THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY presents
Jews in Small Towns:
RABBI FRED VICTOR DAVIDOW--GREENVILLE, MISSISSIPPI
I have relied primarily on oral history in recording the experiences in this paper. Listening to my elders tell family stories many times inspired me to write them down because I knew that one day the stories would be lost if no one were to care to remember and to record. When my father was in his later years, he drew some family trees. With them in front of us, I would ask him questions about his early life and write down his responses. Still there were many stories that I missed. When he died on August 21, 1989, they were gone forever. In his eulogy, which I wrote, I recalled the African proverb, "When an old man dies, a whole library is lost."
For my mother's side of the family, I have "milked" L.B. Stein, my first cousin once removed. L.B. was born in Chatham on March 14, 1915. He is a seemingly bottomless well of family stories with a gift for telling them orally. Whenever I speak with him, I try to draw as much from him as I can, writing as I listen.
There are also personal stories in this paper. I have written various versions of them from time to time. I have brought them together here in a new rendering. My written sources are my own notes on family history and personal diaries and journals.
There is one published source that was helpful. Mrs. Jon Cerame of Belzoni wrote "From Greasy Row to Catfish Capital," which provided some history about Belzoni and Morris Cohn that I incorporated into my text. I take responsibility for any errors in fact and in the interpretations I give to my family culture.
"I didn't know there were Jews in Mississippi." Northern Jews usually respond with this statement, uttered with puzzled looks and tones, when they find out that I am a Mississippi-born and bred rabbi. Their reaction ruffles my feathers, but it is understandable. The Jewish population of Mississippi now numbers probably less than 2,000. Even at the peak, sometime in the past, we did not exceed 6,000 at any point in time. We were, in truth, a diaspora within a diaspora, comprising, at best, one tenth of one percent of the American Jewish populations. No wonder then that Northern Jews react to the disclosure of my origin with surprise and disbelief.
The Mississippi Delta was an unlikely place for Jews from Eastern Europe to land. The Delta was cotton growing country after it was cleared of virgin hardwood forests in the late nineteenth century. It was dominated economically by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and worked laboriously by thousands and thousands of blacks. Nonetheless, Jews pushed out of Eastern Europe by poverty, persecution, and pogrom found economic opportunity in the Delta. Peddling and storekeeping were the first occupations. Land owning, prohibited to Jews in Eastern Europe, and cotton planting were not unusual among Jews in the Delta. Other businesses in which Delta Jews engaged were banking, insurance, grocery wholesaling, and dealing in scrap metals. Before Prohibition, some Jews were in the liquor business. Jews were also represented in the professions of law and medicine. The largest single occupational group was that of the clothing merchants. Jews found many niches in the Delta's economy. Five congregations were formed from the late nineteenth century through the 1920s--four Reform and one Orthodox. The membership of the congregations was composed, not only of families who lived in the town where the synagogue was built, but also of families from smaller towns in the surrounding area. Of the millions of Jews who left Eastern Europe for America, a trickle flowed into the Mississippi Delta. There they established businesses, settled their families, prospered, founded congregations, and became respected citizens of their communities. The prospect of prosperity brought the ancestral lines of my family to the Delta between 1875 and 1897. The first to arrive was Morris Cohn, my father's maternal grandfather. Born in 1849 in Thorn, West Prussia (now Torun, Poland), he married Zelotta Fuleder of Kikol, Poland. Their daughter, Frieda, was born in 1870. By 1875 Morris was in the Delta. He found his way to Burtonia Landing and brought his family down from New York City, where they had sojourned. A fire in 1888 destroyed the settlement of Burtonia, whose population moved farther up the Yazoo River and rebuilt on the present site of Belzoni. When Morris died on December 31,1910, he was reputed to be one of the richest men in Mississippi, amassing his wealth in land, planting, banking, insurance, and merchandising.
Solomon Davidow, born in Sakiai (sha-ki), Suwalki gubernya, Lithuania, in 1859, left his native shtetl in 1872, and went to Cork, Ireland, where he lived with relatives for eight years. In 1880, he came to America and went to Pulaski, Tennessee, where a maternal uncle by the name of Israel Hanneberg lived. A year later he moved to Yazoo City, where his elder brother Marcus had settled. He moved to Belzoni around 1890, met Frieda Cohn and married her on July 30, 1891. My father, Dove Hirsch Davidow, was born in Belzoni on August 1, 1903. Frieda died at age forty-four in 1914 and ever afterward Solomon was a heartbroken man. He continued to operate his store in Belzoni until his death On December 12,1927. His business did not prosper, and he died a poor man.
