Americans tend to be restless. Amidst all differences in ethnicities, religions, national origins, and political allegiances, one trait that seems to unite the people of this country is our unrelenting propensity to move. I’ve blogged about it in the past, and it was obvious then that it wouldn’t be the last time: physical manifestations of our wanderlust crop up everywhere, and they’re far too expressive for me to ignore. In that previous blog article, I looked at the spatial polarities of the Protestant faith across metropolitan America: the mainline denominations (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians) often cluster in city centers or in the older neighborhoods where the median age tends to be higher, due to the relative absence of children. Conversely, the non-denominational Evangelical churches, teeming with kiddos and their youthful moms and dads, dominate the outer suburbs. This dichotomy isn’t particularly difficult to understand, since people routinely cluster in micro-communities based on shared values, and religion, a transcendently important value, will understandably elicit its own foci in the form of new churches.
But how does spirituality shape a community, when the faith in question is a minority almost everywhere it goes? Such has long been the case for Jews who migrated to the American South, a region not usually perceived as prominently Jewish, with the possible exception of south Florida. Yet up to the middle of the previous century, Jews were dispersed throughout the South, often exerting a noticeable social and economic influence, despite—or because of—their relatively small numbers. The truth is, Jews were never abundant in the South, but at a time when less than 50% of the nation’s population could be considered urban, the presence of Jews in small-town Southern life seems particularly bizarre today—much more than it did a century ago.
The Jewish presence in small southern towns ostensibly peaked in the decades from 1890 to 1930. Though it is hardly fair to draw all migratory conclusions from the history of one state, the chronicle of Jews in Mississippi is particularly strong, no doubt enhanced by the fact that the city of Jackson hosts the Goldring/Woldenburg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. The truth is, the movement patterns of Jews in other states largely echo that of Mississippi, and the Magnolia State, one of the most rural in the nation, has seen its Jewish population plunge 75% over the past century. In nearly all chronicles, the earliest southern Jewish settlements, often from the first half of the 19th century, took place in the most advanced and populous cities—places like Charleston, SC, Mobile, Natchez, Vicksburg, and, of course, New Orleans, the South’s largest city. However, many others sought the outlets made by the emergent centers of industry that slowly developed during the Reconstruction era, as the South was forced to industrialize after the civil war. Unaccustomed to owning land in their native European countries (where Jews typically were not allowed real estate), they combined the entrepreneurial skills they had developed under segregated conditions in Europe with their experience in trade as traveling peddlers. And if a growing town had an untapped market, it was natural that at least a few Jewish families would move there and try their luck. Thus, it is not surprising to see downtown commercial buildings with a Jewish name above the cornice line, even in some of the smallest Southern communities. In Mississippi alone, the Jewish community peaked before the Depression at over 6,400, with an epicenter in the Delta region.
But where did they all go? Today, Mississippi only has about 1,500 Jews and only two full-time rabbis. Other southern states experienced a similar retreat. Some of this population decline took place amidst the turbulence of the Civil Rights Era, a time in which Jewish desire not to interfere with the Southern status quo proved violently at odds with the all-too-familiar injustices they witnessed committed against blacks under Jim Crow. Rabbis often spoke out against discrimination the witnessed, sometimes resulting in threats against their temples and personal safety. The struggles of the 1960s no doubt discouraged other Jews from moving to the South, but the principal impetus for the diaspora was economic: the growing prevalence of national department store chains paved the way for the eventual obsolescence of localized Jewish retail, and entrepreneurs could not pass failing businesses on to their sons and daughters. These same children often left their home town for educational opportunities elsewhere, and then, with that college degree, they would move to larger, more prominent cities. The Jewish communities in many southern towns have dwindled to a mere handful of people, the majority of whom are septuagenarians or older. New synagogues are simply not opening in most of the South—in fact, the small town houses of worship are steadily shutting their doors.
With so many Jews leaving the smaller towns and cities of the Deep South, what becomes of their properties? The remnants of Jewish communities sometimes require a keen eye, as in the case of Donaldsonville, Louisiana, population 7,500.
This intermittently picturesque town about 30 miles south-southeast of Baton Rouge is one of the oldest settlements in the state, with Acadian migrants as its original inhabitants. The town celebrated its 200th birthday in 2006, and it was briefly made the state capital from 1830 to 1831. The town’s prominence surpassed the Louisiana state capital throughout much of the 19th century, and the rail access along the main street brought new industry, as well as a variety of French, Alsatian, and Prussian immigrants after the Civil War. The Bikur Cholim Synagogue was constructed in 1872 along Railroad Avenue, Donaldsonville’s main street, and it prospered up through the early years of the Great Depression. Unlike many other small-town Jewish communities, Donaldsonville’s population largely dwindled due to intermarriage, which apparently was more common between Jews and Catholics (still the dominant religion of south Louisiana) than between Jews and the Protestants that dominated most other southern states. Other Jews in Donaldsonville remained childless. The synagogue closed in the 1940s after the town lacked the population to support it, but the structure remains, barely recognizable under its new use:
Though the Wikipedia article on Donaldsonville mentions this structure, and this thoughtful portrait on small synagogues describes it in great detail, it took a tour guide and town historian to point out the synagogue to me. The new owners long ago replaced the vestibule with a retail façade, though according to the tour guide, the ornamental feature at the top of the gable hosted a Star of David until the 1970s.
