Museum in New Orleans tells the story of Southern Jews

This article is part of our last Fine Arts & Exhibitions special report, on how artistic institutions help the public to discover new options for the future.


NEW ORLEANS – Some of the artifacts may seem trivial to be on display in a museum: a steam trunk, a hawker cart, a cash register from a men’s clothing store.

But they reflect the little-known 350-year history of Jews in the southern states of America, which is at the center of the new $ 5.5 million envelope. Southern Jewish Experience Museum here.

“All of this about how the Jews came to the South, where they may have had a difficult reception and where they were able to forge loving relationships with their predominantly Christian neighbors,” said Jay Tanenbaum, a Atlanta-based investment banker and president of the board museum. “It’s a matter of tolerance and acceptance.”

Kenneth Hoffman, executive director of the museum, said immigrants to the south had “very different experiences” from their northern counterparts.

“We are delighted to tell our story to non-Jews and to Jews who do not know the history of Southern Jews,” Mr. Hoffman said, a historian trained by Tulane. “Our story is a universal story of how people navigate regardless of the environment they find themselves in. “

Although a small minority, Jews played a key role in the economic development of the South, establishing businesses and stores in hundreds of rural towns. Today, many of their descendants have moved to large urban centers like New Orleans and Atlanta, many of which are involved in the arts, philanthropy, and civic life.

As newcomers to America, the account of Ellis Island and the Lower East Side was not generally 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 overcrowded urban ghettos, newcomers frequently moved to the border, supporting each other like peddlers.

In the seclusion of the rural South, vendors were greeted with much-needed wares and news. Some settled in hospitable communities and established shops or bought land, which was often prohibited in the old country. Often they were the only Jews in the area.

Today, Jews make up less than 1% of the population of the South, Hoffman said.

The museum’s first gallery, “From immigrants to southerners”, tells the story of colonization. In the front and in the center is the steam box which Rachmeil Shapiro brought with him in 1905 as he traveled from Russia to Germany in Galveston, Texas.

Nearby is a cart of street vendors, filled with typical goods – rolls of fabric, pots, tools, children’s toys.

Next to it is a composite recreation of a small town retail store at the turn of the last century. The clock was once hung at Rosenzweig in Lake Village, Ark. The hat press is from Flowers Brothers in Lexington, Mississippi. There is an elaborate golden cash register from Galanty’s Men’s Wear in Lake Providence, La.

But the story of Southern Jews also has a dark side. While some Jews were on the side of the abolitionists, others were slave owners. In a gallery centered on the pre-war and Civil War period, there is a bill of sale for a 12-year-old girl named Harriet, “a slave for life”, sold for $ 1,000 to a woman from the Arkansas named Clara Wiseberg. The transaction was assisted by EE Levy.

A large mural shows a photograph of 19th century abolitionist rabbi Max Lillienthal. Superimposed on his image is an 1861 cope by Jacob Cohen of New Orleans, denouncing the rabbi’s anti-slavery stance.

Mr. Cohen would die in Confederate Gray in the Second Battle of Bull Run.

A visitor to the museum, Michael Brown, an African American from Berkeley, Calif., Said he was impressed with the way the museum is “willing to talk about the conflict that arises for all humans – the challenge of empathy”.

He added: “I like the way they show how Southern Jews have played both a progressive and a regressive role. “

Creating a new institution dealing with controversial subjects was not easy. An earlier version of the museum was established at a camp in Utica, Mississippi, and sponsored by a Jewish community organization, the Institute for Southern Jewish Life.

The Utica Museum held 4,000 documents, photographs, letters and religious objects. Although the collection is of interest to scholars, it does not attract many visitors. In 2012, the materials entered storage.

At the time, Mr. Tanenbaum, whose great-grandfather had settled in Dumas, Ark, was chairman of the institute’s board of directors. He said he “saw the need for the museum to continue, albeit in a different form and location.”

Although he had little professional experience in museums, Mr. Tanenbaum assembled a team that included philanthropists Morris Mintz, whose family were liquor distributors in Louisiana, and Russell Palmer, a real estate investor. Together, they raised almost $ 9 million, enough to start a new institution.

Gallagher & Associates, the museum’s planning and design firm, prepared a feasibility study. The company was then hired as lead designers of the museum.

“This was always going to be a place of ‘best museum practices’,” Hoffman said. “It was never going to be like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, ‘Hey kids, let’s put on a show.'”

The next task was to find the right location. A planning committee looked at Atlanta, Little Rock, and Memphis. New Orleans was selected, according to the museum’s website, because it was a “city with a vibrant Jewish population, a healthy tourist economy, and a city that did not yet have a Jewish-themed museum or other cultural attraction “. The museum is located in the Arts-Warehouse district.

With the planning underway, Anna Tucker, a curator at Kennesaw State University, was hired as curator. She began by rummaging through the Utica collection.

“It was intimidating rummaging through the boxes,” she recalls. “People have asked me how is it possible to cram 350 years of history into 13,000 square feet of museum space? The answer is: there is no way. All we can do is start conversations.

One of the problems was that the artifacts had been collected rather randomly. The new museum was to have a narrative based on defined themes: immigration, civil war, religious practices and the civil rights movement. Ms. Tucker needed objects supporting specific exhibits.

She decided to reach out to the Jewish community. The bet turned out to be successful, in particular to find original materials more recent events.

For the installation of WWII and the Holocaust, Susan Phillips Good and Rose Marie Phillips Wagman sent in the 1936 diary written by their mother, Elsa Hamburger Phillips. The diary, now on display, details how 13-year-old Ilsa Hamburger escaped Nazi Germany and settled with relatives in McGehee, Ark.

Next to it is a Haggadah in German, the Passover prayer book. It belonged to Ernest Marx, who was studying his bar mitzvah when he was taken to Kristallnacht, the first in a series of heartbreaking episodes he endured during World War II. After the war he moved to Louisville, Ky. Judith Bradley, his daughter-in-law, sent the prayer book to the museum.

For the Civil Rights and Activism gallery, Stephen Krause, a Californian, donated a series of oral history recordings that his father, Rabbi P. Allen Krause, produced in 1966 for his graduation thesis at the seminary. Rabbi Krause interviewed 13 southern rabbis about their response of congregations to the civil rights movement. Visitors to this exhibit can listen to portions of the interviews.

Launching a new museum in the midst of a pandemic presented challenges. A shortage of raw materials delayed the construction of the exhibition. Fundraising was hampered because some potential donors did not want to travel.

An official opening scheduled for October 2020 has been canceled due to the Covid. Instead, the museum quietly opened in May.

A second public launch attempt was scheduled for early October with a formal dinner for donors and a street fair. But with the resurgence of the virus in Louisiana, it was postponed until the spring. Then came Hurricane Ida. Back-up generators saved the collection, but the museum had to close for two weeks.

With an expected annual operating budget of $ 1.1 million, the museum hopes to attract 30,000 visitors per year.

“We want to broaden people’s understanding of what it means to be a Southerner, a Jew and ultimately an American,” Hoffman said. “It’s an American story. We believe that everyone can learn something about our great nation by exploring our experience. “


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