America’s only museum of Southern Jewish culture will open in fall of 2020

America’s only museum of Southern Jewish culture will open in fall of 2020

PJ Grisar

For 26 years, the only museum devoted to Jews of the American South operated on the grounds of a Reform summer camp in Utica, Miss. Since opening its doors in 1986, the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience was a hub for Southern Jews looking to get in touch with their region’s vibrant past or to donate the remnants of their dwindling small town communities. For Kenneth Hoffman, it was also a place to stay cool in the swelter of a Mississippi summer.

“The cabins were not air-conditioned, but the museum was,” said Hoffman, a former camper and counselor at the URJ Henry S. Jacobs camp. “So it was always a popular destination.”

But Hoffman returned to the museum for more than its temperature control. He interned there during a summer off from graduate school at Tulane University, where he got his Master’s of History in 1993. The museum shuttered, with an eye toward expansion, in 2012, while Hoffman was working as the director of education at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. His background and experience won him a lunch with its leadership and, a few years later, he is now spearheading the museum’s grand re-opening in his home state of Louisiana as the institute’s executive director.

The museum has come a long way since its days at the Jacobs Camp, with a new building boasting 9,000 square feet of exhibit space set to open this fall a few blocks from New Orleans’ French Quarter in the heart of the city’s museum district.

“New Orleans has a great tourism economy,” Hoffman said. “New Orleans has a rich Jewish history. New Orleans has Tulane University, which has, surprisingly, a very high percentage of Jewish students and a growing Jewish Studies program. For all these reasons, New Orleans was the place to do this.”

The museum is devoted to 13 states: The 11 Confederate ones plus Kentucky and Oklahoma. Not Maryland, though. “Maryland has a wonderful Jewish museum already,” Hoffman said.
Courtesy of the Museum of… / Leon Hersdorffer of Mississippi owned a wholesale and retail liquor distribution operation. Because Mississippi passed its first statewide prohibition law in 1907 (enacted in 1908), this jug dates to before that time.

Each state has its own unique Jewish history, though the narratives as a whole diverge from the early Jewish American experience most Yankees may be familiar with.

“The story of Jews in the South parallels a lot of American history,” Hoffman said, explaining that it begins in Colonial times (albeit Spanish and French colonies, not British ones).

Jews who moved to the early South from abroad largely found their niche as merchants, having little experience with agriculture. Because much of the non-Jewish population consisted of farmers, Jewish peddlers and dry goods store owners provided a necessary service. While statistically tiny in Southern communities — around 2% or fewer most places — Jews had an outsized influence, becoming integral parts of the community as active philanthropists and even mayors of large and small towns. They didn’t necessarily have delis or a large choice of shuls, but they did have something else: That much-talked about Southern hospitality.

Courtesy of the Museum of… /  The Strauss family, Germany, c. 1890. Members of the Strauss family moved to Louisiana and established F. Strauss & Son, Inc. The wholesale grocery company became a staple of the Louisiana town. Donated by Morris Mintz.

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