Being Jewish in Meridian – Part 1

One of my parents was Protestant, and one of my parents was Jewish.  Growing up, I learned much more about my Christian heritage than my Jewish.  I spent 11 childhood summers with my Hume grandparents, attending weekly hymn sings and Sunday services in a little New England church where my grandfather sometimes preached.  As a teenager, I attended chapel every single morning, both at summer camp and high school.  My Jewish education, in contrast, consisted pretty much of annual family observances of Hanukkah and Passover and the occasional Bar/Bat Mitzvah of a family friend.

Once in college, I no longer did any of these things.  I didn’t think much about religion one way or the other, and if someone had asked me to describe myself, I wouldn’t have included religion in the description.

Then, during the Freedom Summer training session in Oxford, OH, in June 1964, together with all the training I expected in nonviolence and how to teach freedom school,  I unexpectedly developed a heightened awareness of being Jewish   Most of the summer volunteers I met that week were Jewish — Jewish, not only in terms of ancestry, as I defined myself, but also Jewish as an important part of who they were any why they had volunteered to come to Mississippi.

As background, recall that most Freedom Summer volunteers were born during World War II (in 1964, we were nearly all ages 18 to 25). The summer of 1964 was a short 19 years after the Allied discovery and liberation of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Terezin, and the others.  The War and the Holocaust had had a huge impact on the families of nearly all the Jewish volunteers and had shaped them in a variety of ways.

Some came from families immediately impacted by the Holocaust by losing relatives or having emigrated from Germany or Poland to escape Nazism.  For many, America did not yet feel like a secure place for Jews. The memories of the rise of Nazism in Europe were too close.  The Ku Klux Klan had bombed many synagogues in the South as well as black churches.  Some Jewish volunteers believed their status was closer to that of Negroes in the South than to the white Protestants who were in control of the South, and that the fight for civil rights would make the United States safer for Jews as well as blacks.

Others were motivated by the moral and ethical teachings of Judaism that emphasized the historic struggle for justice and saw parallels between the story of the Hebrews’ enslavement (and liberation) in Egypt and the Negro’s fight for freedom.

Still others were “red diaper babies,” children of left wing activists, often recent immigrants from Eastern Europe.  The parents of the “red diaper babies” had been on the front lines of the trade union movement and other radical social movements of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. For these volunteers, being on the front lines was carrying on a family tradition of social activism.

Whatever the combination of motivations, it turned out that at least half the white Freedom Summer volunteers  were Jewish.  In Meridian, the proportion was higher: Michael and Rita Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, of course.  Mark and Betty Levy, Luke Kabat, David Kotz, Pete Rabinowitz, Steve and Sue Shrader, Judy Wright. All my closest white friends were Jewish, and I started to be interested in reclaiming my Jewish heritage.

So, in light of my new pride that Jews were in the forefront of the Freedom Summer struggles, it surprised me to start hearing black Meridian residents refer to Jews in nasty words I had never before heard spoken aloud.

They weren’t talking about us.  I quickly realized that calling someone a “Jew” was a slur.  It meant money-grubbing, grasping, slick.  We weren’t thought of this way.  And so we weren’t considered Jews.  It was as simple as that.

Hearing black civil rights activists talk about Jews with ugly slurs took me aback and caused me to take a look around Meridian.  What I saw was a highly visible Jewish community occupying positions of major economic authority.  Jewish families owned a large proportion of the stores where black people (and white people) traded. If a black person bought clothing on credit or layaway, it was a Jewish man she owed money to. Jews were landlords, and that made them rent collectors. They had loan companies, and that made black people their debtors. Several of the older women who were stalwart civil rights activists worked or had worked as maids for Jewish families.

Who were these Southern Jews in Meridian? Were they like the educated, progressive Jews I knew in Pittsburgh and had met in the civil rights movement?  Or did they define themselves as white southerners who were as racist as their WASP neighbors?

I longed to cross the communication divide and talk, really talk,  with some Jewish residents of the city.  But no one from the Jewish community reached out to us all that year, even though surely they knew that many of us were Jewish.  I first learned how much fear existed when COFO workers Judy and Frank Wright went to visit Jewish woman who was  a friend of Judy’s family and who lived in Meridian.  Having no car, Frank and Judy had to go by taxi.  But the friend was terrified to have someone delivered directly from the COFO office to her house, so they had to take a taxi to a neutral location and go in another vehicle to the friend’s home.

