Making History South of I-285

Making History South of I-285

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

A look back gave a glimpse at the future Monday night, Nov. 2, in Peachtree City.

Straus Historical Society Executive Director Joan Adler
Straus Historical Society Executive Director Joan Adler

About 20 people gathered in the home of Jim and Judy Freeman to hear Joan Adler discuss the Straus family, the 19th-century German Jewish immigrants who owned Macy’s for 100 years. In a talk called “From Pushcart to Macy’s,” the executive director of the Straus Historical Society took us from southwestern Germany to Philadelphia to a sales route based in Oglethorpe, Ga., to a classic “Jew store” operating out of half a barbershop in Talbotton to a bigger store in Columbus — all before the Yankees won the Civil War — then on to New York City and a budding retail empire within 20 years, the opening of the iconic flagship store on 34th Street in 1902, and lives of influence and philanthropy well into the 20th century.

Adler, based on Long Island, was making her Georgia rounds before appearing at the annual Harvest Days in Old Talbot on Nov. 7 and 8 in Junction City in South Georgia. She spoke about the heartbreaking connection between the Straus family and Anne Frank’s father on Nov. 1 at the Breman Museum and was scheduled to repeat the discussion Nov. 4 at the University of Georgia.

If you get the chance to see her lecture, take it. After 25 years of working with and researching the Straus family, she is overflowing with delightful details. Some examples:

  • The family picked the name Straus after Napoleon mandated last names in 1808 (a decree Adler found in the family papers in 1990). Straus means ostrich in German; Strauss is a bunch of flowers. The family legend is that an ostrich lived near Lazarus Straus’ house in Otterberg and inspired the name, but Adler suspects Lazarus just made a mistake and left off the second s.
  • Isidor Straus, Lazarus’ oldest son and the man more than any other who made Macy’s, was a 16-year-old who dreamed of military adventure when the Civil War broke out. Denied a chance to serve with a volunteer company he and his friends created because Georgia wasn’t desperate enough in 1861 to enlist underequipped boys, he planned to enroll in the Georgia Military Academy in Marietta, but a prank with a bucket of water convinced him that the military wasn’t for him.
  • After Lazarus immigrated in 1852, he brought his wife, Sara, and four children to Georgia in 1854. Isidor made that trip with his family on the maiden voyage of the S.S. St. Louis; 58 years later, he and wife Ida would die during another trans-Atlantic maiden voyage on the Titanic. And another St. Louis in 1939 was unsuccessful in bringing Jewish refugees from Germany to America.
  • Isidor’s brother Nathan learned Louis Pasteur’s heat process to kill bacteria in liquids, applied it to milk, called it pasteurization, and championed the spread of the process from New York around the world. Youngest brother Oscar didn’t join the family business but, among other things, became the first Jewish Cabinet secretary when he served as secretary of commerce and labor under Teddy Roosevelt.

The historical tales woven out of such threads kept the group enthralled for hours, but the group itself could be making history by helping spark a Jewish revival south of the Perimeter, where I’m told people are being drawn by the lifestyle and the filmmaking at Pinewood Atlanta Studios.

Exciting things are happening. Congregation B’nai Israel has a new rabbi, Rick Harkavy. Chabad of Peachtree City reportedly drew more than 150 people for a bar mitzvah and celebration of its new home over the weekend. The Temple is reaching southward with its Temple Tribe of the Southside, the group behind Adler’s visit.

Don Thomas, the evening’s organizer, urged bringing the south-side community together regularly to talk about Israel, and Sharon Hudgins of B’nai Israel said a planning meeting Nov. 16 will discuss pro-Israel activism. Tom Keating suggested integrating south-siders into a soon-to-launch series of talks about Israel at The Temple, with every fourth meeting being held south of the city instead of in Midtown. Judy Freeman, who moved to Peachtree City from California last year, just wants the group to get together every month or so for events like the one she and her husband hosted Monday night.

It was almost a 50-mile drive from the AJT offices to the Freeman home, but it was well worth the time to gain some southern exposure to the future of another vibrant part of our Jewish community.

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