Victor Abe Stein, my mother's maternal grandfather, was born Abba Avigdor Segal in Kovno gubernya, Lithuania. He married Sarah Byall there, and their first child, Fannie (nee Feige on March 9, 1881), became my grandmother. Abba Avigdor changed his name to Stein in the shtetl, assuming the surname of a deceased man in order to avoid conscription into the Russian army. In the United States, he transposed and altered his given names to Victor Abe. He entered America through the port of Baltimore. To make somemoney, he harvested oysters in Chesapeake Bay. Since there were relatives already living in Cincinnati, he later made his way there, peddling goods along the journey in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. He sent money back to Sarah, who joined him in Cincinnati around 1889 with the three children born in Kovno gubernya. Four more children were born in Cincinnati. Victor Abe peddled goods in western Kentucky with Cincinnati as his base. In 1897, he and a partner followed some advice to take goods to the Mississippi Delta. They landed in Vicksburg off a riverboat and started making their way north through the Delta. Their intention was to reach Memphis, after having sold all their merchandise, and to return to Cincinnati. They stopped in Rolling Fork and operated a store for a year. Since V.A. 's partner wanted to return to Cincinnati, the two dissolved their business relationship. V.A. moved on his own to Erwin and rented a store selling caskets, groceries, dry goods, and whiskey for a nickel a shot. The landlord saw that he was making money and took back the building. Undaunted, V.A. took his earnings and made a down payment on Little Hope Plantation in Chatham. His daughter, Fannie, then in her late teens, left Cincinnati and came down to Chatham to help her father run his business. Sarah joined them later, after their infant son Lawrence recovered from a bout of pneumonia. Lawrence was as smart as he was hardy. He eventually took over the operation of the plantation from his father and became a wealthy man. His nephew and heir, L.B. Stein of Greenville, still owns the land in Chatham.
Harry Schwartz, my maternal grandfather, was born in the Ukrainian town of Ananyev, north of Odessa, on March 1, 1881. He came to America with his parents, David and Pearl, probably sometime in the late 1880s to early 1890s. The Schwartz family settled in Indianapolis, Indiana. David went into the produce business. I have scant information about my grandfather's early years. One story was told to explain why Harry ate bacon and ham, while his wife Fannie kept kosher all of her life. It was said that when Harry peddled goods from a wagon in the Indiana countryside, there were times when he could not make it back to Indianapolis by nightfall. A farmer would offer him food and lodging for the night, and Harry would eat anything the farmer's wife put on the table. Perhaps a refusal to eat pork when served would have seemed ungracious. Anyway, Harry acquired a taste for bacon and ham and ate it during the rest of his life, but only outside of his home with Fannie.
Harry married Fannie Stein on January 14, 1902. The story of how they met is lost. Their first home was in Longwood, Mississippi, where Harry owned a general store. Longwood was a tiny gathering of stores and houses alongside the route that became Highway 1, the River Road. All five of their children were born there. My mother, Thelma Leah, was born on January 12, 1909. In the fall of 1914, Harry went to Greenville to start a business. Fannie and the children followed in January, 1915. At one time or another, Harry ran a dry-goods store and a meat market, but his businesses did not thrive. In April, 1918, they moved to the house at 115 West Walker. This was the house in which Harry and Fannie lived until they died, Harry on March 18, 1963, and Fannie on February 24, 1981. This house was the center of life for my maternal extended family and the house in which I celebrated the Passover Seder, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Thanksgiving, and many other occasions.
From Kovno gubernya, Sakiai in Lithuania, Thorn in West Prussia, and Ananyev in the Ukraine came four great-grandparents and four grandparents to the Mississippi Delta. They found new homes (after some migrations), settled their families, attained varying degrees of financial success, and never left. Morris and Zelotta Cohn, Solomon and Frieda Davidow, Victor Abe and Sarah Stein, Harry and Fannie Schwartz are all buried in the soil of the Delta in the Greenville Jewish Cemetery.
What was different about living in the Delta was not its rural character or the presence of a non-Jewish majority--the difference lay in the willingness to settle in an area far from a center of Jewish population. Except for Morris and Zelotta Cohn, who had lived in the city of Thorn, all of my other ancestors came from small towns and villages in Eastern Europe, whose Jewish inhabitants dealt frequently with peasant farmers from the surrounding countryside. My great-great-grandfathers in Kovno gubernya were a dairyman and a carpenter. Rural life and hard work were not new to my immigrant forebears. Once settled in Burtonia Landing, Morris Cohn brought his family from New York City. Victor Abe Stein left Cincinnati, where his wife and children lived amid relatives and other landsmen. Harry Schwartz moved away from Indianapolis to come to the Delta. Solomon Davidow stuck to small communities--Pulaski, Tennessee, Yazoo City, and Belzoni in Mississippi. In the shtetlach they had lived in traditionally religious societies with many other Jews around them. In the American cities where they sojourned, it was still possible to maintain Orthodox observances with ease, if they chose to do so. However, patterns of Jewish behavior changed once they were in America. The reason for the changes is not complex. Like all other Jewish immigrants, they had already broken the bond of physical closeness with families and friends who stayed in Eastern Europe. If they could leave behind relatives whom they might never see again, then, for them, living beyond an environment that supported traditional practices was not just a tolerable condition but became an acceptable fact of life. They must have certainly expected that the loss of the familiar would be offset by the gain of a good livelihood. Two lines on my family tree go back three generations in the Delta. I am of the fourth generation and of the second generation born there. The cumulative effect of the changes wrought by decades of residence in the Delta created what I would call the Southern Jew, Delta-style, who is as different from the New York City Jew as the Litvak was from the Galicianer.