Soon after, in December 1964, Luke Kabat and I attended services at Temple Beth Israel.  At the time, I wrote that the temple was in

“… an elegant new housing project…….. The temple was just opened two weeks ago at an enormous reception where all the “right” people in town put in an appearance and Senator (John) Stennis [extremely racist senator from Kemper County] gave the guest speech.  The new temple is beautiful, very modern and elegant and all the members are deservedly proud of it.

“It was a simple service; the rabbii gave a very intellectual sounding but contentless sermon about how actions must be a combination of ideals and practical action — citing Abraham Lincoln as an example, but as an example because he had an ideal of union (rather than an ideal of freedom).

“Luke and I wore Freedom pins so that people knew who were were.  After services most of the people came up and wished us “Good Shabbos.” The wife of the Rabbi said she didn’t know enough about what we were doing to have an opinion about it, but she wished us well.  Mrs. ____, Frank and Judy’s friend, inquired after her friends and seemed friendly yet very concerned lest anyone notice her friendliness. . . . With all there was a tacit recognition of who we were but a careful avoidance of anything which might lead into the subject of civil rights.

“…. We asked [the widow of the former rabbi] whether there was much antisemitism in Meridian.  She said no, none, or at least “as little as possible.” She said, “There are no barriers socially.” There seemed to be an implication that they would not let anyone jeopardize this position by involvement with civil rights.”

In a word, we were received courteously, but definitely coolly. Keep in mind that we had been attending black church services at least weekly, often more, for months, and had become accustomed to the invariably warm, effusive welcome we received at every single black congregation (and there were many!). At the black churches, we were always pressed to come back again.  No one at Temple Israel suggested that we come back.

(Note: In this post, I described my subjective experiences of being Jewish in Meridian.  In a follow-up post, I will describe what I later learned from others about the Jewish community in Meridian.)

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  • cefalk  On December 31, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    I never knew that the first time you thought about your Jewish background was when you went south. I can imagine that if our Epstein grandparents had lived in Meridian, they might be part of the community of conservative Jews who were more concerned with protecting what they had than with risking their livelihood and status by fully participating in the civil rights movement. You mention the proximity to WWII, and I wonder how that figured into the lives of the Meridian Jews. Also, were there generational differences in terms of the southern Jews you met? What were the children of the synagogue elders and shop owners doing?

    • freedomsongs11  On December 31, 2011 at 11:40 pm

      I think if we had had more contact with the Jewish side of our family growing up, I might have thought about it more. I think what I meant was that, growing up, I had no exposure to the content of Judaism, aside from the Passover story and the Maccabees. I didn’t have any knowledge about what Jews actually believed, whereas I was full of information about what Protestants believe.

      I agree that our Epstein grandparents, at least Granny, would have been concerned with protecting livelihood and status. Plus, I remember her as being very racist in her thinking about black people. I think it was one reason for the distance.

      Hedi Ballantyne asked the same question about how WWII affected the Meridian Jews. The easy answer is I have no idea and would like to learn. However, the majority of Meridian Jews were descendants of families who had come to the United States in the 19th Century. They were extremely assimilated, and may not have had close connections with family in Europe. Which is not to say that they weren’t worried. And, as you will see in the next Blog about being Jewish in Meridian, they had reason.

      As far as the children, it seems that a number of the next generation (our generation) pursued education and became professionals and moved away. There were about 600 Jewish residents of Meridian in the 60’s and now there are fewere than 100 (though some have moved out to the suburbs.)

  • cefalk  On December 31, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    p.s. Is there any way to make the photos larger? I love to examine the pictures, but couldn’t see as much detail as I’d like to.

    • freedomsongs11  On December 31, 2011 at 11:40 pm

      I’ll see if I can figure out how to put them in a slide show the way you did.

  • freedomsongs11  On December 31, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    This comment is from my friend Hedi Ballantyne, whose family in Vienna, Austria, was torn apart by Nazism. Hedi was sent to live in England at the age of ten, and did not see her parents again until she was an adult.

    I found it most interesting to read about your becoming aware of your Jewish inheritance and of the work you did with the other volunteers, so many of whom were Jewish. As you tell about synagogues as well as black churches being targeted by the KKK, I can understand a little about the fears of the Jewish community.
    I remember from my childhood the fear Jews had about being noticed and arrested. I wonder if the Jews who had settled in Meridian had also, like the volunteers, had relatives who had been in concentration camps. If so, I can understand their not wanting to draw attention to themselves, even though it would have been righteous of them to join the volunteers. You volunteers had each others’ support, whereas the local Jews would be sticking out their necks individually and they were not brave enough to do that.

