“There’s nothing to see out there.”
I was finishing my fried green tomatoes at the Blue and White Diner in Tunica, Mississippi. Next stop, Clarksdale, via the back roads. The local guy wanted to send me down the highway. I didn’t take his advice.
I turned west through town and crossed the tracks. I was surrounded by flat brown fields. I passed the rusted ghost of a gas station and a tired wooden railway depot. The Mississippi River was to my right, the same muddy color as the fields. I pulled onto the shoulder to let a truck pass, and then I turned off the engine to see what the Delta sounds like. Wind and diesel engines. It was cold and there was nothing to see — the local guy was right — but he was wrong, too, because it was all new to me.
That’s how I found Beth Israel Cemetery, coming into Clarksdale from the “wrong” side. I wandered, reading the names on the headstones: Binder, Tonkel, Friedman, Silverstein. I knew there was history here. I didn’t expect it to be mine.
A few miles up the road, I pulled over again at the synagogue. It’s apartments now. Built in 1910, it was replaced in 1929 by a new temple, but that one shuttered in 2003. There weren’t enough Jewish families left to keep it open.
Judaism is not the culture most people seek in the Clarksdale. Tourists go to the Crossroads, where (legend says) famous bluesman Robert Johnson traded his soul to the devil for the ability to play the guitar. They go to Ground Zero, a graffiti-covered building where the Delta’s new masters of the blues take the stage. They shop at Cat Head Records so they’ve got something to listen to while driving the Blues Highway.
I stopped at all those places, including the Crossroads. There’s a marker here, two guitars on a post in the middle of the intersection of Highway 61, the Blues Highway, and Highway 49. There’s a tamale joint, and a furniture store, and a gas station with a mini mart. I wasn’t feeling it. I went to find a café with WI-FI so I could read up on Mississippi’s Jews.
I’d forgotten much of my Civil War history; when I reached Vicksburg National Military Park, it came crashing back. The hills are covered in thousands of tiny headstones, the land reshaped to create a place in which people were guaranteed to die.
My guide, Bill Seratt, a passionate historian and head of the Vicksburg Visitors Bureau, said, “People will tell you a story about cotton, about trade, but the war was about slavery. You can’t have an operative democracy and also own other human beings. It had to end.”
We encountered a couple standing in silence at a marker showing the Confederate line. Their faces were heavy with sadness. “What a waste,” she said, while her husband slowly shook his head.
Behind a wrought-iron fence stood an array of elaborate stones, unlike the simple markers that covered the hummocks. “That’s the Jewish cemetery,” Seratt said, and hustled me off to the van.
“I thought that was weird, too,” said Rachel Myers. I was looking for back-story on the Vicksburg cemetery and found Myers, the museum coordinator at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Turns out it’s the Anshe Chesed cemetery. “It was built after the Civil War,” she said. “Land was cheap. The pre-Civil War markers were moved there when the cemetery was established.”
I asked for other signs of Jewish life in the Delta. The Institute does heritage tours and plans events with local communities for groups. For individuals? “Greenville,” Myers said. “Folks will be excited to tour you around their temple. There’s something about having a local welcome you and tell you their story.”
Benjy Nelken developed the little museum adjacent to the Greenville Hebrew Union Temple. “You know, the first elected mayor of Greenville was Jewish,” he told me in his slow drawl. “This congregation has been involved in Greenville since the beginning.”
“Most started as peddlers,” he explained. “They would go from plantation to plantation, selling goods until they got money for a storefront on Washington Avenue. By 1960, about a third of the businesses downtown were Jewish owned.” Nelken’s family ran a department store in Greenville for almost 100 years.
The history of the Jews in the Delta follows that of small-town merchants everywhere. Younger generations have moved to the city — Memphis, Atlanta, New Orleans; many of the storefronts stand empty. Nelken closed his family business in 1987 and went into real estate — and developing Greenville’s little museums. “I’m the last of my family here,” Nelkin said. “Everybody’s gone, pretty much. I’ve got a son who lives in California. He’s a screenwriter in Hollywood; he’s not coming back anytime soon.”
The Delta might seem populated with Jewish ghosts were it not for the warmth and hospitality of the people who are here now. “It’s a place where there were — are — lots of immigrants,” Myers told me. “Lebanese and Chinese and Jews; it’s a place of rich cultural diversity. You can find your own story here.”
How to Explore the Delta
- There are nonstop flights from Seattle to New Orleans or single-stop flights from Seattle to Memphis. Rent a car — it’s absolutely the best way to get around and you’ll want the freedom to explore.
- The Delta has lots of casino hotels and they may be the best value, but there are also many historic homes that have been converted into B&Bs. Some of them, like the Baer House Inn in Vicksburg, were homes to Jewish families. For a completely different feeling, book a sharecropper shack outside Greenwood at Tallahatchie Flats.
- There’s nothing kosher about Delta food, but if that’s OK with you, try it all: the tamales, the BBQ chicken sandwiches, the Mississippi mud pie, the catfish tacos, all of it. And if you want your iced tea unsweetened, be sure to ask for it that way in advance.
- The Institute for Southern Jewish Life has an online encyclopedia that includes information about the Jews of Mississippi.