A Story of Jewish Experience in Mississippi

A Story of Jewish Experience in Mississippi

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Leon Waldoff

Series: North American Jewish Studies
ISBN: 9781618118882 (hardcover) / 9781618118899 (paper)
Pages: 218 pp.; 11 illus.
Publication Date: January 2019

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Through the story of his Russian–Jewish parents’ arrival and in the Mississippi region, the author reveals the experience of the Jewish community in Hattiesburg from the 1920s through the 1960s, as it goes through times of prosperity but also faces the dangers of anti-Semitism. The story starts with the author’s father arriving in 1924 to become a peddler and then a merchant, joined by his mother in 1925, and follows the author himself as he searches into the history of his parents and the Jewish community, as well as a variety of its members: a young Jewish man who is tried and convicted of murder; Arthur Brodey, a Reform rabbi who gains wider acceptance for the congregation; Charles Mantinband, a rabbi whose civil rights activities won national recognition but stirred fears of Klan violence in his congregation; and Waldoff’s brother-in-law “B” Botnick of the Anti-Defamation League, whose work made him a target of assassin Byron de la Beckwith.

Leon Waldoff is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.  He is the author of books on Keats and Wordsworth, as well as articles and essays on other Romantic poets and British authors. He was born and raised in Hattiesburg.

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Not every Jewish immigrant from Russia and Eastern Europe who landed at Ellis Island ended up in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side. Some of them reached such unlikely destinations as the chicken farms of Petaluma and the frozen wastes of North Dakota. Relatively few of them, however, tried to make a new life in the heart of the Deep South. A Story of Jewish Experience in Mississippi by Leon Waldoff is a heartfelt but also meticulously researched and deeply insightful account of one family that did. ... Not until he undertook the research for his book did Waldoff fully understand the unspoken rules that governed race relations in the Deep South. … To his great credit, Waldoff suggests throughout his affecting book that the Jews in Mississippi and elsewhere in the Deep South could have and should have recognized their common cause with their black neighbors far sooner than they did. And yet, to the credit of the Jewish leaders and activists that he also writes about, Waldoff demonstrates that the Jewish community, once roused to action, joined the struggle with strength and good courage.
— Jonathan Kirsch, the Jewish Journal
In addition to providing new first-person material, Waldoff attends to questions of narrative and memory, not only reporting family stories, but noting omissions, inaccuracies, and discrepancies in and between various accounts. This tendency reflects the author’s background in literary studies, and it enriches the text. … A Story of Jewish Experience in Mississippi succeeds as a blended family history and memoir. Waldoff competently retells a specific, multigenerational story that speaks at once to the local conditions of Jewish life in Hattiesburg and to regional, national, and transnational developments in Jewish life and culture. Passages are rich and detailed, and his emphasis on memory and narrative suggests the possibilities of a more interdisciplinary approach to the Jewish South.
— Joshua Parshall, Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, Southern Jewish History
What happens when a Professor Emeritus of English writes the story of his family’s settlement in America? In the case of A Story of Jewish Experience in Mississippi we get a modest size book with huge insights to important factors of American—especially Southern—Jewish history. … I recommend A Story of Jewish Experience in Mississippi especially for the insight it gives to this aspect of American history.
— Janice Rothschild Blumberg, The Jewish Georgian
Caught in a treacherous landscape of race and faith somewhere between blacks and whites in the deep South, the Jews of twentieth-century Mississippi carved out successful but often troubled and secretive lives. Now, as America struggles with resurgent attacks on the Other, Leon Waldoff has written an insightful look into his own family history and a Jewish community’s painful search for the right path through hatred and jealousy toward a precious freedom.
— Marc Fisher, senior editor, The Washington Post and author of Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money and Power
Waldoff’s vivid account of his parents’ separate journeys from Russia to America and of the lives they created in Hattiesburg, Mississippi abounds in grainy personal details not usually found in histories of immigration or Southern Jewry. So too do his astute reflections on the life of their small Jewish community, never quite sure of its social position in the segregated South, as it endured through the Great Depression and World War II, and struggled to keep its moral balance during the conflicts over Civil Rights.
— Michael Shapiro, founding director of the Program in Jewish Culture and Society at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: From Russia to Mississippi
Chapter 2: A Merchant, After All
Chapter 3: Fear in Low Profile: An Incident in the 1930s
Chapter 4: Our Home
Chapter 5: Surviving the Depression, Finding Acceptance, Anticipating War
Chapter 6: Breaking the Silence about Segregation
Chapter 7: Fear in High Profile: Terrorism in the 1960s