It was common for Jews to change their names in order to blend with the American setting. Cohn was not the original family name of Morris. My father, who was told what it was but forgot it, said that the original name was "odd." Morris most likely dropped it because of its "odd" spelling or pronunciation. Cohn was easy to spell and easy to say. Yet he made no effort to disguise his Jewish identity with a name like Cohn. I have no information about the name Morris. Was he Mordecai, or Mosheh in Thorn? No one knows. V.A. Stein was a Segal in Kovno gubernya. The change in surname was made there to facilitate his escape, as I stated previously. He Americanized Abba Avigdor to Victor Abe. Zelotta Cohn and Sarah Stein remained Zelotta and Sarah. My maternal grandmother Fannie Stein Schwartz was given the name Feige at birth. My maternal grandfather was Herschel. Within their home, they usually called each other by their Yiddish names. Outside the home, they were always Fannie and Harry. Solomon Davidow was probably Shlomo in Sakiai.
The name Davidow underwent no change. On the back wall of Solomon's store in Belzoni was written his father's name and mailing address: "L.H. Davidow, Sakiai, Lithuania, via Koenigsberg." Solomon wrote letters to L.H. in Yiddish and my father would address the letters using the English alphabet. I am very proud of the fact that my family name is the very same as it was in the shtetl. It represents for me an unbroken line of family and Jewish identity.
Acculturation naming customs showed clearly in the choice of given names. V.A. and Sarah Stein were each given a Yiddish and an English name. For a period of time, within the family, they were addressed by their Yiddish names. By the 1950s, long after V.A. and Sarah had died, the Yiddish names were not used except for Herschel-Harry and Feige-Fannie. The English names of the other Stein children were Sam, Bessie, Ella, Ethel, Solly, Lawrence, and Brynie (the last admittedly Old World). The only connection between the Yiddish and English names was the initial letter: Feige-Fannie, Shleimeh-Sam, Leshke-Lawrence, etc. Fannie Schwartz definitely wanted her children to have American names. My mother, Thelma Leah, used to say that she was named for an aunt, Toba Leah, but that her mother chose the name Thelma to avoid the use of the Old World Toba. The euphonic Leah from Hebrew apparently seemed to Fannie as acceptable on the American scene. The other Schwartz children were Reva (Rifke from Rivkah), Bernard Samuel, Lawrence Marvin, and DaVera (female). The last was given in memory of David Schwartz. The Anglicized spelling is unique. It is based, I surmise, upon the Litvak pronunciation of the Hebrew name Devorah (which would have been said as d'-vei-r').
My mother internalized her mother's attitude toward first names. My older brother, who was named for Solomon, bears the Anglo-Saxon Stanley. My name, Fred, Germanic in origin, was formed by dropping the "i" and the "a" from Frieda. The names of my first cousins on the maternal side also reflect the trend to Americanize: Sandra, Marjorie, Richard, and Lawrence. The mohel at my bris would have needed to know my Hebrew name, but whatever my parents told him they forgot. On my rabbinical diploma I chose to have inscribed as my Hebrew name, Shalom ben David. Ben David was of course from my father Dave. Frieda comes from the German word for peace. Thus I translated the name into Hebrew shalom. My brother continued the pattern of American names for his sons. I reversed the trend and gave my daughters Hebrew names, Talya and Miriam, by which they are called in English.
The Jewish custom of commemorative naming was also influenced by a Southern naming custom of passing on a family name from generation to generation. Southern women, who gave up their maiden names when they married, did not want the names of their families of origin to be lost. Thus a surname was often given as a first or middle name. (See Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, p. 778.) Following this custom, my mother gave my brother the middle name of Schwartz. My maternal first cousin Richard Schwartz bears Bernstein as his middle name, which was his mother's maiden name. My brother and his ex-wife gave their younger son the middle name of Carlin, her maiden name.
It is likely that this particular custom will fade away for several reasons. One is the weakening of family ties that results from geographical scattering. Southern regional customs are waning fast in the metropolitan areas where many members of my extended family now live. Some of today's young women choose to keep their names or to carry a hyphenated surname, combining their own family names with those of their husbands. If my daughters were to continue using Davidow in their adult years, alone or hyphenated, I would be pleased.
On the Davidow side, given names also reflected the desire to acculturate. The names of the two oldest children of Solomon and Frieda were Meyer Nathan and Esther, which still smacked of the Old World, but the names of the rest fitted with the American environment: Henrietta, Sylvia, Dave, and Marcel. The names of my paternal first cousins are Fay Stanley Levingston, Ralph Julian Turner, Paula Sue, George, and Carol Davidow. The use of double names, by which the three who had them were called in their youth, could have been influenced by the Southern custom of calling people by both their given names. (See Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, p. 778.) As adults, these cousins with double names cast off one or the other. Fay Stanley legally dropped Fay. Paula Sue is now called Sue. Ralph Julian is Ralph today. The choice of given names for the two generations born in the Delta shows the value held by my extended family of adapting to the American South.
