Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Oklahoma Roadtrip Essentials: Driving, Eating, Researching

This post is meant to be a summary of the Oklahoma trip until this point. I think I may have listed inccorect towns in the most recent post, so here's the communities we'll have gone to/researched by the end of the trip (tomorrow night we'll be back in Jackson): Ardmore, Ada, Seminole/Shawnee, McAlester/Hartshorne/Wilburton. So far we've done all but Hartshorne and Wilburton.

Essentially, our days are split into three things: 1) Driving, 2) Eating, 3) Researching. The researching part is actually my favorite--I haven't taken any class so far at Princeton that's really taught me how to do research in the way that I've learned to do it even in the past three days. Say, for example, you come across a tiny town in the middle of a state without a lot of Jews. Oklahoma, for example. How do you tell if there were ever Jews there? Well, you scroll through microfilms of old newspapers from the dates surrounding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and see if there were any store closings "in observance of the Jewish Holiday"--or if there are any stores with Jewish-sounding names. Or you check out a city directory and look through the stores looking for Jewish names--then you look up those names and see where else they pop up. It's really very cool!. 

One of my half-joke conclusions since starting this research is that there were ever about 12 Jewish families at the most, and they all just married each other. This, of course, is not true--some of these communities had more than 12 families themselves. But it really does feel like they're all related to each other by marriage or through business--everyone we've spoken with has known of everyone we've mentioned (and half the time they're related). And we've gotten to speak with a couple different people--at least one community member in each town we've visited, which has been a really great way to get a feel for what the Jewish community was like but also just to gain some perspective on living in Oklahoma. Everyone has been so friendly, and each has treated us to a meal at a delicious restaurant.

The speed limit in Texas. This is not a joke.

The temple in Ardmore, OK. It hasn't been used in more than a decade, but the building is still sitting there because it's full of asbestos and therefore too expensive to tear down. There are still choir/High Holiday gowns hanging in the closet (the building was locked, but we could see through the windows). 

http://wowchurch.org in Ardmore, OK 
Mount Zion Cemetery, the Jewish Cemetery in Ardmore, OK is still very well maintained, despite the folding of the synagogue more than a decade ago (see picture above). In fact, when we were there, the lawn maintenance crew was as well, and the grass looked beautiful and the gravestones very well kept. We went to the cemetery after we'd done a lot of research in the newspapers and city directories, so we knew stories about lots of the people we saw in the cemetery.

The library in Ardmore, OK was really helpful. They had lots of books on local history, and lots of old papers on microfilm. They also had hundreds of newspaper clippings shoved into vertical files, which were incredibly tedious to weed through, but incredibly worthwhile because a lot of our new information came from those articles.

Ice cream at Braum's, a state-wide chain of extra-cheap, extra-delicious ice cream (they only have stores within a 300-mile radius of the home farm, so that the ice cream is extra-fresh). Uniquely, the ice cream (and also hamburger?) chain has a Fresh Market attached to it, which is exactly what it sounds like. 

Over the course of this week I've gotten to see a lot of Main Street America.  A highlight from one of the tens of pawnshops we've seen (these towns seem to be mainly comprised of pawnshops, thrift stores, gas stations, and bad diners). Don't get me wrong, I find them completely charming. 
At the Ada library, I was mostly looking through old newspapers (hard copies, not microfilms!) which was really fascinating. The advertisements in those old papers are top-notch.

This is Oklahoma. It's great. The winds really do blow through (last night I was sure there was going to be a tornado. Our hotel in Shawnee even had What-to-do-in-case-of-a-tornado info sheets pasted to the desk)

This is Hamburger King in Shawnee, where you place your order from a telephone at your booth. They were out of tuna, so I had an American Cheese grilled cheese sandwich, which was greasy and on white bread. The fries, however, were perfect. 

We haven't been doing much walking--mostly, as I listed above, driving, eating, and researching. So after dinner we made Stuart go for a walk to see what Shawnee has to offer. Lots of antique stores, some churches, a few thrift stores, lots of fantastic peeling paint and rust, and tens of murals.

