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The Surprising History of Jews in the South

New museum calls attention to an overlooked but influential population.
June 7, 2021
The Surprising History of Jews in the South
The Foundations of Judaism exhibit in the new Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in New Orleans. (Photo courtesy the MSJE.)

I am standing in front of a striking patchwork quilt apparently called the “crazy quilt,” knit as a raffle item in 1885 by the Jewish Ladies’ Sewing Circle in Canton—no, not Canton, Ohio, the hometown of William McKinley and famously the site of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but Canton, Mississippi, home at one point to a hundred Jewish families, now down to one. As a Jew from the Northeast—I was born in New England, with a mom from Connecticut and a dad from Brooklyn—I wonder what Jews were even doing in the first place in Southern cities like Louisville, Dallas, New Orleans, or Atlanta, let alone in tiny towns like Canton, Mississippi or Donaldsonville, Louisiana. The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, which has just now opened in New Orleans after almost a decade of planning, seeks to answer my question, and many others.

The museum begins with a welcome video featuring pastoral scenes of the countryside and vibrant cityscapes narrated by various Southern Jews, mostly ordinary people sporting the accent of their respective states; it paints a picture of normalcy and ultimately assimilation into Southern life. Visitors then come to a map showing the Ashkenazi exodus to the American South from 1820 to 1920, with immigrants coming from all across Europe—from Alsace-Lorraine in the west through Ukraine and Belarus and Russia. These folks ended up settling primarily in Richmond, Nashville, Galveston, New Orleans, and Louisville, and spreading out from there.

The “crazy quilt” on display. (Courtesy of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience.)

We learn in the museum that many Jews, lured by the many possibilities for commerce in the rapidly developing Southern cities and towns and major ports of Charleston and New Orleans, started off as peddlers and small-town merchants. Often they became civic leaders, such as Uriah P. Levy, a Navy commodore who in the 1830s purchased and began restoring Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, preserving it for generations to come. Sometimes Jews in the South became forces in the business world via the local culture—in Louisiana alone, for example, Joseph Haspel popularized the seersucker suit and made it nationally fashionable, Leon Godchaux became the largest sugar producer in the South, and Jacques Weil and his brothers became wildly successful exporters of frog legs—10,000 pounds a week!

While in 1790 there were some 200 Jews in Virginia, by the Civil War there were 2,000 (now there are more than 150,000). By contrast, Alabama’s Jewish community peaked in 1927 at around 12,000 people, and has been decreasing ever since.

The Jewish Orphans’ Home, New Orleans, circa 1915. The back of the image includes a handwritten note, “Our Babies”—possibly written by Rabbi Leon Volmer, who served as the orphanage’s superintendent from 1911 to 1926. (From the Crosby Family Collection. Courtesy of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience.)

The museum is part interactive and part artifacts-on-display. It’s also part history lesson and part general education—a sort of Judaism 101: What is a synagogue? What is Passover? Why do Jews eat bagels? How is the Jewish Bible different from the Christian Bible?

One of the more striking displays is a feature on Jewish politicians in the South. While some names will be widely familiar—like Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis of Kentucky and Annette Strauss, the mayor of Dallas thirty years ago—how many of us know of Willie Sklar, the Russian-Jewish immigrant who served as three-term mayor starting in 1953 of Louise, Mississippi? A moving display reminds us of Benjamin Franklin Jonas of Louisiana, who served one term in the U.S. Senate (1879-1885), and incredibly, was the last Jew from the Deep South elected to the Senate until Jon Ossoff from Georgia this past January.

Beyond colorful and sometimes moving anecdotes, fun Southern-Jewish culinary traditions, and highlights from major points of Jewish history (any Jewish museum, this included, naturally features some space dedicated to World War II and the Holocaust), most interesting, at least to this observer, is the sociocultural commentary on the big issues of the past that happen once again to be rearing their heads in our own day. Hanging over everything is Zionism and its history in the American South—to which the museum dedicates considerable space, more even than that given to the Holocaust. Newspaper clippings provide fascinating insights into the diverse attitudes of the times—for example, an article from the Houston Post detailing a public debate held on January 31, 1909 at congregation Beth Israel between an A.H. Frohmonsen (“Jews have no nation”) and an H.J. Dannenbaum (“There is not enough room in Palestine”).

Challah on the table, cotton out the window: Shabbat in the Mississippi Delta, 2002. (Photo by Bill Aron, courtesy of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience.)

Besides the news clippings and a brief explanation that references Jews’ (rightly held, and still very much alive) fears of being accused of “divided loyalty,” the museum’s Zionism room leaves much to be desired in terms of nuance and depth. The descriptive panel ends with the ultra-milquetoast line “Zionism remains a topic of debate today among some Jewish and non-Jewish groups,” yet there is no reference to what is happening today with Zionism, anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, and more. If a museum is to educate even the most casual visitor about Zionism, it must acknowledge that Zionism is a living, breathing, passion-inducing thing, subject to wild misinterpretations and even distortions the world over—the issues at play right now very much included.

And speaking of right now, the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience happens to be opening its doors at a particularly tense time for Jews both in America and all over the world. With anti-Semitic hate crimes skyrocketing, the opening comes at a remarkable moment for American Jewry. According to NYPD crime statistics, there were 37 percent more anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City during the first five months of 2021 than the first five months of 2020. This can be seen all over the country and all over Europe. Perhaps the museum is on to something, highlighting so markedly Jewish/Southern assimilation and gingerly sidestepping the sharp edges of Zionism, its place in modern society, its relevance to America’s Jews, and its heated history among Jews and non-Jews.

After meandering through the museum, I participate in my favorite interactive there—the digital creation of my very own quilt. On a screen, I pick pre-set fabrics and some symbols that mean a lot to me—music notes, a bicycle, a peace sign, and yes, bagels and lox (replete with vibrant red onion). After receiving by email the image of my virtual quilt, I go back to look at the real thing, the “crazy quilt,” knit by those Jewish women in Canton, Mississippi in 1885. I can’t tell if that sounds quaint or scary. Looking at the patchwork fabrics and seemingly random objects sewn in, the quilt seems to symbolize, if just for a moment in my idealistic eyes, the great diversity of American Jews—and for that, I am grateful to this museum for opening its doors.

Daniel Lelchuk

Daniel Lelchuk is the assistant principal cellist of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and the host of the Talking Beats podcast. Twitter: @talkingbeatspod.