Living in hamlets like Chatham and Longwood or in a village like Belzoni meant isolation from an organized Jewish community, the closest being the one in Greenville. Around the turn of the century, automobiles and paved roads were not common. Wagons were drawn by mules over dirt roads, which turned into mud in the rainy season. The best transportation was by rail or riverboat. The largest town in the Delta was Greenville, where Hebrew Union Congregation was founded in 1880. Greenville was the county seat of Washington County, which encompassed Chatham and Belzoni. (In 1918 a new county, Humphreys, was formed with Belzoni as its seat.) Morris Cohn and his sons Jake and Abe went to Greenville on business matters. For his legal affairs, V.A. Stein engaged the services of the patrician lawyer LeRoy Percy. The Cohn-Davidow family did not belong to Hebrew Union Congregation. Even with membership, the difficulty of transportation would have largely precluded attendance at weekly Sabbath services. Moreover, working on the Sabbath was the usual. Memphis, 170 miles north of Chatham and Belzoni, was the closest city with a kosher meat market. Having kosher meat shipped from there was impracticable. Jewish practices in the home became a matter of personal choice.
The primary observances of traditional Judaism--keeping the Sabbath and the dietary laws--were eroded by living in the Delta, as they were in so many other places in America. Solomon Davidow owned a chalif, which he used to kill fowl (chickens, ducks, geese, and guinea hens) but Solomon and Frieda bought non-kosher beef, which was served more than poultry. However, no chazir was permitted in the home. My father, as a boy, ate pork and shellfish in the home of his maternal aunt Pauline, who married a Catholic, Steve Castleman. Solomon and Frieda, who ate neither pork or shellfish, would allow their children to bring shellfish into the house. Sneaking chazir inside was forbidden. Solomon operated his store on Saturday but he was very careful in observing Passover and the High Holy Days. He had his own shofar, which is now in my possession. In the fall of 1916, Dove, who was to become my father, started attending Gulf Coast Military Academy in Gulfport. He excelled in academics, sports, and military exercises and also remembered that he was a Jew. On Yom Kippur at the Academy he would receive permission to be excused from classes and from extra-curricular activities in the afternoon. He would stay in his dormitory room alone and fast the whole day. On one Yom Kippur after sundown, his roommate, who knew Dove would be hungry, brought him a sandwich from the mess hall. Dove ate it with relish. It was a ham sandwich! Whenever I recall this incident, I am always amused by the incongruity of breaking the fast of Yom Kippur with chazir. My father became a man who was a very devoted and active member of Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville, where he lived from 1938 to 1986. He faithfully attended Sabbath services every Friday night, unless he was sick or out of town. On Yom Kippur Day in Greenville, once he went inside the Temple for the start of the morning service, he did not leave it until the shofar sounded teki'ah gedolah at sundown. He also made a complete fast, which was not broken in the same manner as he had once done at Gulf Coast Military Academy. Daddy did work on Saturday, and, on the whole, did not observe the dietary laws. His personal practices regarding work on Saturday and kashrut were the same as those of almost all Jews in the Delta.
Within the Stein family in Chatham, Sarah and her oldest child, Fannie, formed an island of kashrut. Sarah was frum, religiously observant. According to L.B. Stein, a grandson by her son Sam, the only time she ever rode on the Sabbath was the Sabbath when she rode by car to see her daughter Bessie, who lay dying of influenza in the epidemic of 1918. Sarah did have some liberal views about adapting to life in America. In the early 1890s, Sarah sent Fannie, my grandmother-to-be, to religious school at the Plum Street Synagogue, the bastion of Reform Judaism in Cincinnati. Fannie's attendance at this Reform school was unusual for another reason. The Plum Street Synagogue was the house of worship for German Jews, who generally had a supercilious attitude toward the newly arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe. Around the turn of the century, when Sarah left Cincinnati to go to live in Chatham, the Delta was a veritable wilderness.
The problem of keeping kosher was solved, not by importing kosher meat, but by importing shochatim from Europe. (In Litvak Yiddish, Delta-style, shechat was pronounced she-chet, with the "e" as in red.) V.A. Stein himself did not observe the dietary laws, but he made sure that Sarah could. He paid for the passage of a shechet from Europe to America and then on to Chatham. The shechet stayed on the farm until he learned English and then departed. V.A. brought over another shechet. He stayed until he learned English and left. Eventually the string of shechets (Delta English plural) ran out. At that point V.A. went to Cincinnati to confer with an Orthodox rov. The rabbi gave V.A. permission to slaughter poultry only for Sarah. V.A. returned from Cincinnati with a chalif and a lesson from the rabbi on how to slaughter poultry. Sarah ate kosher all her life but she did prepare non-kosher food for the others in the family. Her daughter Fannie followed the pattern she set with regard to kashrut. For her husband and children Fannie prepared non-kosher meals, but she maintained her kosher corner in the kitchen and at the table. By the Orthodox, this pattern would not be orthodox, but Sarah and Fannie were willing to make adaptations to suit their families.