Gordon Cooper, one of the seven astronauts on the US's first manned space exploration, is from Shawnee, OK, and this mural is a tribute to him.

A mural of old-time Shawnee
This is the synagogue in Seminole, OK. Although it's pretty much closed now, except for services on the High Holidays, we got to go inside and look around. Technically a Reform temple, they've always been on the more Conservative side of Reform, and the prayer books they have lying around are Conservative ones. The Hebrew Center served Jews in Seminole and many of the surrounding towns.
The Jasmine Moran Children's Museum is the brain child of Melvin Moran, of the Moran Oil Enterprises. It's in the five largest children's museums in the world, and it's incredible. It gets more than 60,000 visitors a year, which, for Seminole, OK is not bad. We got a chance to walk through the museum on a tour with Melvin Moran himself, and the number of different exhibits is really fantastic. I jokingly expressed my desire to quit my internship and switch to working at the museum! Among the highlights: climbing in the cockpit of a warplane and inside an ambulance, riding a train on a half-mile circuit through Safety Town....more pictures below.

The museum has gotten a number of large donations from local (and not local) organizations, hospitals, foundations, etc. Among them was an enormous donation to put together a comprehensive science/health/body exhibit. Everything in the museum is hands-on, so in one part of the exhibit, you could stick your hand into a rubber-glove that was attached to a plastic case enclosing a plastic body and feel the different organs. 

Another highlight was the Infinite Mirrors room.

This is Melvin Moran, of Moran Oil Enterprises, playing in the Infinite Mirrors room. He's also the founder of the Children's Museum (it's named for his wife, who was an actress in the original London production of South Pacific before he swept her off to Oklahoma). He's also Jewish, and has been very involved in the Jewish community in Seminole and surrounding areas--and has also been very involved in philanthropic endeavors in Seminole and Oklahoma. It's because of him that we were able to get into the synagogue. He drives a 1990 station wagon, wood-panels and all. He's one of the most charming gentlemen I've ever met--and held open the car door for me each time we got in. He took us to his Rotary Club for lunch, which was an entirely new experience as well. It was kind of like eating in a dining hall...
At Seminole and Shawnee, I was on the microfilms machine, which I really liked. It's so interesting to look through the old papers, and especially exciting when you find something relevant! 

Welcome to McAlester, Oklahoma, in Pittsburg (yes, without the "h") County!
The air conditioning was out at the McAlester library today, which means that it was sweltering. We took a walk around town to get some fresh air, which gave us a chance to take photographs of some of the buildings that use to house Jewish merchants' stores. We even found cornerstones in a couple buildings with Jewish store-owners' names engraved!

McAlester was a cute town--definitely the biggest, most well-kept and built-up of all the towns we've been too. Unlike many of the other towns, the "boom" that brought all the Jewish merchants was a coal boom, not an oil boom. I actually really liked McAlester a lot. A lot of the old buildings are still standing, and they seem to have a decent industry (not too many thrift stores). Next to the library was the largest Masonic Temple I've ever seen. I'm still very much confused (and intrigued) by the Masons, but have been learning a lot about them since starting this research. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

On the way to Oklahoma: across Louisiana, sleeping in Texas

If you've been reading since the beginning, you'll know that I'm interning at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life in the history department, under the guidance of Dr. Stuart Rockoff (quoted in this article on HuffPo on young Jews being lured back to the South). The ISJL, and specifically the history department, has been working on putting together an online encyclopedia of Jewish communities throughout the south--wherever they may be, and however small they almost certainly are. This summer's state is Oklahoma, and for the past two weeks I've been putting together a history of the Jews of Ponca City (~20 miles south of the Kansas border). 

