While most Jewish emigres to the US have wound up in large East Coast cities, the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience examines the lives of those who transited through predominantly Christian port towns, like New Orleans. Many started prosperous farms in the Mississippi Delta and Appalachian mountains and went on to win elections as mayors, sheriffs, council members, and civic leaders. Through a wide range of exhibits, collections and programs, the museum traces the history of Jews in the American South, exploring the many ways that they’ve influenced – and were influenced by – the region’s distinct cultural heritage.
Some of the artifacts may seem mundane for display in a museum: a steamer trunk, a peddler’s cart, a cash register from a men’s clothing store. But they reflect the little-known 350-year history of Jews in America’s Southern states, which is the focus of the new $5.5 million Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience here. “This all about how Jews came to the South, where they might have experienced a difficult welcome and where they succeeded at building loving relationships with their largely Christian neighbors,” said Jay Tanenbaum, an Atlanta-based investment banker and the chairman of the museum’s board. “It’s about toleration and acceptance.” Kenneth Hoffman, the museum’s executive director, said the Southern immigrants had “very different experiences” from their Northern counterparts. “We’re excited to tell our story to non-Jewish people and to Jews who don’t know Southern Jewish history,” said Mr. Hoffman, a Tulane-trained historian. “Ours is a universal story about how people navigate whatever environment they find themselves in.” Though a small minority, Jews played a key role in the economic development of the South, creating businesses and shops in hundreds of rural towns. Today, many of their descendants have moved to large urban centers like New Orleans and Atlanta, with many involved with the arts, philanthropy and civic life. As newcomers to America, theirs was not the Ellis Island and Lower East Side narrative usually associated with the migration saga. Some came to the South as early as Colonial times and later from Germany, France and Eastern Europe. Instead of working in sweatshops and living in crowded urban ghettos, the newcomers frequently moved to the frontier, supporting themselves as itinerant peddlers. In the loneliness of the rural South, the vendors were welcomed for much needed goods and news. Some settled into hospitable communities and established shops or bought land, something that had often been prohibited in the old country. Often, they would be the only Jews in the region.
A New Orleans museum that opened last month sheds light on surprising aspects of Jewish life in the 13 Southern states since the mid-1700s
An advertisement in North Carolina’s Wilmington Journal in 1847 reveals a stain on local Jewish history. Ansley Davis, who came from Petersburg, Virginia, published the ad under the heading “Negroes Wanted.” The text stated: “I wish to purchase a large number of Negroes of both sexes, from the age of 14 to 30, for which I will pay the highest cash market price.” Davis, whose family owned one of the largest Jewish-run slave-trading companies in the entire South, would tour the region every summer seeking new slaves, which he later sold.
Davis was not the only Southern Jew who made a living in the slave trade prior to the Civil War. David Wise of New Orleans also put up slaves for sale at the time, working out of a depot on the city’s Baronne Street. “Has always on hand a large number of slaves, which will be sold for cash,” according to an ad that he placed in a paper. “A fine lot of young, likely, able-bodied negroes – girls and men – excellent field hands.” By the time the war broke out, New Orleans was the largest slave-trading city in the South.
The stories of Wise and Davis are presented on the website of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, which opened in May in New Orleans. MSJE, as it is called, showcases the culture and heritage of the Jews who lived in the 13 southern states over a period spanning some three centuries: from colonial America through the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement and up to this day. Some 4,000 exhibits have been collected from Jewish communities and families in small towns, before they disappeared from the map.
When Jewish immigrants first arrived in the U.S. from Europe, their first stop was Ellis Island — or at least that’s how the narrative goes. But for many, their first sighting of American shores was Galveston, Tex., a port city that welcomed thousands of Jewish immigrants who would settle across the American South. In cities and towns from Dallas to Vicksburg, Miss., to Charleston, S.C., Jews created community and became part of the fabric of this complicated region.Now, a new museum in New Orleans wants to teach locals and tourists alike the story of America’s Southern Jews, a story that does not always make it into the collective memory of American Jews in big cities like New York or Los Angeles.
The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE), which opens on Thursday, had originally planned to open its doors last October but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The opening is now timed to coincide with Memorial Day weekend, though a larger grand opening celebration is set to take place this fall.
On an exclusive tour previewing the museum last week, executive director Kenneth Hoffman told Jewish Insider that the institution aims to fight a common misperception: that people “didn’t know there were Jews in the South.” The notion mostly comes from “Jews who aren’t from the South, because for them, the center of their universe is their own community, New York or Cherry Hill, N.J., or whatever,” said Hoffman, who grew up in Baton Rouge, La. “When people think about immigration, they think about Ellis Island. When people think about Jewish communities, maybe they’re thinking about Brooklyn.”
The new museum makes the case that understanding the experiences of Southern Jews is essential to understanding the broader story of American Jews — essential, even, to truly understanding the history of the United States, a country of immigrants.
“We want to expand people’s understanding of the South,” Hoffman explained. “People think of the South in terms of black and white, racially, and that’s understandable. It’s correct. That is the blanket that covers all of Southern history and really all of American history, the racial issues. But they’re not the only stories.”
The museum is on the edge of New Orleans’s central business district, down the street from the city’s acclaimed World War II Museum and less than a mile from the French Quarter. Visitors enter through a small storefront across the street from the streetcar line. “We’ve got a very small footprint,” Hoffman noted. The museum’s three permanent exhibitions are on the first floor, with a temporary exhibition space on the second floor. The top three floors of the building house apartments.
MSJE’s arrival in New Orleans is a long time coming. The museum itself dates back to the mid-1980s, when it started as an exhibit at the Henry S. Jacobs Camp, a Union for Reform Judaism Jewish sleepaway camp outside of Jackson, Miss. The early MSJE began as “a repository for all the small-town congregations that were disappearing,” said Hoffman. People from small towns across the South who had attended Jacobs Camp would ask Macy Hart, the camp’s then-director, “‘I’m the last Jew, we’re selling the building to the Baptist church. What do I do with the Torahs?’” Hoffman, who interned at the museum when it was at the summer camp, recalled. “Macy said, ‘Bring them here. We’ll keep them.’”
NEW ORLEANS (press release) – Earlier this year the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE) announced that it would open in New Orleans in the fall of 2020. Due to construction delays and a drastically slowed tourism economy from the effects of COVID-19, Museum officials have decided to push back plans to open until early 2021.
“We feel this will allow us to give the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience the robust welcome that we’ve been planning for,” said Jay Tanenbaum, Chairman, MSJE. Tanenbaum also cited the need to give business and tourism time to recover in New Orleans and ensure the safety of all staff and visitors.
Museum staff remains hard at work in conjunction with design and fabrication partners, Gallagher & Associates, and Solomon Group toward completion of its exhibit space at the Museum’s future home, 818 Howard Avenue in New Orleans.
The new museum will explore the many ways Jews in the American South influenced and were influenced by the distinct cultural heritage of their communities, covering 13 states and more than 300 years of history – including Colonial, Civil War, World War II and the Civil Rights Movement.
Curators are still also accepting artifact donations. With many people still at home, now is a good time to cull family archives and to speak with older relatives to collect personal family stories. Visit msje.org/our-collection for more information.