Thursday, January 24, 2013

A “Staying Alive” Museum

Last week, I made an online and somewhat anonymous contribution to the Goldring Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. I had heard about the group from a college classmate from Mississippi with whom I shared stories of growing up Jewish in the South. Now, I want to be more outright in my support of the organization’s work because I am sure they will use my money well.

The ISJL started out as the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in the mid 1980s.  That sounds like a place that houses old papers and pictures of a dying culture. It doesn’t sound like an organization that’s alive and growing or one focused on a culture that is alive and growing. Which all sounds pretty pessimistic to me. Luckily, the organization chose to expand its mission. Here is how it describes the current mission on its website:

“Today, the Institute provides rabbinic services to small congregations across the region. It has developed a comprehensive religious school curriculum and support program that is being used by over 75 congregations in thirteen states. The History Department works to preserve and interpret the rich legacy of the southern Jewish experience.  Its Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities offers detailed histories of over 200 Jewish communities and congregations in the South. The ISJL also sponsors a range of cultural programs throughout the region.”   

So why is this important to me?

My paternal grandfather came to this country in the early 1900s and settled in the Deep South, traveling across the region from Mississippi, to Louisiana, to Texas, to Arkansas. He was not a deeply religious man, from what I am told, but he had his own way of keeping Judaism alive. He was a peddler and a butcher by trade. He slaughtered and cut up meat for a living, and the meat he used in his own household was slaughtered in a kosher way. It was one important vestige of Judaism that he tried to maintain.

This is the one picture I have of
my grandfather as a young man.

He eventually settled with his wife and most of his 12 children in the tiny town of Calion, Arkansas, not far from the semi-booming metropolis of El Dorado, probably in the mid to late 1920s. According to the entry on El Dorado in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, the city became a boom town in the 1920s when oil was discovered there. The boom led a number of Jewish merchants to come to El Dorado to open stores, deal in real estate, and establish oil-related businesses.

Now, it is important to know the luck of my family when it comes to oil. I can remember visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousins in the late 1950s in the unlikely-named town of Oil City, Louisiana, near Shreveport. Looking out from their backyard I could see oil well, oil well, oil well, then my uncle’s property, then oil well, oil well. What’s wrong with this picture?  I am told that if I had visited my Aunt Libby in Kilgore, Texas, I would have seen a similar plethora of oil wells with a blank space on her property. And my mother says my grandfather suffered a similar plight on his land near El Dorado. It seems that we Goodmans were destined not to get rich quick (or even rich at all).

While he failed to prosper, my grandfather did continue to practice his brand of Judaism. He must have had a decent voice because he often served as Cantor for the High Holidays in El Dorado’s Ohev Zedek congregation. Sadly, that congregation slowly died out and was disbanded for good in 1936. My grandmother died in 1937, and my father left the El Dorado area to move in with his brother in Oil City. Three years later, he arrived as a serviceman in Savannah, where he met my mother and settled down. Like his father, my father was not a religious man, but he always hosted a Friday night dinner, observed the holidays, and supported my mother in establishing and maintaining a kosher home all of his adult life. 

My father’s story was not typical of his siblings. Only two other children in his family married Jewish spouses and only one other—that uncle in Oil City—brought up his children as Jews. Intermarriage and the malaise of Judaism in the Delta took their toll. Other small branches of my father’s family in the Greenville, Mississippi, area did manage to keep Judaism alive. And there is a family legend told of my Aunt Fannie Schwartz who used to invite Jewish servicemen in the Greenville area during World War II to come to Friday night dinner, often entertaining as many as 20 for a mostly kosher meal. (My aunt always brought her own kosher plate and kosher food to luncheons in Greenville and went to Memphis periodically to get the kosher meat she kept in her own personal deep freezer.)

Which brings me back to the ISJL and its mission. There are still a large number of very small Jewish communities spread out in small and large towns in the Deep South. Providing support to these communities for simchas and sad occasions, offering information on Jewish history and learning, and providing a means to store elements of our own history is so very important. So I decided to make a small monetary contribution, and to write this blog post to perhaps stir others to find out more about the organization, and to continue my efforts to learn and write more about my family’s Jewish roots so my children can have something to hold on to and something important to add to their own foundation. 

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