New museum in New Orleans exhibits family histories of Southern Jews
NEW ORLEANS (JTA) — Janis Rabin’s family emigrated from Poland, eventually settling in Bogalusa, Louisiana. For years, she and those close to her have kept memories and stories of their family’s Jewish experience to themselves, or casually shared them with friends.
So when Rabin walked into that city’s Southern Jewish Experience Museum on the day it opened to the public, she was moved to see her family’s history more formally represented.
“I look at the museum and it’s such a beautiful representation of what it means to have your roots, your identity validated,” she said.
Like Rabin, many visitors on the day the museum opened on May 27 were Southern Jews themselves, eager to find evidence of their family traditions or share artifacts with an unusual collection designed to bring out relics of Southern Jewish life from the area’s closets and attics.
Unlike the Jews of the North, who largely congregated in urban centers, the Jews who settled in the South dispersed to the smaller towns of the region. The museum showcases large Jewish communities in New Orleans and Atlanta alongside lesser-known but equally vibrant places like Dumas, Arkansas, which had several Jewish mayors in the late 19th and early 19th century. XXth century. It also highlights the fact that Southern Jews often found careers as street vendors, moving from town to town.
In the center of the first hall of the museum stands a peddler’s cart filled with the wares they might have sold. The piece touched many visitors, who related it to the origins of their own family.
“My parents were merchants and shop owners,” said Martin Covert, whose family came to New Orleans in the late 1800s. .”
That’s exactly the point, said Anna Tucker, the museum’s curator. The South is a huge region and each community has had a unique experience. So, rather than defining a singular narrative, Tucker used familiar objects to tell a specific story.
“If you didn’t know the story behind them, a lot of the artifacts here would look like an everyday object,” Tucker said. “But once you start listening to the conversations around it, you’re like, ‘Wow, this is so much more. “”
The Museum of Southern Jewish Experience is the product of more than three decades of concerted work to preserve the heritage of Southern Jewry. When Macy Hart began collecting artifacts from small Southern Jewish communities in 1986, it was out of necessity. As Southern Jews gravitated to the cities, these rural communities risked being forgotten. As a last resort, community leaders would ask Hart to take their ritual objects and Judaica. There are also more unorthodox items in the collection, including a prosthetic leg that once belonged to a Russian Jewish immigrant who settled in Lake Providence, Louisiana.
For years, the collection was on display in a small museum at the Reform Movement’s Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi — a town of fewer than 1,000 people, a 45-minute drive southwest of Jackson. After the museum closed in 2012, the 4,000 pieces in the collection were put into storage. But people continued to donate artifacts even as the collection languished out of sight.
In 2017, a group of prominent Jewish secular leaders launched a $10 million fundraising campaign to move the collection to New Orleans, home to some 10,000 Jews, and give it a new permanent home. The museum’s three galleries now occupy part of any downtown building. It’s a small space, around 9,000 square feet, although the museum intends to expand as its collection grows.
Many of the recent additions come from donations from community members who rescued them from the closets and attics of their families’ homes. With so many items on display, the museum plans to rotate exhibits every few months so it can show as much of its collection as possible.
The museum has a form on its website for people to submit their items, but many of the donations have come by word of mouth. In a section devoted to the Holocaust and World War II, Tucker shows a large photo of a group of people sitting in a field. The photo, she said, was taken by Paul Arst, a Jew from Mississippi who was fighting with the Allies in Germany. The people in the photo were Jews who, until troops arrived, had been trapped in a cattle car bound for a concentration camp.
“This photo has never been seen before because it was hidden in a family album,” Tucker said.
Indeed, during the opening, Tucker was casually approached by several visitors who wanted to share their own family’s heirlooms or offer stories about the exhibit’s photographs.
While many visitors to the opening had personal connections to the stories in the exhibit, the Museum of Jewish Experience of the South’s goal is to be an educational resource for Jews and non-Jews alike. Jay Tanenbaum, the chairman of the museum’s board, said he expects about 30,000 guests a year, most of whom won’t be Jewish. As part of the permanent exhibition, a section is devoted to Jewish terms and practices.
“We want to educate visitors about who we are as Southern Jews and how we are part of the American community,” Tanenbaum said. “At the end of the day, education is still the best way to fight anti-Semitism.”