way of Life Is Disappearing in Dixie
Bert Rosenbush Jr. enjoys a bittersweet form of celebrity in his hometown of Demopolis, Ala.: Hes the last living Jew there.
Its a form of prominence he shares with Phil Cohen of Lexington, Miss. In Natchez, Miss., Jerold Krause is one of just a dozen Jews left. And Selma, Ala., a town that was central to the civil rights movement, is down to its last dozen, too.
Its a paradox, in a way. Because, as Stuart Rockoff, director of the history department of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Life, in Jackson, Miss., observed, More Jews live in the South today than ever before. But today those Jews are almost all living in the regions cities. Smaller communities, Rockoff said, have really undergone a significant decline.
From the early 19th century, Jews built synagogues alongside the cotton fields and plantation houses of the Deep South. Today, the vibrant communities they built are dwindling down to their final members. Yet even now, many of these Jews bask in a certain aura of accumulated high regard, built over generations, thanks to forbears who filled a niche as successful local businessmen, which they themselves continue to fill today.
In Demopolis, for example, 83-year-old Rosenbush lives on Bert Rosenbush Road, a country road outside the city center, next to a small lake. Its named after Rosenbush Jr.s father, who owned the family furniture store and worked part time as a funeral embalmer. According to 2010 U.S. census figures, the towns 7,000-plus population is about 50% black.
In Lexington, where the first Jewish resident arrived in the late 1830s, Cohen, who is 75, still runs Cohens Department Store, on Court Square in the town center, its red-brick front still proudly displaying the family name in large letters for all to see. His grandfather founded the store, which opened in 1900. The town, with a population of 1,731 in 2010, has a historically large black majority and is the seat of a historically black majority county. Its population today is 1,731, almost 80% of which is African American.
During the early 1900s, Jews owned a variety of businesses in Lexington, including tailors, groceries and factories that provided goods not just for the town, but also throughout the state.
By the mid-1900s, throughout the region, a majority of the younger generation of Southern Jews began attending colleges outside the area or moving to larger cities. They left family-owned businesses behind. Congregation members began to dwindle, leaving synagogues that were infrequently used and often costly to maintain.
In 1989, the local Episcopal Church in Demopolis took over Temple Bnai Jeshurun, and eventually donated its remnants to the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, in Jackson. Rosenbush said the building is now a food bank. He drives 60 miles to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to attend services on the High Holy Days.
The first Jewish resident arrived in Demopolis in 1844. At its peak, in 1927, the western Alabama town had about 150 Jewish residents. The town has a Holocaust memorial and was an inspiration for the setting of The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, whose mother came from there but later moved to New Orleans, where Hellman was raised. Rosenbushs family owned the oldest furniture store in Alabama for 108 years, until it closed in 2002.
It makes me sad, but its just the way the good Lord happened to do, Rosenbush said of the shrinkage of Demopoliss Jewish population to just him. I just dont know what else I could do.
Unlike Rosenbush, Cohen is still able to attend occasional services at Lexingtons Temple Beth El. The Lexington Foundation, a local not-for-profit organization, maintains the building and allows past and current Jewish residents to hold meetings, funerals or other religious services at any time.
It means a lot, Cohen said.
In Lexington, the first Jewish resident arrived shortly after the central Mississippi town was incorporated in 1836. Cohens family has lived in town since 1900.
Cohen said he doesnt feel lonely, as his friends have always transcended race and religion. I grew up here. I was born and raised here, he said. I know everyone in the community, and its been that way most of my life.
Though both blacks and whites often accepted these Southern Jews, the Jews had to carefully negotiate their position during times of unrest. Former Lexington resident Robert Berman, author of the 2009 book A House of David in the Land of Jesus, said that in their own stores, many Jewish business owners employed black workers and served blacks as customers equally with whites. But when it came to larger segregation issues, local Jewish residents felt it was best to stay neutral.
They did not strive to preserve segregation, nor did they speak out about it, said Berman, whose book examines the relationships between Jews and other faiths and races in Lexington. Bermans great-great-grandfather, Jacob Sontheimer, was Lexingtons first Jewish settler.
The highest point of tension came in 1978, when local blacks began a boycott of white-owned Lexington businesses. According to Bermans book, a group of Franciscan nuns who supported the boycott marched in front of Jewish businesses with swastikas. Cohen said their intention was to try and intimidate Jewish merchants, but it did not work; many members of the black community chastised the nuns for their actions. Eventually, Cohen met with a local black leader to quell tensions and end the boycott. Cohen said the president of the local chapter of the NAACP supported the Jewish businesses, while a rabbi from Jackson thought Cohen should lend his support to the boycotters.
