Born in a small town

The writer revisits her Jewish origins in the Deep South.

September 17, 2007 07:23
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heska amuna 88 224. (photo credit: )


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The kaleidoscope of images from my community in Knoxville, Tennessee, includes Jews burying their Civil War dead, peddling pots and pans in the mountains by horse and wagon and praying on vinegar barrels. Later snapshots reveal a plucky Knoxville Jew who bought The New York Times, a "5 o'clock shadow" and social anti-Semitism, a notorious murder, a million-dollar basketball coach and Tennessee's first female Jewish judge, who makes headlines by presiding over sensational trials. Less known is the fact that at judicial conferences she refuses to eat catfish, a Southern staple, because it's not kosher. Knoxville ranks as Tennessee's third-largest city, after Memphis and Nashville. Headquarters to the Tennessee Valley Authority and the University of Tennessee, it lies in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, America's most-visited national park. A little more than 1 percent of Knoxville's 175,000 residents are Jewish. We support a Reform temple, Conservative synagogue, Chabad House and Jewish community center. Many years ago a UT student from out of state found the place so charming he kibbitzed about writing a book called Peach Blossoms at Passover. Although the launching point for Knoxville's Jewish community remains unclear, the community gelled in the early 1860s when it established its first cemetery. "They understood the Civil War was coming and were concerned someone from their community would be in the war and die," says Rabbi Beth Schwartz, who arrived at Temple Beth El in 1999 and became the first woman with such a pulpit in East Tennessee. "Knoxville is a nice little mirror of American Jewish history," she adds. "It's common that the first formal Jewish institution was the burial society." Small Jewish communities across the American frontier followed the pattern, according to A Separate Circle: Jewish Life in Knoxville, Tennessee, by Wendy Lowe Besmann (The University of Tennessee Press, 2001). They started a cemetery, collected money for the sick and indigent, created a religious school, then founded a formal house of worship. "By the fall of 1861, war between the states seemed inevitable. Solomon Lyons invited Knoxville's seven Jewish families to a meeting in his home and offered the use of his company's plot as a burial ground," reports Besmann. Young Joseph Schwab, a liquor merchant's son who died while serving with the Confederate troops in Virginia, became the first Jew buried there. And the Hebrew Benevolent Association of Knoxville became the Jewish community's first organization, not only providing a cemetery, but also religious services "in the Ashkenazi (German) form" and money for indigent and "distressed" Jews. Listed as one of the group's trustees was Julius Ochs, father of Adolph Ochs, who would one day become publisher of The New York Times. The name of the association became Temple Beth El in 1877. In the early years, members held services in their homes, rented space or used Jacob Spiro's Cider and Vinegar Works, where vinegar barrels served as seats. Julius Ochs served as rabbi. "The tiny circle of German Juden was about to change dramatically," Besmann writes. "The Yidden were coming from Eastern Europe, and the impact of their arrival would be felt all over the South." Heska Amuna, an Orthodox congregation, sprouted up in 1890, with East Europeans as its backbone. MY GRANDFATHER, Max Robinson, found his way from Russia to Knoxville, of all places, in the early 1900s. His uncle, Benjamin "B.J." Thorpe, preceded him as a junk dealer, a common trade in those days. "Papa Max" and one of his five brothers first appeared in the city directory in 1911, listed as grocers. In America their name changed from Robinovitz or Rabinowitz to Robinson. (I once had a funny exchange with Ben Rabinowitz, a convert who grew up in nearby Oak Ridge, Tenn. "Our name used to be Robinovitz," I told him. "Ours used to be Robinson," he replied.) Over the next few years, Papa Max's other brothers trickled in, having escaped conscription into the Russian army. At some point they lived at the Knoxville YMCA. In 1914 and 1916, Papa Max dropped off the radar; his name is missing from the city directory. I assume that's when he went back to Russia to retrieve other family members. The old-timers didn't talk about those days to their American-born children, including my father and his brother, so I was enlightened by this entry in Besmann's book: "At the end of World War I, the brothers sent Max back to Lithuania in order to search for their widowed mother amid the tumult of the Bolshevik Revolution. When he finally found her, half-starved