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Of Grits and Gefilte Fish

March 30, 2006 By:
Bernice Fried Saks-JE Feature
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Shalom, y'all! Welcome to the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience What's it all about? Well, listen up!

When we think of the mass migration of Jews to America in the 19th century to escape persecution and suffering, the countries that usually come to mind are those in Eastern Europe. But thousands of Jews came to the United States from another part of Europe to better their lives - the Alsace region.

While many of them settled on the Eastern seaboard, like their Eastern European counterparts, a large number of Alsatians made their way to the Deep South, lured by its similarity to their way of life in the land they had left - the physical surroundings, the culture, the food.

These brave men and women chose to become vital citizens of their new hometowns, socially, economically, culturally, while also adhering to their Jewish customs. Some 2,000 Jewish officers and enlisted men served nobly in the Civil War, on both sides.

The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in Mississippi was established in 1989 to explore the challenges faced by Southern Jewry today, and to perpetuate the history, traditions and experience of the Jews of the South - their trans-Atlantic journey that continued on to the Mississippi River after their arrival in New York, Galveston, New Orleans, Charleston and other ports, where they became traders, peddlers, merchants, doctors and educators, as well as built synagogues and established cemeteries.

Located at 3763 Old Morrison Road on the campus of Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Miss., about 40 miles southwest of Jackson, the museum can be reached from Mississippi Highway 18, following the signs to the camp via Berry Road or Old Morrison Road.

Today, Jewish community life is dwindling in rural areas because young Southerners have left their small hometowns to seek success in the cities.

But a notable success story is that of Sam Stein, a young Jewish immigrant from Russia, who arrived in America in 1905 and made his way down the Mississippi River to Greenville, Miss., where he started out as a peddler.

Three years later, he opened a small store that mushroomed into a national chain of 260 department stores from coast to coast. One of these flourishes right here in the Philadelphia area - Jenkintown, to be exact. You may well recognize the name: Stein Mart.

A Full-Fledged Facility 
While its home is on the campgrounds, the museum has no affiliation with the camp or with any particular movement, operating under the auspices of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, based in Jackson, headed by executive director Macy B. Hart, a former director of the camp. The museum boasts a second location, Temple B'nai Israel in Natchez, with a third planned for Meridian.

How did the concept of a museum on camp grounds come about? How did it come to fruition?

Through the years, Camp Henry S. Jacobs had become a social, cultural and economic repository for Jewish artifacts. It reached the point where they were so inundated that the camp leadership began to develop the idea of a museum to house everything.

In 1986 they received a Plow Grant to build the museum, and the camp authorized construction right on the grounds. The result is a beautiful contemporary structure - complete with a fully working sanctuary, where services are conducted every Saturday morning when camp is in session, and a small chapel combined with a movie room - in addition to the museum's collections and exhibits of religious objects, materials, memorabilia, artifacts and special exhibitions.

"May Their Light Shine Forever," an engrossing film introducing the museum, won an award at the International Film and TV Festival in New York, competing with more than 7,158 entries from 43 countries.

"Alsace to America: Discovering a Southern Jewish Heritage," an exciting exhibit now in permanent residence, is actually a recreated colorful Alsatian village depicting life as it was before that region's Jews came to America. It's brought to life with period artifacts, photos, documents and personal reminiscences that also illustrate the pilgrims' arduous journey to America, and their integration into a new way of life.

Another exhibit delights the eye with replicas of a formal living room and dining room enhanced with life-size figures, an unusual menorah and two Bibles - one in French and one in Hebrew.

The museum gift shop offers an array of unique items - artifacts, photos, exhibits, books, videos. And yes, of course, to be had is the familiar T-shirt and mug that let you know that you are indeed in a Southern Jewish museum. You can't miss their logo - "Shalom, Y'All."

The museum provides group tours of Jewish history along the Mississippi River corridor, and group lodging facilities from September to May at its Henry S. Jacobs campus in Utica.

Eli Evans, author of Judah P. Benjamin, truly defined the museum's meaning and purpose: "The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience gives families the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of our regional Jewish history. For Jewish Southerners of all ages, it builds bridges of empathy with the immigrant generations, nourishes roots, and instills pride in a rich heritage, furnishing children with wings to fly. Come and share."

- See more at: http://je.pliner.com/article/2856/Of_Grits_and_Gefilte_Fish/#sthash.IAyN...

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