Rockoff said Southern Jews often felt pressure from Northeastern Jews during the civil rights era. Southern rabbis were in a very difficult position, he said. Often times, their congregants didnt want them to speak out, and sometimes they did and got a very negative response. Yet theyd go to a national conference and get criticized for not doing more.
Southern Jews mostly evasive position on segregation did not appear to affect their standing among either the black or white communities. Today, non-Jewish residents of these towns are sympathetic to the demise of Jewish communities.
Basically, the commercial downtown of the small Southern town I grew up in still stands, and originated thanks to enterprising Jewish merchants, said William Gantt, a white, non-Jewish Demopolis native who had his first summer job at a Jewish-owned retail store downtown.
In Natchez, the Institute of Southern Jewish Life owns the local synagogue, which congregation leaders hope will be made into a museum after the Jewish population is gone. In Selma, there have been talks with the Institute of Southern Jewish Life about taking over the local synagogue, but hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs would have to be spent, and additional money would need to be raised for an endowment fund, according to 70-year-old Selma resident Steve Grossman.
Grossman said there is constant talk of what will happen to the synagogue when the Jewish population is gone from Selma. The youngest member of the congregation today is in his 60s. All members of the congregation, said Grossman, are opposed to any sale or transfer of the property that would lead to it being taken over by a church, which is what occurred in Demopolis, just one hour away. Today, the congregation still draws up to 60 visitors for High Holy Days services. But a majority of them are non-Jews simply curious about Jewish life.
Rockoff foresees a broader loss once the last Jew passes in these towns. You wont have non-Jews growing up around Judaism, he said. I have found in my travels, people have expressed to me: We really missed them. They were so involved in things. Our community is poorer without them.
If youd like to be on or off, please FR mail me.
A rural phenom not limited to the Jewish community
A friend of mine in Los Angeles used to work in for one who hailed from a small town in MIssissippi. Called himself a Swamp Jew.
Our local Jewish center recently got a Torah. You couldn’t park near the place.
I went to a prominent private southern university in the 60s. I had a lot of jewish friends there, and I was always surpried by how many were from small towns in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. Until then, I had always just assumed there weren’t any Jews in the south, except for the major cities.
I grew up in a MS town which had no Jews. It only had about 3 Catholic families. During my school years, we were always served fish on Friday. No big deal because we all loved fish!
There were comparatively many Jews in South Carolina before 1700! And not just in Charleston, but in a number of small towns as well.
Interesting. My step-mother-in-law grew up in Maryville, Louisiana. They were the only Jewish family, the parents being Russian immigrants who started with a peddler’s cart and eventually built a store. None of the great-grandchildren live there, though a few reside in larger cities in Louisiana.
The Secretary of State of the Confederacy was a Jew. Judah Benjamin.
Maybe some Ultra-Orthodox Jews from the NYC metro area should move south and take up as farmers and shopkeepers. Then again, the wool clothing would be a real pain 6 months of the year.
Isn't Miami Beach in the "South"?
A Jewish guy called his mother in Miami to tell her he was going to El Paso, Texas.
“Are there Jews in El Paso?” she asked.
“Yeah ma, there are three thousand Jews in El Paso!”
“Nu,” she shrugged, “There’s that many in my apartment building.”
Judah Benjamin was called the heart and brains of the Confederacy. Fronthall (sp) was a great Confederate hero.
You know more about that part of the country than I do Ping.
There are a Conservative synagogue and a Chabad chapter in Myrtle Beach, although I suspect that they mainly serve the snowbirds.
I’ve told folks about this for years
Antebellum.....Sephardi Jews.....prospered and had lots of freedom
And even pursued agriculture and husbandry
But PC youth don’t want to know about it ...
Anyhow....lotsa old temples round Dixie dating from 18th century forward
I have been in and taken pics of a number
Largest Jewish population until 1830s was Charleston and New Orleans.....in North America
All public schools in Jackson Mississippi served fish on Fridays
Just to be safe
Imagine public schools giving a rats ass today
And our parochial schools were incorporated largely into public system
School books and sports and holidays etc
Emma French elementary 62-69
Hardy Jr high 69/70
Now all black ghetto.....yet another lost cause
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