My grandmother did have some rules by which everyone had to abide. Neither pork nor shellfish could be brought into her house. For Passover the kitchen was thoroughly cleaned and there was a special set of tableware and utensils. Anything associated with food had to be kosher for Passover. Meat, poultry, and other items, including kosher-for-Passover Coca-Cola, were brought from Memphis. In the 1950s--the decade of my boyhood and youth--about twenty-five members of the extended family plus close family friends were at the Seder. Every dish of food partaken was not only kosher-for-Passover, but also home-made. The menu consisted of gefilte fish and fresh horseradish, a hard-boiled egg mashed in salted water, a green salad, matzah-ball soup, a mound or two of chopped liver, dill pickles, helzel, baked knaidlach larger than baseballs and seemingly as hard, potatoes, roasted chicken, and beef. My grandfather Harry, whom I called Pappaw, sat at the head of the table in the dining room and conducted the ceremony from old, foxed, and wine-stained Maxwell House Haggadahs. Some adults in the family sat at the same table with him. Other adults and the children were relegated to another table set up in the living room, which looked like an extension of the table in the dining room but which, in effect, was second-class seating. Third-class seating was available at card tables set up in the two bedrooms on either side of the living room. It was a proud time for me at age eleven or twelve when I was allowed to sit next to my father at the head table. The first-class seating meant that the adults recognized that I could behave myself during the long prelude to the meal and could read well from the Haggadah.
As I reflect at age forty on my experience at my grandmother's Seder, I believe that I was in the beginning stage of developing a serious interest in Judaism. Being promoted to the head table was like a rite of passage. Way down South in the Mississippi Delta, many Jewish practices had been attenuated but a balance had been struck. There was enough Jewish substance in my grandmother and in both of my parents that, when I pondered applying to Hebrew Union College in the spring of 1968, I looked back at their lives and my Jewish experiences with them and felt in my heart that the decision to become a rabbi would be sustained by a host of life-shaping events of a Jewish character.
When V.A. Stein entered the Delta in 1897, he found a nut he had never before seen--the pecan. He was fascinated with this nut. He would have known about walnuts and almonds in Kovno gubernya. Somehow this pecan captured his fancy, and it is said that he carried that particular pecan in his right-hand pants pocket for the rest of his life. At the Stein-Schwartz Seders, pecans were eaten during the meal. They were chopped and put in the charoses. During my years in the rabbinate, I have collected several Jewish cookbooks, and I have read recipes for charoses calling for pine nuts, almonds, walnuts, peanuts, and chestnuts but not for pecans. I realized that the pecan had been used in our charoses because of its availability. The pecan is indigenous to the Delta. Wherever Jews have lived, they have added local ingredients to their charoses. Our charoses in Greenville was based on the Ashkenazic formula of grated apples, sweet wine, sugar, cinnamon, and chopped nuts. We simply used the indigenous pecan for the last ingredient and I continue to prepare my charoses with pecans. For me, the pecan is one symbol of the blend between Jewish tradition and adaptation to life in the Mississippi Delta. The pecan in the charoses combines my dual heritage.
Like names and food ways, language underwent change. During a span of four generations--from my great-grandparents to myself--the knowledge and use of Yiddish went from native language and daily speech to a limited vocabulary that I occasionally use to spice my conversation with ethnic flavor. On the plantation in Chatham, Yiddish was spoken well into the twentieth century to such an extent that some black laborers picked up a rudimentary speaking knowledge of the language. The persistence of a Yiddish accent depended on the age when each grandparent left Europe. Solomon Davidow was thirteen years old when he emigrated from Sakiai. According to my father, he always spoke English with a Yiddish accent. Solomon learned to write English and to read an English-language newspaper, but he preferred a Yiddish one. For years, he subscribed to the Tageblatt from New York City. Frieda Cohn was around four years old when she left Thorn with her parents. She spoke, read, and wrote English better than Solomon. Fannie and Harry were both around eight years old when they left their respective homes in Eastern Europe. They spoke English with no accent except a Southern one. In the 1930s, Dove Davidow used to send money to his father's sister, who never left Sakiai. She would respond with thank-you letters written in Yiddish. He would take the letters to Fannie, who would translate them for him. Thus, fifty years after she had left Kovno gubernya she was still fluent in Yiddish. By the 1950s, Fannie and Harry rarely conversed in Yiddish but they continued to use Yiddish words, expressions, and idioms. Harry would interrupt adult conversations on delicate matters by interjecting an imperative in Yiddish: "Red nisht fob di kleiner!" Word usage has been a keen interest of mine since school days, and my ears would perk up at the sound of Yiddish. By asking the meaning of whatever was said, I learned and remembered a little Yiddish.
Both of my parents knew quite a number of Yiddish words. Mama would not usually use them in conversation, but her knowledge of them would come out when she recalled a story with a key Yiddish word or when she was talking about food, a favorite subject in the extended family. Manners were important to Mama. Her stress on etiquette was definitely a trait ingrained in her by living in the Delta. She repeated the lesson many times on how to greet someone. "Give the person a firm handshake, look him straight in the eye, smile and say hello using his name. If you're greeting a lady, do everything I've told you, but don't put out your hand unless she puts out hers first." When she would get to the part about the lady extending her hand, she would often recall an incident from her youth. Once she went to the front door of her parents' home to answer a knock. She opened the door and there standing before her was a stranger dressed in black--black hat, black beard, black suit, black shoes, and a white shirt. She politely extended her hand, and he quickly withdrew his behind his back. This unmannerly behavior that was not in accord with the rules of Southern etiquette was later explained to her to be in keeping with the custom that an Orthodox Jewish man will not touch a female stranger. Mama, in telling the story, always referred to this man as the meshullach. I heard this story often enough to learn the meaning of meshullach, a man sent out by a rebbe or institution in some faraway place to collect tzedakah.
