Monday, July 23, 2012

Touring the (Jewish) Mississippi Delta

Today was a field-trip day--one that included zero visits to libraries, zero microfilm machines, and zero century-old city directories. We drove up to the Mississippi Delta, to Oxford (home of Ole Miss, and William Faulkner), Clarksdale (home of the blues), and Greenwood (where most of The Help was filmed, since Jackson "didn't look Southern enough").

Oxford, in addition to being the home of both Ole Miss and William Faulkner, is conveniently also the home of one of the other summer interns, so she was able to navigate for us. Our first stop was Square Books, and independent bookstore in town. I was finally able to find a Mississippi postcard (Jackson doesn't have them) to send to DD at camp, completing my trilogy of LA-OK-MS postcards sent to her. We also made stops at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture where we met with Jimmy Thomas and had quite an interesting conversation about definitions of the South (Confederacy? Where kudzu grows? Where they say ya'll? Slave states? Segregation? etc.). Then we headed over to meet the folks at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation and heard about their youth summer program, which sounds like a really great way to spread race education. We ate lunch at Big Bad Breakfast, where I had an opportunity to say Shehecheyanu (a prayer you say the first time you eat/wear/do something new): I had grits for the first time!

And then we continued on to Clarksdale, MS

This is the old building of Temple Beth Israel. It's no longer functioning as a synagogue--we think it might house a church, though there were no signs on the property at all. It was also surprising that none of the decorative architecture had Jewish stars or other Jewish symbols.

Despite the closing of the Temple, the community (and its descendants) have made a point of making sure that the Jewish cemetery stays in good shape. Compared to some of the other Jewish cemeteries I've seen this summer, it's pretty big, and it's in beautiful condition. Many of the graves even had stones on them. 

Of course, ice cream. No summer field trip is complete without ice cream. We had heard about Hugh Balthrop (Chicago native!) and his backyard Sweet Magnolia ice cream, and decided we had to try some. Unfortunately, the one place in Clarksdale that serves it was going to close before our arrival--so with a little pre-arranging, we got him to leave us some cups of delicious, homemade gelato at the Chamber of Commerce building in Clarksdale, where we would pick it up. Favorites; coffee, mint chocolate chip, and coconut (!)--though he's working on perfecting a fig ice cream!
 And on to Greenwood, MS:
This is the exterior of Congregation Ahavath Rayim, a formerly-Orthodox but now sort-of-Traditional-but-really-probably-Conservative, still operating synagogue in Greenwood. At the synagogue we met Gail Goldberg, who grew up in the synagogue, and she told us about its history and its current status.

The wall of the synagogue that housed the Ark, which holds the Torah, had gotten some pretty bad water damage, so the synagogue is doing some repair-work so the Torahs (and the building) don't get destroyed.

But the stained-glass is still intact and as beautiful as ever. There are currently about 10 Jews living in Greenwood, and they hold services once a month and get a minyan each time. On Rosh Hashanah, they run out of the 25 Machzors they own and the 25 that a family from Memphis brings down. 

 After a tour of Greenwood, in which we saw the two Jewish stores that are still in operation (one is Goldberg's, a shoe store run by Gail and her husband Mike, and this year marks the store's 90th anniversary) as well as many of the houses used in the movie The Help, we had a lovely dinner at Delta Bistro before heading back to Jackson. 


  1. You may find our Selected Southern Jewish Cemeteries and Databases of interest: One of the cemeteries we just posted is Ahavath Rayim, along with photos of the grave markers. We will post the other local Jewish cemetery shortly. The next time we are in the area, we will photograph the synagogue(s). Thanks for the well written travelogue here.

    Bob Sweeney

    1. Bob, thanks for the comment and for the link--I passed it along to the folks at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life.

      I read your comment out loud to my parents and my father (who knows your wife from Pittsburgh) says, "Tell Bob I use his mother-in-law's cookbook all the time!"

    2. Bob, if you all are the ones who photographed the Greenwood and Greenville Jewish cemeteries, bless you! I have about 40 odd relatives (and counting) buried in those locations, and these lists have been a gold mine for untangling my Mississippi family origins!

      Walt Lewy Scott II
      Washington DC

    3. Walt, I'm so glad you came across my blog and that it was able to give you a bit of background on the area before you come down later this year. My guess is that it is indeed Bob and his wife whose photographs of the cemeteries you've been looking at--they have spent a lot of time documenting and I know that it's a great resource.

      When you come to MS later in the year, please consider visiting the Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, MS, which is the organization I work for.


  2. What a cool blog! I did not know about the connection between 'The Help' and Greenwood. I am planning on making a trip down there later this year since a lot of my Jewish ancestors lived in (and are buried in) Greenwood or Greenville.

    Walt Lewy Scott, Washington DC