in the basement of a ruined building, he nursed her back to health for three months and then returned with her to Knoxville." Like others of their generation, the Robinson brothers mainly worked as merchants. One, Frank, was killed in a horse-and-wagon accident while peddling in the mountains of East Tennessee. "They would stay at farmers' houses along the route in exchange for pots, pans, chazerai they sold," says my father, Alfred. Another of his uncles, A.J., worked as Heska Amuna's kosher butcher and kashrut inspector, as well as a grocer. Among the other grocers in the history of the Knoxville Jewish community was Ben Goodstein. His only child, Joe, who made aliya last year at 81, remembers going to the train station to pick up deliveries of kosher salami and other staples. A.J. Robinson would slaughter chickens for Ben on Thursday, and women would throng to the store on Friday to buy them. "We'd have a Chinese fire drill. It was wild," recalls Joe, an architect who moved to Israel with his wife, Marion, to be near two of their children, along with 12 grandchildren. In total, Marion and Joe already had tallied about 60 trips there. The Goodsteins played an active role in the Knoxville Jewish community. Over the decades, they hosted thousands of guests for Shabbat and holiday meals. Marion was known as the community's "Halla Lady," having started selling the braided bread commercially after she launched Kosher Karry-outs during the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville. Joe chaired the Heska Amuna board of trustees, United Jewish Appeal and the Bonds for Israel drive. Marion served as president of Hadassah and the Sisterhood, as well as the first female president of Heska Amuna. "We used to say we played musical presidencies," she quips, noting that in a small community, members need to pitch in. "A lot of cities our size don't have a hevra kadisha [burial society]," Marion says, speaking of Knoxville. "We have both, men's and women's." She and her husband agree life in the South was unique because everyone counted in making the community vibrant. Also, as Jewish teenagers they had a vast array of acquaintances, meeting peers from Nashville to New Orleans through groups like Young Judaea and B'nai B'rith Youth Organization. As Joe says, "We visited communities. For instance, in New York they don't even know their neighbors. I knew people in Birmingham, Memphis, Atlanta, Nashville, just because we went there." The tradition continued in my generation. BBYO and Young Judaea, the Zionist youth group, offered support and connection for us in the Jewish hinterlands. RACHEL SILVERMAN, a childhood friend who now lives in the San Francisco Bay area, returned to Knoxville this summer for our first BBYO reunion. We hadn't talked since her parents spirited her and her brother, Matt, away to Colorado after ninth grade. Comparing notes, she and I realized we both had felt excluded in junior high after hanging out with the popular crowd in elementary school. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, neither we nor any other Jewish girls we remembered were invited to join sororities called Able Aces and JUGS. (I'm hoping that stood for Just Us Girls.) Was it covert anti-Semitism? Perhaps. In any case, the separation felt devastating to awkward new teenagers. That's why BBYO provided such a haven. As Deborah Bush Roberts, a fourth-grade teacher who helped organize the 2007 reunion, says, "It gives a sense of belonging and a sense of security. Being Jewish in the South is very hard. Often you feel like an oddball. But when you have a strong relationship with these kids, it strengthens your identity and your self-esteem." She remembers BBYO offered leadership training and the chance to meet people from other cities - "more availability of guys for the girls and girls for the guys, because our parents wouldn't let us date people who weren't Jewish." While in high school, Deborah's daughter, Meagan, was crowned "sweetheart" of our local chapter of Aleph Zadik Aleph, the fraternity component of BBYO. Meagan now works as an education outreach fellow at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Mississippi. Barry Wolf, whose parents sold kosher pastries at Quality Bakery in downtown Knoxville for decades, remembers that Jewish boys used to bond not only in AZA, but also playing basketball at the Arnstein Jewish Community Center. Barry and my father belonged to Jewish fraternities at UT. Growing up in Knoxville, my father recalls, "There was a gentleman's agreement on anti-Semitism. It wasn't discussed, but you knew it was there." That carried over to adulthood, when Jewish businessmen didn't belong to the City Club downtown. In A Separate Circle, Besmann calls the phenomenon a "5 o'clock shadow," which she describes as "a kind of tacit apartheid that excluded Jews... from