The Stein-Schwartz family was and is filled with fressers. My Yiddish food vocabulary is saturated with words for tasty morsels that are now known to be deleterious to a long and healthy life: gribenes (pan-fried bits of chicken skin); gehakte leber (chopped liver); helzel (the skin from a chicken neck stuffed with matzah meal, chopped onions, eggs, and seasonings and cooked in the roasting pan, where it absorbs the fat dripping from the chicken). There is a longevity gene in the Stein-Schwartz family, for which we are grateful. (Mammaw Fannie missed turning 100 by only two weeks.) It is no surprise to me that the only Jewish folktale of an Eastern European origin that was transmitted orally to me dealt with food. My mother told me the gist of the story using key Yiddish words.
"A yeshiva bocher goes to the home of a miser for a meal. The host asks his guest questions about mutual acquaintances, hoping that the yeshiva bocher will take the time to answer and by talking will not have the time to eat the miser's food. The yeshiva bocher always says to the host about anyone they both know: 'Geshtorbn.' Then the yeshiva bocher continues packing in the food without further comment."
The sounds of clicking tableware and chewing deadened talking at mealtimes at my grandmother's table. The oral preservation of a folktale about an inveterate eater makes perfect sense in a family with a focus on food.
Several years ago, through my interest in storytelling and Jewish folktales, I was reading in a book entitled A Treasury of Jewish Folklore by Nathan Ausubel. I came upon the story "When Hershel Eats" and discovered to my utmost delight that this is a literary version of the very same story my mother had told me. Until then, I had no idea that what I had been told in Greenville was an authentic piece of Eastern European Jewish folklore. That something else from Kovno gubernya had survived in the Delta was another link to my Jewish roots.
My father used to say about spices that there should be just enough in a dish to lend flavor but not too much to overpower the other ingredients. Like the right measure of a spice, Yiddish words seasoned my father's daily conversation at home. He did not use them with the thought in mind of imparting a lesson in Yiddishkeit, but they have become for me a soul-nourishing paternal legacy. Other persons in my maternal extended family used Yiddishisms, but my father, of course, had a stronger influence on my development than they did. Thus I give to him the credit for how Yiddish helped me in rabbinical school.
In the summer of 1968, I started at Hebrew Union College with some trepidation. I hardly knew any Hebrew. Our temple in Greenville had been Classical Reform for years, and there was no Bar Mitzvah training. Rabbi Herbert Hendel, who served Hebrew Union Congregation from 1952 to 1960, was not interested in teaching Hebrew to a group of us kids who were willing to come to a special class. During my senior year in high school (1960-61), I did take private lessons from our new rabbi, Allan Schwartzman. He harbored the notion that I should become a rabbi. Nevertheless, when I started HUC's crash course that summer of 1968, I could not read Hebrew fluently, and my Hebrew vocabulary was strictly limited, so I thought, to words associated with religious terminology (e.g. baruch, shema, kadosh, mitzvah, melech, seder, haggadah, et al).
The study of foreign language is a forte of mine. In high school, I took two years of Latin and two years of Spanish. In the spring of 1959, I went with Miss Mary Keady, my Irish Catholic Latin teacher, to a meeting in Jackson to receive the award for placing second in the statewide Latin tournament. She called me her "standard-bearer of the Tenth Legion." The Tenth Legion was Caesar's elite military battalion. This designation for a Jewish boy was ironic in view of the fact that Roman legions quelled Jewish revolts for independence in the first and second centuries C.E. In the Middle Ages, Jews shunned Latin and the Roman alphabet because of their association with the Catholic Church. And here I was in Greenville--a Latin scholar. I earned a 3.6 grade point average in my Spanish major at Tulane, but I never forgot that Spain had expelled most of her Jews and, with the Inquisition, persecuted those who remained. I was wholeheartedly excited about learning Hebrew, but its vocabulary and grammar and still to some extent, its alphabet--were like a mystery to me. To solve it, I had to spend long hours studying. I got into the habit of staying up until dawn pronouncing, writing, memorizing. Then another bit of irony touched me. As I would lie down to catch three hours of sleep before classes began at nine, I heard the bells of a convent ringing across the valley from the HUC dormitory. (Miss Keady's spiritual kin were nearby.) My work eventually had its payoff. In the spring of 1970, I won the B 'nai Zion Medal for the highest average in Hebrew in my class.
