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Portrait of a Jewish community in the deep South

A portrait of the Jews of Lexington, Mississippi

The House of David in the Land of Jesus by Robert Lewis Berman, 2007, ISBN 9781589807204, 354 pages

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—When I recently attended 10-year-old Megan Spector’s performance as the title character in the Pickwick Players’ production of Annie, I had no idea that the musical would prove to be a portal transporting me not only to the fictional New York City of the 1930s, but also to the very real town of Lexington, Mississippi, of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

Being raised in the tradition of the gracious South, Megan’s mother, Sheri Berman Spector, penned a short thank you note following publication of my review.  She alerted me to watch for a separate package, which arrived a day or so later.  In it was a copy of The House of David in the Land of Jesus,  a historical work by her father, Robert Lewis Berman, telling of the Jewish community in the  town of Lexington, Mississippi.

Not simply a historical work, the book was an introduction to the Southern Jewish way of life—in which being American, being Jewish and being Southern all are matters for great pride.   Reading Berman’s book was akin to being conducted on a tour of the town deep in the Christian Bible Belt, with the guide pausing here and there to share some stories, some happy, others sad, about the tiny  Jewish population. 

There was one member of the Jewish community who was murdered in a robbery.  Another member died in a gunfight that broke out with a fellow Jew over a commercial matter.  On the plus side of the ledger, one Jewish family through a wholesale grocery business that evolved into SuperValu, a publicly traded company that owns Albertsons Markets, among others, provided numerous jobs throughout the region.  Another Jewish resident got himself elected to the state Legislature.  And Berman, himself, rose through the ranks of Rotary to the position of district governor.

Commencing in the 19th century, the Jewish community of Lexington eventually numbered 23 families, accounting for 89 persons at its peak.   The overall population of Lexington is approximately 2,000 people.

By and large, the Jews were the merchants of this Mississippi Delta town, and like merchants throughout the United States, they filled the ranks of service clubs, the Chamber of Commerce, Masonic Lodges, and other civic improvement organizations of the town. 

The Jews had reasons to be proud of these families’ accomplishments.  Growing up, some of the children were the quarterbacks and head cheerleaders of the Lexington High School and they went on to distinguished college careers as fraternity presidents and student officers, before taking their places in the ranks of the professions and in business.  As youngsters, they were confirmed in Temple Beth El’s simple sanctuary that calls to mind that of San Diego’s original Temple Beth Israel, now housed at Heritage Park.  Both were Reform congregations, whose founders for the main part had come from Germany. 

The author’s  own father, Joseph Berman,  had been a city councilmember in Atlanta, Georgia, before moving to Lexington, to be with his wife’s family in a time of need.   He had helped to developed Atlanta into the major airport hub it is today.   Other Lexington Jews became philanthropists, such as two brothers who donated a combined $10 million to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and another Lexingtonian couple who provided funds for Ole Miss’s nondenominational chapel, on which the symbols of the Christian Cross and the Star of David are melded.

Painstakingly, Berman sketched the biographies of the Jews who lay buried in the Jewish cemetery in Lexington.   But his portrait of the community did not stop there.  He also interviewed Christians—as well as one Muslim family—about the nature of their relationships with the small Jewish community.   White Christians were effusive in their praise of the Jews, corroborating Berman’s thesis that although there were different religions in Lexington, there really was only one majority community – so thoroughly integrated were the Jews with the majority white Protestants.

African-American residents of Lexington, who today comprise the majority of the town’s population, were more restrained in their praise—commenting that the Jews had treated them fairly in business, and had tried to be forces of moderation and reconciliation between blacks and whites during the time of the Civil Rights Movement.   The words were positive, but anyone reading the interviews can sense that a gulf still needs to be bridged.   Compared, however, to other areas of the South where Civil Rights conflict became violent, Lexington evidently was blessed with healthy measures of mutual trust and civility between blacks and whites.

The Muslim family interviewed were immigrants from Syria, who had formed friendships—even to the point of attending seders –with Jewish families.   In fact, the Syrian-American gentleman in question suggested he might be the only transplanted Arab who has purchased Israel Bonds!

While business and social relations with the town’s Christian majority were cordial, the Jews resisted intermarriage, resulting over the generations in many, if not all, of those 23 families sharing some relatives.  

Berman’s book is part civic history, part family genealogy, and it centers around the small edifice of Temple Beth El, which celebrated its centennial year in 2005.  As of the book’s writing, the Jewish population of the town had dwindled to just 12 people, and realization was setting in that the community’s days were numbered.   This was no one’s fault, the younger generations of Jews—including Berman’s own daughter, Sheri Spector and her family, had moved to larger cities such as San Diego, where there is greater economic opportunity.

Berman presented in the book a proposal that the historic temple building be moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where it might serve as a branch of the Los Angeles-based Museum of Tolerance, and perhaps as headquarters for the small Hillel chapter at the Ole Miss campus.

Last Yom Kippur, with only four members, the 104-year-old congregation announced it no longer had sufficient membership to enable regular services.

I asked author Berman what reaction he had received from Ole Miss about his idea.   He replied as follows:

“My wife Sondy and I have had two meetings with The Chancellor of The University of Mississippi, one this past November 2009, and the second one this past April 28th.

“Temple Beth El has offered all of the contents of its Sanctuary, including its 8 Tiffany Stained Glass windows, to The University of Mississippi to be re-installed in a replica of the Sanctuary and become one of three permanent exhibits in a new Center and Museum of Tolerance at The University. It would be the only such Center at any public university in America.
“The Sanctuary would contain a full history of the great spirit of Tolerance between the Jewish and Christian communities, both black and white, in the rural Mississippi town of Lexington, that has existed for the past 150 years. It has been a tradition of goodwill, Tolerance and respect for the dignity of others, that as you know, does not exist everywhere.
“The Sanctuary would no longer be utilized as a Synagogue, but instead as a 125 seat classroom to teach and promote Tolerance among all peoples. I have renamed it the “Tent of Abraham” since he is the Patriarch of the world’s three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is planned to be under the auspices of the Philosophy and Religion Department of the University.
“The other two permanent exhibits would be The History of Slavery and Civil Rights; and The History of the
Holocaust and other Genocides, (one on each side of the Sanctuary as can be seen on the last page of the new edition of my book)…
“There would also be moving “Exhibits of Goodness” i.e. Rotary International’s “Polio Plus whose goal is to eradicate polio from around the world, and it is 98% successful at this point. The only other disease to be eradicated is small pox.
“The University has agreed to send us a Memorandum of Understanding that they will take possession of the Sanctuary’s contents, move them to Oxford where The University is located, insure and store them until funds can be obtained to build the Center and Museum of Tolerance. It has already agreed to locate it on a prominent site on University property and furnish on going maintenance. It has three years to raise the funds and begin the major project. We feel if The University takes possession, it will find the funds, as The Chancellor has stated he will personally be in charge of the fund raising.
“While we do believe such will eventually bear fruit, waiting in line for the contents is a new Reform Congregation in Natanya, Israel which has made such a request. It has been agreed by the Congregation that if for whatever reason The University does not complete the project in the time agreed upon, then such contents would be shipped to Israel for the purpose as stated above.”

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

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