Well, there's not better way to do history research than to go to the place the history happened, so this morning we embarked on what will be a five-day roadtrip to Oklahoma--we're visiting the Jewish communities in Ada, Ardmore, Edin, McAlester, Seminole, and Wilburton over the course of those five days. Lots of our time will be spent in libraries and archives, looking at microfilm and old city directories and scouting out the names and outlines of narratives that we've put together until now. But we'll also meet some people, which is actually I think what I'm most excited for, because they're people whose parents' and grandparents' lives I've been trying to piece together for the past two weeks. It sometimes seems like it's the same 7-10 families in all of these tiny towns in Oklahoma, and they just marry each other each generation. Actually, the same family was really big in both Ponca City and Muskogee, the town Diana (the other intern) has been working on--and the family we're staying with in Dallas on the way to Oklahoma is, in addition to being Stuart's cousin, one of the children of that family and a former OSRUI camper! (We ate dinner at their house, and for dessert we had Mississippi ice cream with fresh Oklahoma peaches on top. Delicious!)

In terms of Jewish geography, I guess, the South is no different than the rest of the world. 

And now for some pictures:  
The Mississippi River
The bridge over the Mississippi River. By the end of this trip, I'll have been in more than 30  states (airports don't count, but driving through does). 

Once we crossed the Mississippi, we were in Louisiana (I missed the "welcome to" sign, so I got this with the highway sign on it). All of a sudden there was "a lot more sin" than in Mississippi, in Stuart's words: casinos, "adult superstores", bars, etc.

Speaking of casinos...

But Louisiana isn't completely Godless

The Texas border is a little less than 60% of the way between Jackson and Dallas, where we're staying for the night.

And with Texas comes the long line of cars with painted windows, all on their way to some sort of Bible camp. I missed the four cars in a row that all had "Honk if You Love Jesus! <3" painted on the back. Looked like the camps were gender-segregated (see following picture)

"I'm so ExSKYted" is what it says on the back of this car, on it's way to Camp Sky (we think), which is a boys' camp  (at least that's what I assumed from the other writing on the window). 

Stopped at a huge Half Price Books depot--where I saw a woman walking with her dog (??). I wasn't so impressed with the bookstore, though. First of all, a cockroach walked by me as I sat reading a book and second of all, the books are mostly just lined up on shelves and not displayed, so unless you're looking for something specific, it's hard to browse.
Other notable things: at Shabbat dinner at one of the Education Fellow's house we had a surprise visit from a bat! More like ShabBAT dinner. But really, a bat just flew into the house and there were about 15 people there trying to figure out how to get it out. 

I went to services on Saturday morning at the one synagogue (Reform) in Jackson, and after services and before the Torah Study hour there's schmoozing time. A Jackson native came up to me and asked where I was visiting from, then what school I'm at--upon which he informed me that his son graduated from Princeton last year and is now working at one of the most well-loved Italian places in Jackson! Not only that, but he lives in the house next to Stuart. Small world...

And, finally, this weekend was the first time that I ever drove a car alone, without anyone else present. Everything went fine, thank you for asking, and it wasn't scary at all. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Dining Beneath Mammy's Skirts (a field-trip to Natchez, MS)

The day looked bleak for a road-trip. It was pouring rain (and on my way back inside this morning to change into more appropriate clothing I slipped and fell and cut my knee open. I'll spare you a picture). The driving was handled professionally, and it started to let up to a light misting by the time we were approaching our first destination: Port Gibson, MS. The main attraction--indeed, the intention--of the road-trip was to see Temple B'Nai Israel, the oldest congregation in Mississippi,  in Natchez (southwest). But, as with any road-trip, there were a number of stops along the way, both before and after the main attraction. Below are a selection of some of the things we saw today.
If I remember correctly, this is a First Presbyterian Church. But it doesn't really matter. All that matters is that, instead of a cross on its steeple, it has an enormous, way-larger-than-life gold-plated hand with its index finger pointing up toward You Know Who. What made this scene even better, of course, is that it was perfectly lined up with the sun, which was trying very very hard to shine through the clouds.

Next to the church was this ruin of a house--it must have been burnt down recently, since the two ISJL staff who were with us didn't remember seeing it during their last visit to Port Gibson. We were promised that this was nothing compared to the ruins we'd see later in the day at Windsor. (Scroll down for a picture).