The difficulty in learning Hebrew vocabulary was that the Semitic languages are not related to European languages. When I was learning Latin, the meaning of many words were easy to remember. I simply associated the new Latin word with a familiar English derivative: terra (land) with territory: libera (free) with liberty; patria (native land) with patriot; agricola (farmer) with agriculture; nauta (sailor) with nautical; and so on, ad infinitum. When I was learning Spanish, I used the same method of association, made easier since Spanish is a Romance language. What kind of association could I make in trying to learn Hebrew vocabulary? I feared little. Knowing baruch, shema, kadosh, and a few other words could not get one very far in rabbinical school. Then I made a discovery. Little bells rang in my head when I came across the Hebrew shikkor. Shifting the accent to the first syllable and shortening the vowel in the second yielded shikker (drunkard), a word in the lexicon of Greenville Yiddish. Now I had a method of association. Rasha (wicked) was connected to my father's use of rishus (anti-Semitic), the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew noun rishut (wickedness). I found other Hebrew words whose meaning was easy to remember because they were part and parcel of my father's Yiddish vocabulary. Hebrew ganav was Yiddish goniff. Shochat was shechet. Sheketz and shiktza (unclean creature, abomination) were traced to shegetz and shikza. Goy (nation), a word without any pejorative connotation in Hebrew, was immediately linked to goy, a term of contempt for a Non-Jew in Yiddish parlance. Shukher was used for a Negro man in Greenville. Given the time and the place, it was the Jewish version of "darky." Shukher was more frequently heard than shvartze. In the Hebrew dictionary I came across shachor, meaning black.
My parents and other relatives had no inkling that some of their Yiddish words were direct borrowings from Hebrew. I didn't either, until I went to rabbinical school. If a word was in the prayer book, we knew it was Hebrew. If a Hebrew word was used in mundane conversation, it was regarded as Yiddish. In the virtually uncharted waters of the Hebrew sea, it was a relief akin to finding a flotation device when I grabbed a hold on a Yiddish word of Hebrew origin. I did not have to expend very much mental energy to stay afloat. Admittedly, the string of Yiddish life preservers ran out before I finished learning Hebrew, but the associations I did make between the two languages made me feel more at home in the sacred tongue.
My father instilled in me a sense of kinship with the Jewish people. He was constantly identifying persons as Jews when they appeared on TV programs or when they were mentioned in newspapers and magazines. I carried over his habit into my life. When I went to the picture show, I looked at the credits, searching for Jewish names. When I thumbed through the index of a book, I looked for the entry "Jews."
In high school, I fell in love with Ann Dannenberg. I could hardly believe my father when he told me, "The Dannenbergs aren't Jewish. Have you ever seen them in Temple?" "Well, maybe they don't belong to the Temple." "Almost every single Jew in Greenville belongs to the Temple. Besides, I know who is Jewish and who doesn't belong. The Dannenbergs are not Jewish." "How can someone have the name of Dannenberg and not be Jewish?" Daddy did not have the answer to that question. I found out from Ann that her father, who was from Iowa, was of Dutch descent. Her family belonged to the Trinity United Methodist Church. It was little consolation to learn years later that there were Dannenbergs who were Jewish but they were not from Greenville.
There was another ethnic group in Greenville that confused me. They looked Jewish and they had names that were not Anglo-Saxon: Abraham, Mansour, Shamoun, Sherman. I asked Daddy about these families. Nope, they weren't Jewish. They were Lebanese and belonged to the Catholic Church. This was a close-to-home lesson that there were other Semites besides Jews. Since the blips of my ethnic radar gave false readings on Ann Dannenberg and the Catholic Lebanese, I continued to fine tune it. It became important to me to identify other Jews because of my father's emphasis on Jewishness. Ethnic radar is not a precise scientific instrument. Names, mannerisms, words and speech patterns, topics of conversation, occupations, and stored images of what Jews look like are the data used to make an evaluation of a person's identity, but they are not foolproof. When Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I read in a news account that the world-renowned author was a Jew. How exciting! I had never known or heard of a Jew with the name of Pasternak, and my ethnic radar would not have emitted a blip for it. However, there was no need; the article identified him as a Jew. I ran to Daddy with the announcement.
"Boris Pasternak is Jewish!" Daddy peppered me with an overpowering measure of Yiddish cayenne. "He's a meshummed!" I then knew three things: (1) Even though Pasternak was Jewish, Daddy was not pleased that I had brought the news to him. (2) I was confused because he usually reveled when another Jew was recognized for outstanding achievement. (3) Meshummed was not a nice Yiddish word. Now I realize a fourth thing. Daddy already knew Pasternak was Jewish and had remained silent about the Nobel laureate until this fulmination.
"Daddy, what's a meshummed?" "A renegade." Daddy dismissed Pasternak with that one word. Anyone who had seen as many cowboy-and-Indian movies as I had knew what a renegade was: a white man who went over to the Indian side or vice versa. In the immediate context, I sensed that Pasternak was one who had turned his back on his people and his religion. Daddy was not going to point someone out to me who he thought was a bad example. Forsaking Judaism was a cardinal sin in my father's bible. At rabbinical school, needless to say, when I met for the first time the word meshummed in a Hebrew text, I did not have to look up its meaning in the dictionary.
