The Southern Jewish experience

Researching the column I wrote for last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about a visit to Temple Beth El in Helena ended up being a far more interesting task than I ever would have imagined.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Delta is the great diversity there — the Italians, the Chinese, the Lebanese and the Jews were among the groups that came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and down the river from St. Louis to settle this colorful region.

If you traveled farther inland from the river into the hills of either Arkansas or Mississippi, you historically found far less diversity.

It’s the same reason I always was intrigued with Hot Springs when I was growing up in Arkadelphia. In Arkadelphia, the chances were great that you were either a white Baptist or a black Baptist. Compared to the towns that surrounded it, Hot Springs was an exotic place.

The Delta was like that, though six decades of population loss is changing the demographic picture.

David Solomon, the Helena lawyer who turns 94 next month and still goes to work each day at his office on Cherry Street, established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment created a permanent home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Jews in Arkansas.

The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”

The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls her book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. ‘A Corner of the Tapestry’ is the story of the Jews who helped settle Arkansas and who stayed and flourished to become a significant part of the state’s history and culture. Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block. He opened a store in the town of Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas. At the time of the Civil War, they had established small but growing Jewish communities in Little Rock, Fort Smith, Pine Bluff, DeValls Bluff, Van Buren, Jonesboro and Batesville. Despite their relatively short time in the state, Jews felt closely tied to their new home. Of the approximately 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, 53 fought for the Confederacy.”

Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the war. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 towns or communities were founded by Jews in Arkansas or named after early Jewish residents. These included Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were founded in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the great flood of 1927. You’ll note that many of the congregations listed above were in areas of east and south Arkansas that have been declining economically in recent decades.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. In 2006, only four did. As of 2006, only congregations in Little Rock and Hot Springs had full-time rabbis.

“The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Wal-Mart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation, Etz Chaim, which has quickly become the fastest-growing congregation in the state. Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west during the past 60 years, many of the artifacts from Temple Beth El in Helena went to the northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The building was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center. The artifacts are now used by Etz Chaim in Bentonville.

The remaining Jews in Phillips County now gather for services in homes, just as the early Jews of east Arkansas did before Congregation Beth El was established in 1867.

Last December, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service in the home of David and Miriam Solomon at Helena.

“We’re just going back to the cycle,” Miriam Solomon said. “We’ve come full circle.”

Ben Harris wrote in the article, “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

“I relate everything to economics. People are going where they can make a living,” David Solomon said. “That’s it.”

Harris wrote that David Solomon is “something of a legend in eastern Arkansas. He has held countless civic offices, and all the downtown storekeepers know when he’s around. One of them ticked off the list of legal matters with which he had helped her, including a divorce and real estate issues.”

After reading Saturday’s newspaper column, a Little Rock man e-mailed me about a visit earlier this year to David Solomon’s office: “I was told to ‘hurry down to his office as he goes out for lunch.’ They added that he is into his 90s but you wouldn’t know it. I arrived at his office, and he looked better than I did though I am 35 to 40 years younger. He had on a pinstripe shirt, cuff links, bow tie and he knew who I was immediately though I had only met him once. He was friendly and quietly gave me attention but pointed to a boardroom and said, ’I am so sorry. I have a room full of clients.”’

He’s 93 and going strong, carrying on the legacy of Delta Jews.

As the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities points out, “Despite the fact that they were always less than one-half of 1 percent of Arkansas’ population, Jews have played an important role in the social and economic development of the state. The Kempner, Blass and Pfeifer families all owned leading department stores. Howard Eichenbaum was a celebrated architect who designed many significant buildings in Little Rock. Jacob Trieber of Helena was the first Jew in America ever appointed as a federal judge, serving the Eastern District of Arkansas from 1900 to 1927. Julian Waterman was the first dean of the University of Arkansas Law School. Rabbi Ira Sanders, who served Little Rock Congregation B’nai Israel from 1926-63, became an outspoken supporter of racial equality during the turbulent era of civil rights. Cyrus Adler, who was born in Van Buren, became one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in America during the early 20th century, serving as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Historical Society.”

All three of Miriam and David Solomon’s sons ended up on the East Coast. All have been highly successful in their careers. Just last week, President Obama announced that Lafe Solomon will serve as the acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

Those careers, though, have taken place somewhere other than the Delta.

Harris wrote that Miriam and David Solomon have a “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Helena that derives “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

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3 Responses to “The Southern Jewish experience”

  1. Leanne Harrod Krillenberger says:

    Rex, I enjoyed this article VERY much, as always, Leanne

  2. rexnelson says:

    Thanks so much, Leanne.

    The history of Jews in Arkansas truly fascinates me. I hope the Department of Arkansas Heritage can use Beth El to tell that story — Rex

  3. Ellis Ogden says:

    I was raised in Helena from 1938 until our family moved to Little Rock in 1955. There was no place in Arkansas that I could have exposed to the various cultures in the Delta. I remember going to Temple services as part of the Methodist Youth Fellowship. I had several friends who were either Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Italian, Lebanese, Sicilian, etc. There is nowhere else on this planet that I would have rather have grown up than trade in Helena and the Delta. I still miss the sweet smell of kudzu, the scent of the soil, and the balmy summer mornings. It gets balmy in Little Rock, but brother, it just ain’t the same.

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