social events outside business hours." Not everyone had that experience, however. Harold Diftler, a retired dentist, says, "I felt no discrimination whatsoever. And I think the immigrants were very much accepted." He remembers the old-timers as "eccentric and exceptional people, because they came to this country and used their wits." His wife, Joyce, a social worker and one of my father's first cousins, recalls Knoxville as a safe, happy place to grow up. The "peach blossoms at Passover" description by a UT student long ago has stuck with her. One dark stain on the community was the brutal murder of jeweler Harry Busch's 68-year-old wife Rose, in November 1968. She was stabbed multiple times with a paring knife and shot once in the front hallway of her home. There was no sign of forced entry. The next day a city brush crew half a mile from the Busch house in tony Sequoyah Hills found a police hat and badge, bloody gloves and overcoat and a 22-caliber semiautomatic with a broken silencer. "It's probably the most famous unsolved murder in Knoxville history," says Jim Balloch, veteran reporter for the News Sentinel. He says Harry immediately went into seclusion and offered a reward, but didn't take a polygraph test until May 1969. Meanwhile, in April, the new widower married Sayde Tisch, a member of the family that founded the hotel conglomerate Loews Corp. Harry died at 103 in 2002. Although we Knoxville natives remember it, the Busch murder largely has faded from the collective memory of the community. AS BESMANN notes, my generation mostly moved away for jobs, while others like her came here for work. The business community was replaced almost entirely by professionals, beginning in the 1960s when the university expanded. Today the most visible ones include Knoxville Symphony Orchestra music director Lucas Richman, Knoxville Opera general director and conductor Brian Salesky, and UT men's head basketball coach Bruce Pearl, who has led the Volunteers to rare success and whose compensation package this season is $1.3 million. Jeff Gubitz, Knoxville Jewish Alliance executive director, sees more young professionals moving in, "making fabulous salaries." They include doctors and executives with Scripps Networks, which comprises HGTV and other cable channels. In addition, says Gubitz, "We're seeing an influx of early retirees from the East Coast." They come for the four seasons, temperate climate, low cost of living, and natural beauty of the area, with its lakes and mountains. Among the transplants who have taken up residence in Knoxville are Chabad Rabbi Yossi Wilhelm and his wife, Miriam Esther, originally from New York and Chicago respectively. They moved here six years ago, and in 2006 realized a longtime dream of the community by opening a Jewish day school. Now they have 16 pupils and are adding a second and third grade. "I was hoping for 12 students this year. It is beyond my expectations. We actually took in an older group than we had planned on," says Miriam Esther. "We've gotten calls from as far as Israel from someone who works with Jewish day schools in Russia to hear how we've put together the curriculum." Among the natives remaining in town is Criminal Court Judge Mary Beth Leibowitz, a third-generation Knoxvillian whose grandfather operated a fur store here. The first woman Jewish judge in Tennessee, she says, "Every once in a while I quote Talmud and Torah in the courtroom - because it's the best thing to quote." At her first judicial conference in tranquil Paris Landing, Tennessee, everyone else was chowing down on catfish, Leibowitz relates. "I ordered something else. They asked why. I said, 'I'm Jewish.'" She addresses people in the courtroom in the traditional Southern way. "I 'sir' and 'ma'am' everybody, and I get respect in return," says Leibowitz. Exhibiting the Polish connection What can you say about a place whose sister city is Chelm? No joke. That's one of Knoxville's Polish connections. Another is that former mayor Victor Ashe serves as US ambassador to Poland. The latter accounts for an important photography exhibit's opening this summer in Warsaw. "Living On" features pictures and stories of Tennesseans who were Holocaust survivors, liberators or US Army witnesses. The Tennessee Holocaust Commission, based in Nashville, organized the exhibit, which includes portraits of 37 Holocaust survivors from Poland. In the main exhibit, from which the Poland tour was drawn, Tennessee photographer and professor Robert Heller frames 73 subjects, with biographical text by journalist Dawn Weiss Smith and curator Susan Knowles. Mira Ryczke Kimmelman, an Oak Ridge resident, grew up in Danzig - now Gdansk - and survived Majdanek, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She shares haunting memories in "Living On: Portraits of Tennessee Survivors and Liberators": "We boarded