This is Gemiluth Chessed in Port Gibson. The congregation was founded in the 1840s by German immigrants, though the building was only constructed in 1892--it's the oldest standing synagogue in Mississippi (Temple B'nai Israel was rebuilt after a fire destroyed its original building). The synagogue closed in 1986 because its membership was too small to support it, and it was locked when we arrived. A small crack in the door showed us a beautiful and ornate chandelier hanging from the ceiling. 

Like many Jewish communities, the first Jewish establishment in Port Gibson was a cemetery. The synagogue came after. There was a grave here for a man named Lazer Woolf (close enough, right?)

As promised, the even more impressive ruins, at Windsor. Thee Windsor Ruins are from the mansion of a Mr. Smith Coffee Daniell II (yes, that was his name), who started building it in 1859, if I remember correctly. Unfortunately, it was burnt down (accidentally) just 30 years later. Really magnificent ruins--most of the columns are still standing. Apparently, the ruins have been used in many movies, though none that I've seen.

Well, here she is. The white(ish)-face Mammy under whose skirts I dined today at the lunch hour. In the 1970s, they  painted her brown-person face white-person color. Because that's somehow more okay? Anyway, the food was delicious--since everything on the menu had meat in it, I did a combination--left the turkey off the roast turkey sandwhich (which also had avocado, tomato, lettuce, mayonnaise, and blueberry chutney(!)) and added the mozzarella from the roast beef sandwich. If you happen to be stopping through, Mammy's Cupboard is in Natchez, on Hwy 61 S.

The stained glass from Temple B'nai Israel in Natchez. There was also a beautiful organ (which they still use!) and a fantastic archives collection in the basement, including congregational minutes from the 1800s. And, of course, numerous copies of Hillel's Happy Holidays by Mamie Gamoran. A wonderful couple who recently moved from New Orleans to Natchez showed us around and explained a bit of the history to us. They're largely responsible for the continued existence of the synagogue, we were later told, and have put a lot of work into soliciting donations from the larger Natchez community (which had never been done before). This temple is one of the many throughout the south that benefits from the services of the ISJL's "wandering Rabbi," Rabbi Marshal Klaven.

Just a house we passed by.

The gate to the old Jewish section of the Natchez cemetery.  Relatives of the late wife of the man where I'm boarding for the summer are buried here. 

This trip was the first time I'd seen the plant kudzu, the namesake for the cat we had when I was a child! It really is impressive. We saw entire forests smothered in it, and the whole drive felt like we were in a rainforest. 

The drive back led us through Crystal Springs, MS, which is not too far outside of Jackson. This, apparently, is the best meat market around--they'll even make cuts from the meat you've hunted yourself!--but I'm ordering my kosher chicken from a store in New Orleans tomorrow, where an ISJL colleague is visiting this weekend. Ah, but Crystal Springs also held a Dairy Freeze, located in a tiny shack off the highway, which had "ice milk." I'm not really sure what that means; it was pretty good, though a little too sweet for me.

Well, wouldn't you know. Now the deer are off to butcher themselves.
Upon arriving home, Diana and I continued our adventure attempting to make grapefruit granita (for a birthday party) out of 12 fresh grapefruits (as opposed to grapefruit juice). If you want to know how many different tools/appliances we used, or the number of mishaps we got ourselves into, send me an email and I'd love to fill you in.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Cheap Gas, Deep Fried Oreo, and the Medgar Evers Homecoming Parade

From the past couple days:
This is the cheapest gas we've seen around here--and the cheapest I've seen in many years. 

Catfish (and other, more kosher-friendly delicacies) fry at a coworkers' house yesterday. I had hushpuppies for the first time, and the fried plantain (pictured below) were delicious--as were the deep-fried Oreos.

