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February 03, 1995 - Image 119

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1995-02-03

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

itiezmer `i2t1

Alongside the New South, there is a ghost South. TED ROBERTS

nybody with a speck of sense
knows the South is haunted;
by men in tattered gray,
marching down dusty lanes
and singing "Dixie"; dreamy
town squares with courthouse
and cannon; balmy October
mornings when the breeze
through the sycamores
hums Stephen Foster
songs. And a hundred spec-
tral Tams looking down on
Interstate 85 from At-
. lanta down to Mont-
gomery. This is the
mythic South that lies
in the heart
of every Southerner.
But there are other
ghosts on the soft summer
air: Jewish merchants on
those timeless town squares,
doctors who went to services on
Friday and Saturday, not Sun-
day, bar mitzvahs embellished
with a haftarah drawl more
Southern than Ashkenazi.
The children of Israel found
this fertile Mississippi Delta as
comfortable as the flatlands of
the Tigris and Euphrates Riv-
er junction 10,000 miles and
150 generations away. My folks
— who I could only trace back to
Lithuania — selected Memphis
— the heart of the Delta — as
their New Jerusalem. Warmed
by the Southern sun, I enjoyed
my adolescence and gave little
thought to the Jewish world
around me. The broad river of
faith is sometimes a mere trickle
of an underground stream in
young fun-loving hearts.
After all, it was totally unnat-
ural for a healthy 16-year-old boy
to make cultural observations
about any subject except sports
and girls. For example, if one of
my gang had said, "Yunno, it's
fascinating that the average Jew-
ish family has 2.8 children, which
is .2 less than Irish-American
families," we would have said, "In
teresting, but you should go home
and have your mother take your
temperature. And since you're
sick, what's Betty Goldstein's
phone number? She'll need a new
date for the Junior Congregation


owever, we couldn't help
notice that there were as
many varieties of Jews as
there were of, say, ball
Ted Roberts writes from
Huntsville, Ala.

players. There were even coun-
try Jews. My urban pals all had
a rural cousin. The defini-
tion of "rural" was a wide
one. It meant — to us South-
erners — that the benighted
cousin didn't live in Mem-
phis, Birmingham, Atlanta
or New Orleans. Beyond
these city limits were only
backwoodsmen and green-
horns. And no matter their so-
cial fame, these kids were never
from Greenville or Jackson or
Macon — just "from the coun-
During this period, my
family made fre-

trips to Jasper, Ala., the home
of my mother's sister. Jasper
had a jewel of a temple. A band
box that neatly provided for the
20-30 Jewish families that lived
in the vicinity. And there were
other relatives in a crossroad,
dubbed Hawkinsville, Ga. —
population about 2,000 — where
my widowed aunt ran the de-
partment store. Not quite
Macy's, but maybe with a bet-
ter selection of overalls and
work shoes. She and her two
kids were the only Jews in town.
A matzah in a stack of soda
Some years after my family
visits to Hawkinsville, the Unit-
ed States, threatened by an ag-
gressive North Korea, decided
that I was exactly the kind of
soldier who could push the en-
emy back to the Arctic circle. So
they drafted me and assigned
me to Sumter, S.C. Not exactly
a hotbed ofJudaism. But there,
too, we found a synagogue to so-
lace our souls with all the tra-
ditional social and religious
Jewish communities, like
those in Jasper and Sumter,
thrived all over the South in the

•••• ■•••■■

'40s and '50s — but the past
four decades have been tough
on them. Cultural and econom-
ic currents have swept many
of their members to the cities.
Much remains of their legacy,
but much has been lost. Va-
cant synagogues dot the
southern United States like
antique ruins decorate the land
of Israel.

ynagogues and temples
may turn into churches
and union halls, but the
Jewish contribution re-
mains. Ghostly remnants testi-
fy in town squares across the
deep South. Above the facade,
chiseled in the old stone, are
names like Greenberg, Cohen
and Silverman. They were
sellers of hardware and dry
goods. And they leaned on the
counter and talked about the cot-
ton crop as easily as their gentile
I knew this breed well in the '40s
and even this flighty adolescent
knew that when the storytellers


sat around
tales of the
Jewish contri-
bution to the
Old South, none
matched the dra-
ma of the Pel-
lagra cure of
Dr. Joseph
All he did was
to eradicate an
affliction that
had cursed the
rural South for
Dr. Goldberger,
with a keen tal-
mudic eye, noted
that kids in an or-
phanage were
ravaged by Pel-
lagra, but the
staff remained whole. This Jew-
ish Yankee (after all, he was from
Washington) pronounced Pella-
gra a dietary disease. The med-
ical community, North and
South, snickered. Well, Dr.
Goldberger didn't spend much
time debating the issue. In-
stead, he injected himself, his
wife, and fourteen assistants
with Pellagra tainted blood. He
and his assistants thrived.
Doubters turned into believers
and southern diets were en-
riched with niacin. Pellagra dis-
There's an old chasidic ex-
pression roughly coincidental in
time with the Southern Jewish
experience. It comes from those
Jewish flatlanders — ultimate-
ly doomed by the Holocaust —
who called the plains of Poland
home. "God wants the heart,"
they said.
Faith and ritual and kinship
are the engines ofJudaism, but
the fuel is ecstasy. There was
plenty of it in the Southern Jew-
ish experience. It glowed in
those Southern souls as warm-
ly as the sun overhead; from
Joseph Goldberger to the mer-
chants, the doctors, and the
anonymous men and women
who propped up the synagogue
walls with their hearts and
hands so it would be there for
their kids.
Just as the Holocaust, bitter
as gall, should live in our memo-
ry, this, too — the Southern
Jewish experience — should sur-
vive. El

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