I remember the incidents when there was a glitch in the identification process--Ann Dannenberg, the Catholic Lebanese, Boris Pasternak. All of the times when it went smoothly, there was no dramatic conflict that made for a memorable anecdote. Daddy's vehement reaction to the mention of Pasternak did not perturb me, nor did it deter me from bringing to his attention other Jews about whom I later learned. His reaction had simply showed me how deeply he cared about Jews and Judaism. My eagerness to go to him with the name of a newly found member of the tribe continued to be a way of joining with him in a mutual concern--mutual, because he had implanted it within me.
One article that made me glow with pride was "The Jews Among Us" in the Reader's Digest. In the 1950s, this magazine ran a series of monthly articles about the various ethnic groups that immigrated to America. Their purpose, I thought, was to counteract prejudice by citing the cultural contributions of non-Anglo-Saxon Americans. The humor of Jack Benny and George Burns, the vaccines of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, the earth-shattering physics of Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer made everyone laugh, provided protection to all from a crippling disease, and brought World War II to an abrupt end. I took vicarious pleasure in their accomplishments, which made me feel like a part of a numerous and distinguished group. Numerous is a key word. There were only a few hundred Jews in Greenville. Most of our people lived in faraway places.
In the summer of 1957, Daddy and I, age fourteen, went to a Boy Scout Jamboree in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Daddy, who eventually was awarded the Silver Beaver for his volunteer work in scouting, was an assistant scoutmaster for our troop from the Delta Area Council. As the troop's scribe, I sent back articles to the Greenville newspaper about our travels and activities. For the duration of the trip, we dressed in the summer uniform of the Boy Scouts, which meant olive-green Bermuda shorts and knee-high socks.
After our encampment at Valley Forge, the itinerary took us to New York City. Daddy and I shared a hotel room, just as we had shared a tent during the Jamboree. At the hotel one morning, I arose before Daddy, dressed, and went downstairs to the lobby. I was not intent on doing anything in particular, merely curious about the goings-on of the Big City. As I stood looking at the bustling people at the start of the day, I noticed a boy about my age. He was working in a newsstand, bending down to pick up newspapers and magazines, and lifting them onto the rack. He worked fast. Up and down, up and down he went. I of course did not know his name, and I was not concentrating on his face. It was his energetic activity that had caught my attention. And then it happened. His rapid movements caused a pendant to flip out of his T-shirt. My eyes widened. Dangling from the chain was a little silver mezuzah. My ethnic radar blipped intensely. I blurted out, "Hey! I'm Jewish, too!" My outburst caught his attention. He shot a glance at me. He did not say a word. But the look on his face spoke so loudly, as if to say, "So what? I see your kind all day long," and he did not have Boy Scouts on his mind. He lowered his head and resumed bending and lifting. I walked away disappointed. I had been excited to encounter another Jew, and he was a typical New Yorker with a ho-hum attitude toward the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and other Jews. Here was a distinct difference between a Southern Jew, Delta-style, and a New York City Jew.
The boy at the newsstand did not dampen my enthusiasm for identifying other Jews. I developed a silent signal for the times when my ethnic radar blips. In May 1989, I went to Philadelphia for my stepdaughter's graduation from the University of Pennsylvania. My wife, Barbara, told me that close to a majority of its student body was Jewish. She had already overwhelmed me with the fact that her senior high school class of 449 in South Orange, New Jersey, was 50 percent Jewish. My class of 1961 at Greenville High School numbered 192 with nine Jews. In the school year 1960 to 1961, the four grades at Greenville High totaled 695 students, of whom only 24 were Jewish. Between 1945 and 1964, the 1961 class of 24 was probably the highest of any particular year. What was Philadelphia like? All around us were the families of the graduating seniors. Because of my background in Mississippi, I was still amazed by the presence of so many Jews, not in the synagogue, but out on the street. I would not dare to make a self-disclosure again by blurting out my identity, but I had to let Barbara know how excited I was. To catch her attention, I started tapping her on the shoulder and flashing a hand signal, forming the shape of the letter "J" with the index finger and thumb of my hand. My father's influence has continued to stretch over the years. Every time I form my hand signal, it is as if he were pulling the string of a marionette.
On May 28,1967, I graduated from Delta State University in
Cleveland, Mississippi, with a Master of Education degree. I had already
obtained a teaching position at Darlington School, a college preparatory academy
in Rome, Georgia. I was to begin as an instructor in American history on June
28. My ultimate career goal was to become a professor of Southern history. Two
days after my graduation, the United Arab Republic and the State of Jordan
signed a mutual defense pact against Israel. On June 5, war broke out in the
Middle East with Israel's preemptive strike on Egyptian airfields. The direction
of my life underwent a profound change. The Six-Day War was, for me, what
psychologists call an impact experience. I discovered how deeply I felt about
belonging to the Jewish people because of the danger that faced Israel. I
decided that when the time came for me to resume graduate study, I would devote
myself to the study of Judaism and to serving Jewish people. One year later I
was on my way to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Five years later I was
ordained as a rabbi in the Plum Street Synagogue, where my grandmother had gone
to religious school in the 1890s. After a long and winding journey, a circle had
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