    • Larry  On January 2, 2012 at 9:28 pm

      The congregation of Beth Israel had been outspoken in its condemnation of the Klan’s bombing and burning of black churches in the 60’s. The Klan retaliated by bombing Temple Beth Israel’s education building and rabbi’s home.

      In 1968, Klansman Bobby Tarrants of Mobile and his schoolteacher girlfriend Cathy Ainsworth of Jackson came to Meridian to bomb the home of Jewish leader Meyer Davidson (two and a half blocks west of my home now, btw). The police learned of the plot and ambushed the pair before they could plant the bomb. Tarrants was surprised in the driveway carrying a box with 29 sticks of dynamite, but he fled in the dark and managed to get back to his car. A high speed chase and gunfight ensued in which Meridian police officer Mike Hatcher was seriously wounded and Ainsworth was killed. Tarrants was critically injured, but survived to serve a term in Parchman that the court had set at 30 years. In prison he repudiated his past and underwent a religious conversion.He was paroled in the 90’s, got a theology degree from Ole Miss and moved to North Carolina to do missionary work. Much of the info I know about that night I heard from Robert Brand, who was one of the MPD officers on duty that night.

      Although Jews were historically well-received in Meridian and played a substantial role in its business, cultural, educational and government leadership, the Klan had its own agenda, and those who did not respect and fear their capacity for savagery suffered mortal consequences. Congregation Beth Israel had its history with the Klan.

      My point, as you hint at, is that perhaps the members were not so cool as they were guarded and reticent. They may have been concerned that your presence would bring them undue attention and give the Klan another excuse to strike at them.

      Interesting post. I’m looking firward to the sequel.

  • Gordon Gibson  On January 9, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    The book “Terror in the Night: The Klan’s Campaign Against the Jews” by Jack Nelson gives a deep and extended account of the Tarrants/Ainsworth attempt to bomb Meyer Davidson’s house in Meridian. It’s a complex story.

    In Jackson, the Klan (almost certainly including Tarrants) bombed both the synagogue (at an hour when the rabbi was usually there, but this day wasn’t) and the rabbi’s house. (An interesting story about this in the book “God’s Long Summer.”) A few years later, when I became minister of the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Jackson, Rabbi Perry Nussbaum and I became friends and mutual supports. Still later (early 1980s) Rabbi Nussbaum and I were part of an interfaith clergy delegation visiting Parchman Penitentiary. I didn’t know enough of the history to wince when one of the officials said, “Rabbi, here’s somebody we want you to meet. He’s become a Christian now.” In retrospect, I am sure that it was Bobby Tarrants. I could go on at length with stories about Perry Nussbaum, but enough for now.

    Thanks deeply for returning to Meridian, and for this excellent blog about your experiences and your thoughts.

  • Michele Clark  On January 11, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    Gail – My husband, Sam Clark suggested I read your blog because (a) I was an activist in the antiwar movement and the women’s movement(b) always of course supportive of the Civil Rights movement as I could be from Queens, N.Y. (c) am active in BEth Jacob synagogue in Montpelier. Had a very Jewish upbringing. I am looking forward to more entries. You might want to check out a book I read a few years ago Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement. As I recall it’s about Jewish women who were somewhat more Jewish identified than you were at that time.

    In general I would say synagogues that I knew in the 60s were not friendly and supportive places to anyone – except maybe the old and middle-aged men who ran them, or the few young people who were “stars” in the youth organizations. So it may have been a broader cultural experience you were having than only about being in the South, tho’ I’m sure that had something to do with it.

    I’d be interested to ask our Beth Jacob head of cultural events if she’d like yo to speak at BJ sometime this year about your blog and your time in the South. Are you interested in my asking her?

    It is important and painful to hear that some of the young black people who made those sacrifices suffered a lot for them afterward.

  • cefalk  On January 27, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    Gail, I just now read all these comments, not having received notices of comments via e-mail (now I will!). What about Part II?

    • freedomsongs11  On January 28, 2012 at 3:09 pm

      I was waiting to write Part Ii until I had Jack Nelson’s book, which I understand to be the authoritative work on the Meridian synagogue bombíng. Unfortunately, I ordered a cheap copy online, and it didn’t arrive before we left. I hope it’ll be there when I get home Tuesday, and I will bring it with me when we go to MS.

  • KP  On May 13, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    Will Part II be forthcoming? I’m new to Meridian, and am very curious to read about it!

    • freedomsongs11  On May 13, 2013 at 10:20 pm

      Yes, it will. I have had some things come up that have gotten in the way of blogging, but I am looking forward to getting back to it very soon. What brought you to Meridian?

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