One man’s dream was to save other people’s memories. When Macy B. Hart was camp director of Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Mississippi, he began to see that small congregations in the South were closing. Hart decided there was an urgent need to save the artifacts and religious memorabilia and memories of these once-thriving Jewish communities.
Macy gathered arks, Torah scrolls, eternal lights and in 1998, a large exhibition opened at the camp in Utica, Miss. In 2000, after collecting over 3,000 artifacts, Macy left the camp, and started the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.
More recently, the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience opened May 27 as a nonprofit in New Orleans.
Atlanta resident Jay Tanenbaum is chair of the MSJE board and a member of its founding executive committee. “As former chair of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, when we decided to close the original museum, I felt an obligation to build on what had been started. This was an opportunity to create something wonderful that could strengthen the future of the Southern Jewish South and its ties to the larger community.”
The museum’s permanent collection now includes 4,000 artifacts and traces the history of Jewish contributions to the cultural, political and economic landscape of the American South. The museum highlights bonds of friendship that developed between Jews and gentiles in the South with multi-media and interactive exhibits. An introductory film unfolds the history of the South in the early 1700s and the early 1900s immigration to America through Galveston, also known as “the Ellis Island of the South.”
The collection focuses on popular culture, and includes musician Kinky Friedman’s album, a Bill Goldberg wrestling figurine and a glittered, lacquered bagel from a Jewish Mardi Gras krewe, Krewe du Jieux, focused on defeating Jewish stereotypes.
Food exhibits present a look at Southern and soul cuisine, with recipes, photos and advertisements showing how Jews balanced the marriage of Jewish and Southern traditions.
The Civil Rights and Activism exhibition follows stories of the Southern Jewish activists demanding equal rights for all people throughout the 20th century. Photos, artifacts and oral histories explore the wide range of roles and perspectives held by Jewish activists.
Rarely seen images introduce the post-World War II phenomenon of Jewish intellectuals moving to the South to teach at Historically Black Colleges and Universities as a result of anti-Semitic quotas at many institutions.
Jewish beliefs, traditions and celebrations include an introduction to sacred texts, symbols and sounds, with nearly 50 stained glass window reproductions from Southern synagogues.
“The cumulative histories of Jews who settled in the South is a remarkable testament to the possibilities of America,” Tanenbaum said. “In telling these stories, we hope to show how people of different religions and cultures can come together to build better communities and how we can unite for a better future.”
The museum will host a photography exhibition featuring works by Bill Aron, curated by Anna Tucker and Vicki Reikes Fox.
Tanenbaum continued, “Over 30 years ago, the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience launched an ambitious initiative with project director Vicki Reikes Fox and photographer Bill Aron to capture images of rural and urban Southern Jewish communities. One trip turned into a 14-year-project, resulting in a time capsule of Southern Jewish life in the 1980s and 1990s.
“These images present us with a sense of continuity, perhaps even surprising us with a feeling of familiarity. This exhibition provides one interpretation of an unfolding and everchanging narrative, preserved in snapshots of a past time that compels us to examine the present.”
A gala celebration is planned for early October.
The museum is located at 818 Howard Ave. in New Orleans, open daily Wednesday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed Tuesday and select holidays.
- Susanne Katz
- Macy B. Hart
- Henry S. Jacobs Camp
- Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life
- Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience
- New Orleans
- Jay Tanenbaum
- Institute of Southern Jewish Life
- Kinky Friedman
- Bill Goldberg
- Krewe du Jieux
- Bill Aron
- Anna Tucker
- Vicki Reikes Fox