According to the Small Synagogues website, only two Jews remain in Donaldsonville, one of whom maintains the Bikur Cholim Cemetery. The fortunes of the Jewish population of the town rose and fell along much the same trajectory as Natchez, Mississippi, 150 miles upriver. Both were advanced settlements a time when such communities were scarce, and their roles as major cities in the overwhelmingly rural south made them amenable to concentrations of businesses, in which Jewish merchants participated with often great success. As the automobile began its ascendancy, these two river cities failed to integrate with a strong highway network. Both suffered a population loss, and while the Jewish population in Donaldsonville is essentially gone, a handful of mostly elderly Jewish people remain in Natchez. In recent years, their prospects have bifurcated: Natchez has the advantage of being older, larger, and wealthier than Donaldsonville, with a moderately active tourist industry capitalizing on its antebellum mansions and well-preserved downtown. Donaldsonville has not been so lucky; it is the only section of Ascension Parish that has continued to lose population, while the rest of the parish has prospered as a bedroom community to Baton Rouge. Poverty is high and the main street has lost some of its historic architecture, though efforts to revitalize with art galleries and restaurants are clearly visible. Both communities were among the most prominent cities in their states for much the twentieth century. And while Natchez remains well known to aficionados of Southern history, Donaldsonville has devolved to little more than a word on a map with slightly bolded lettering; only people among the River Parishes near Baton Rouge are likely to be very familiar with the town. Such communities have lost nearly all viability among Jews, manifested in the synagogue-to-hardware-store we witness in Donaldsonville.
Clearly the diminished prominence that these towns suffered was not borne exclusively by their Jewish populations; people of all faiths left as the country shifted toward a primarily urban basis for settlement. However, it is likely that the Jewish role in trades and merchandise was badly affected by the agglomeration of industry in larger cities and the seeming obsolescence of small towns, resulting in a rural-to-urban migration that was more pronounced among Jews than the southern, Christian population at large. Upriver of Donaldsonville and north of Baton Rouge is the prosperous town of St. Francisville, another community which claimed a thriving Jewish population a century ago.
Though much smaller than Donaldsonville (less than 2,000 people) it seems to have found a new raison d’être in the service economy and is now a tourist attraction, thanks to the cluster of plantation homes nearby. (The town itself is distinctive enough to be worthy of a blog entry, which I hope to write at some point in the future.) Like Donaldsonville, it is sufficiently close to Baton Rouge to function as a bedroom community, but unlike the former town it clearly has capitalized on this condition: St. Francisville enjoys a median household income much higher—and poverty rate much lower—than the norm for the state. Yet, according to the Institute for Southern Jewish Life, the diaspora that began in 1920s St. Francisville effectively reduced the Jewish population to zero. The Temple Sinai was dedicated in 1903, at a time when the burgeoning Jewish population justified a new house of worship. But the leadership could never secure a full-time rabbi, and after multiple attempts, the members of the congregation lost confidence in their own ability to maintain a footing in the town. In 1921, they sold Temple Sinai to a Presbyterian congregation that used the building until the end of the century, at which point it sat abandoned until it was refurbished a few years later and integrated into historical tours of the town. Successful retailer Julius Freyhan, perhaps the town’s most prominent Jewish figure, purchased a plot of land in 1891 that eventually became Hebrew Rest Cemetery.
As I was passing through the town, the clear feature that distinguished it from other cemeteries was the directional uniformity of the tombstones: all of them face east toward Jerusalem.
The gate to Hebrew Rest is locked, and the signs offer no information as to when the cemetery might be open to the public (if ever). The property boundaries and plant growth prevented me from going to the other side where I could effectively see the text on the graves. But the area itself was no doubt well out of the St. Francisville boundaries when it was first constructed; the housing immediately across the street fits the ranch typology popular in the mid 20th century.
By the time these homes were built, St. Francisville had most likely already bid farewell to the last of its Jews.
Spotting the remnants of Jewish life in the rural south is akin to an Easter egg hunt; yes, I’m aware that the analogy is a bit uncouth. But the evidence here flies in the face of what most Americans—including, I suspect, most Jewish Americans—assume about Jewish settlement: that they are largely in the major metropolitan areas, on the coasts (particularly the East Coast), and often in the central cities themselves or inner-ring suburbs—rarely in the exurbs. Yet the evidence shows that, although never more than 10% of a town population, Jews were widely scattered across the rural South for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The second half of this blog post will explore the Jewish influence on southern settlements outside of Louisiana, as well as movement patterns in a much larger southern city. Stay tuned, and because of the vastness of the subject, I welcome any other comments or observations that can help me hone in on the essence of southern Jewish settlement—at this point, the engine to my research is my photograph collection.
2 thoughts on “Vestigial Judaism, Part I: Louisiana small town archaeology.”
Excellent article. I have been interested in documenting American synagogues, past and present for years and the American South is an especially interesting area. I did a cd-rom book on American synagogue sin 2008 and last August Arcadia Publishing did my book, “Jewish West Virginia”. Response to that book has been great and from both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Continued success with your blog. Very interesting and an important contribution. Cheers: Mr. Julian H. Preisler http://www.JPreisler.com/books.htm
Thanks for writing. This is one of my lengthier posts–in three parts, as you no doubt noticed. A West Virginian was recently introduced into my extended family through marriage, and I’d be interested in learning more about their presence in a state with completely different demographic composition than the Deep South. All the best.