open coal cars, unable to leave, unable to move for three weeks. We ate snow. There was no food. Fifty percent of us died in transport." Kimmelman once spoke at a Knoxville synagogue about her experiences - a "moving account," as Victor Ashe recalls. Heller and officials with the Tennessee Holocaust Commission worked with Ashe and his staff at the embassy for the past year to make the Polish visit happen. Ashe serves as unofficial host of "Living On," which after leaving Warsaw may be shown in Krakow, the conference center at Auschwitz, Lublin and Lodz. Heller, who attended the Warsaw opening in June, says, "When we walked in and saw all the familiar faces - photos of people we worked with and spent time with in the past four years, we thought wasn't this incredible. These people, their images, are now back in Poland. "As powerful as it is every time the exhibit opens in a community in Tennessee, it was that much more amazing to see it in that setting," the photographer adds. "We're extremely proud that we could do this." Spotlight on Oak Ridge Oak Ridge, about 30 kilometers northwest of Knoxville, was the Secret City of World War II. Built under a cloak of mystery in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, it numbered among three places the US government chose as part of the Manhattan Project to produce the world's first atomic bombs. An isolated, tightly guarded military reservation, Oak Ridge swarmed with people working around the clock. Many of them were Jewish, local journalist Ruth Carey reported in a story for the Jewish Congregation of Oak Ridge's 40th anniversary in 1984. The average age in Oak Ridge during World War II was 27. Young Jewish scientists and military employees and their families at first held Friday night services in borrowed quarters. "At that time there was just one church in Oak Ridge: Chapel-on-the-Hill. It was used by all different religious groups. A few years later the local Jews decided to build a synagogue," says Rabbi Victor Rashkovsky, who celebrates his 25th anniversary with the Jewish Congregation of Oak Ridge this year. A home movie shows a group digging the foundation for their shul. "They did a lot by themselves. There were engineers among them," says Rashkovsky, adding that people still laugh when complaining about the building's crazy wiring. "Yep, we did it," they remind themselves. The first émigré from the former Soviet Union who was ordained a rabbi in either the Reform or Conservative movements, Rashkovsky previously worked as an art sociologist and film reviewer in Moscow. He left Russia in 1973 and graduated from the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1983. The new rabbi came directly to the Jewish Congregation of Oak Ridge, comprising mainly scientists and engineers. The Secret City has bragging rights for the largest number of PhDs per capita of any town in the nation. About half the members of Rashkovsky's congregation hold doctorates and half of the rest have master's degrees. "Among other things, that means they all read a lot. It keeps me on my toes, because I'm supposed to know a little bit more, not only about Judaism, but about political events, Israel, any problem and issue that is affecting us as Jews in today's world," Rashkovsky says. Not only are the synagogue's 100 "family units" - couples and singles - well-educated, but they also make up a cosmopolitan mix. One couple hails from Iran and Iraq, and another from Cuba and Mexico. Israeli couples include partners born in Poland and Belgium who met in Israel. While their backgrounds are diverse, the congregants' ages have become more homogeneous. When Rashkovsky and his wife, Avigail, came to Oak Ridge, 74 families belonged to the shul. "They had more than 100 children in religious school. Now we have about 15," says the 66-year-old rabbi. "We became a congregation of grandparents more than a congregation of parents." "In my congregation today, anybody younger than 50 is considered to be really young," he adds. It doesn't seem many Jews are becoming scientists anymore, muses Rashkovsky. And overall, Oak Ridge has dwindled from its peak World War II population of 75,000 to about 27,000. Meanwhile, Oak Ridge Jewish Congregation has found its ranks growing with converts. "This summer we converted eight adults," including three couples, Rashkovsky reports. "These aren't young people, 40s and 50s. They are searching for spiritual truth and find it in our congregation." The liberal congregation, comprising traditional and nearly secular Jews, follows mostly Conservative practices but isn't affiliated with any denomination. "Basically we are all one big family," says Rashkovsky, who has preached mutual respect and tolerance since the rabbinate brought him to the hills of East Tennessee a quarter century ago.

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