This is a guest post from Josh “Shikl” Parshall, an oral historian on the staff of the The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), located in Jackson, Mississippi. Shikl is a old friend of mine; we sat around the same table learning Yiddish in Western Massachusetts. Shikl enjoyed dancing at my khasene.
On his Mississippi Bar Mitzvah George Copen of Tupelo, Mississippi remarks:
It wasn’t punch and cookies afterwards, it was a full-fledged dinner, and the liquor flowed. And that was during the time of prohibition, but we weren’t too worried. We took over the little café in the Hotel Tupelo—now torn down—and we weren’t too worried because we had the mayor there and the chief of police…
Stories like this one—stories of ordinary people’s attachment to Jewish identity and their seemingly unlikely experiences in the American South—are at the core of my work. I am the oral historian for the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, an organization that, in addition to preserving the history of Jews in the South, provides and coordinates educational, rabbinic, and cultural resources for Jews throughout a thirteen state region.
Small congregations are closing all over the country, but especially in small cities and towns, many of which are in the South. The decline of independent retailers, the ascent of Jews into the professions, and the draw of suburban life on recent generations of American Jews have all made their mark. Helena, Arkansas; Dalton, Georgia; Brownsville, Tennessee; and Lexington, Mississippi are among many small cities where synagogues have closed or are closing. It’s easy to see that small-town Jewish life is not what it once was.
In cities like Atlanta, Nashville, and Houston, Jewish life thrives, but the number of people who remember the days of ethnic enclaves and Jewish retail steadily drops. As sunbelt expansion continues and ‘Yankee’ Jews flock to ever-more-cosmopolitan cities across the region, the Southerness of these Jewish populations is increasingly a matter of debate. For all these reasons, recording the personal, communal, and historical narratives of Southern Jews has to be the first priority of my work.
Every few months, I pack up my equipment in the ISJL minivan and have myself a little road trip. Our holdings for Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana are fairly strong, so my first large trips have mostly focused on Tennessee, with stops in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Georgia. Along the way, I get to do some sight-seeing and some good eating. I’ve stayed at the homes of friends, friends of my grandparents, friends of the ISJL, and at a number of cheap motels. Mostly, however, I spend my time with the interviewees—or, as I prefer, the consultants. We meet in their homes or offices, or at the synagogue or JCC. We chat. I set up my video camera, try to get the lighting right, hook up their microphones. Then it’s time for the interview.
I can play you a tape of Freda Stein—whose son is behind the Stein Mart chain—in which her charming southern accent is occasionally punctuated by Yiddish inflected ‘oy’s as she talks about the “foyst foreigners” or states that she is “soytain” of something. Sure these moments reflect her parents’ immigration to this country and reveal some level of syncretism, but I can’t quite tell you what to make of that.
In the meantime, there’s plenty to read in our Online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities.
a gitn shabbos oyf aykh un oyf kol YISROEL.