For thousands of years, Jewish life has been a long and historical journey, from village to village and country to country to escape oppression and to preserve a heritage.
Even in America today, Jewish life continues that journey, quietly shifting from small towns to large cities, particularly in the South, as Jews seek another generation of opportunity for themselves and their children.
“Bagels & Grits: Exploring Jewish Life in the Deep South,” an exhibit now on display at the Temple Israel Museum until May 31, takes a pictorial look at how Southern Jews were able to thrive in the South by fusing their religious tradition with Southern culture.
Pictured in most of the 20 black-and-white images are the faces of Jewish immigrants and their descendants who settled in Southern towns and cities for a better life.
There they made a living and adopted the culture of their surroundings, while holding on to the teachings and traditions of their faith. They became merchants and farmers and doctors and lawyers. They built synagogues, celebrated the Jewish holidays, and raised their children. They survived by blending into the life around them as their forefathers had done for thousands of years in lands far away.
“When people ask me what happened to the Jews in the Mississippi Delta, I tell them that their families are still around. They just moved to Memphis,’’ said Rabbi Micah Greenstein, senior rabbi at Temple Israel.
The Bagels & Grits exhibit was created by photographer Bill Aron, who dedicated 14 years to preserving the images of Southern Jewish life. Many of the people he photographed are the descendants of Jewish immigrants who came to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries fleeing oppression and to seek a better life. And some are themselves immigrants, while others are simply the descendants of Jews who migrated south during the course of American history.
The one common theme throughout the exhibit: Judaism has survived throughout the centuries because the Jewish people have successfully embraced and adapted to their surroundings.
Many Jewish communities continue to thrive throughout the South, mostly in larger cities such as Memphis, Atlanta, Birmingham and Nashville. But the once-thriving Jewish communities in small Southern towns have mostly disappeared; their synagogues are abandoned or demolished and some continue to function, but as Christian churches.
“A distinguishing aspect of the Temple Israel Museum is that it is a ‘living’ museum; that is, the Judaica objects in it were used by families around the world in celebrating life’s joys and commemorating life’s sorrows,’’ said Greenstein.
“Bagels and Grits is the Southern embodiment of this idea, since the photographs are of the relatives and descendants of the synagogues and towns from which many Memphis Jews are descended.’’
Bagels & Grits
What: “Bagels & Grits: Exploring Jewish Life in the Deep South,” an exhibit on loan from the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, which operates under the auspices of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss.
Where: Temple Israel, 1376 E. Massey
When: Open from 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 10 a.m. to noon Sundays, through May 31.
Sponsors: Robin and Billy Orgel and the Temple Israel Museum.
For more information: Call Temple Israel at (901) 761-3130.
Susan Adler Thorp, a former columnist for The Commercial Appeal, is president of Susan Adler Thorp Communications.