On Thursday, some of the interns took a field trip to the old headquarters of COFO, the Council of Federated Organizations under which the NAACP, SNCC, SCLC, and CORE were all organized for a few years during the Civil Rights movement. The headquarters are now a mini-museum. After the visit at COFO, we headed out to the former home of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in his driveway in 1963. The house opened as a quasi-museum only in the last two decades when the movie Ghosts of Mississippi wanted to use the house for some on-sight filming and paid to have it fixed up and furnished. 

Yesterday was the Medgar Evers Homecoming Parade. Diana and I drove out to watch, and got there in time to see the Pocahontas Riding Club go by on their horses. The parade provided an interesting perspective on Jackson demographics; the city is about 79% black, and 18% white--the parade, and its viewers, excluding us, were 100% black. From what we've seen just driving through the city and in the area around work, Jackson is still very segregated. Though by no means unwelcome at the parade, it was very clear that our whiteness indicated that we weren't from Jackson. 

In the Fondren neighborhood, the first Thursday of the month is called Fondren After 5, and business stay open a bit later and there's lots of live music going on everywhere. One of the businesses that stays open late is Silly Billy's the great thrift store we found last week. This was their sidewalk display. 

Some great paint!

The biggest horseradish I ever saw. Bigger than the one from our back yard.

Pretty little birdy.

A fabulous garden.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Five Mile Walk in the Early Evening

After returning from work and chatting with the owner of the house we're living in, Diana and I decided to go exploring. Joe had suggested we check out the Research and Development complex right across the street from his house--where many people walk their dogs, he said. It houses Jackson State University, the national HQ of the junior league of Phi Kappa Alpha (?), the Mississippi Library Commission...and many other state-run things.

After realizing there wasn't really much to do there, we took our expert exploring skills and put them to use when we laid eyes on a complex of old abandoned buildings across from the Mississippi School for the Deaf.

Here's what we saw:
Our first view of the mysterious abandoned complex. Inside, we discovered by climbing on a stair rail covered by overgrown branches, is an (empty) pool.

I love doors, and I love urban decay, and this is perhaps the best combination of the two.

Some bowling pins in a shed with broken windows and slashed screens.

Turns out this complex was the old location of the School for the Deaf and the School for the Blind. We don't know why it was abandoned, but everything seems to be in pretty bad shape and appears to have been empty for quite some time, given the state of the paint and the glass. But why hasn't the area been cleaned up?

Those benches must have been from a cafeteria. Furniture was discarded everywhere, there was hardly a clear spot on the asphalt.

I loved the light here.

Through the blinds.

An outside walkway between classrooms, it looks like. Everything was eerily overgrown and untidy, and we kept jumping at every sound.

The pool building, from the other side.

 Done exploring the abandoned complex, we took the underpass under I-55 and wound up on the should of the Frontage Rd, the road the essentially runs parallel to the interstate the whole way. There were no sidewalks to be seen, so we walked in the grass. The road was empty.

Somewhere along the way we saw mimosas, these beautiful flowers.

 Eventually we found our way into a gated neighborhood called Woodland Hills (I think). The air was beautiful and the ranch houses quaint.
Neither of us liked this big, ugly brick wall surrounding someone's house. It was also cracked like this in multiple places.

Strangely untidy for the tip-top condition of this neighborhood.

 When we resurfaced from the curving roads of the neighborhood, we realized that we were in Fondren, the hip part of town where we had dinner last night. We hadn't even know you could walk there (and I guess if you don't consider walking along the road that runs parallel to the highway feasible, then you can't walk there). We wandered around a bit, and wound up back at Sneaky Beans cafe.
This poster/graffiti was up in the garbage pick-up lot behind Sneaky Beans. "I love myself & so should you" it says.

At some point we realized that it was getting dark, and walking back the way we came was not a safe option. We only had the number of one person from work, so we called her and asked if she could pick us up; she sent our friend, who was helping her move in to her apartment, and he drove us back home. We made a delicious dinner for ourselves, and even have leftovers for lunch!

When we went to www.mapmyrun.com we learned that our explorations had taken us on a walk of more than five miles. I'd call that a successful meandering.