From matzo to gumbo: Museum explores Southern Jewish life

In this rendering provided by the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, an area of the new museum is seen in New Orleans. The new museum under construction in New Orleans will explore the journey of immigrant Jews and subsequent generations to the American South who brought with them a religious way of life they struggled to maintain while seeking acceptance in the home of the Bible Belt. (Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience via AP)

NEW ORLEANS – A new museum under construction in New Orleans will explore the journey of immigrant Jews and subsequent generations to the American South who brought with them a religious way of life they struggled to maintain while seeking acceptance in the home of the Bible Belt.

With multimedia interactive exhibits and a collection of more than 7,000 artifacts, the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience will illustrate the ways Southern and Jewish cultures influenced each another’s families, businesses, religions, politics and food habits as Jewish staples like potato latkes and matzo ball soup were met with Southern grits and gumbo.

There will be also be exhibits on harder-hitting issues, such as race relations, Jewish slave ownership and anti-Semitism.

In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, most Jewish immigrants lived in the Northeast, but thousands settled across the South, said Kenneth Hoffman, the museum’s executive director.

“This can tell us about the history of the South in a way that we haven’t looked at it before,” Hoffman said. “It can tell us about diversity and the importance of diversity for strengthening not only our Southern communities but America in general.”

A museum highlight is a colorful patchwork quilt that a group of Jewish women in Canton, Mississippi, made in 1885 to raise funds to build a synagogue there.

The gallery with the quilt will have an interactive station where visitors can sit down at a table and use a touchscreen to create, electronically, their own quilt square and add it to a quilt of other digital squares made by fellow visitors.

“It speaks to the coming together of many different pieces, many different colors, many different fabrics to create something brand new and beautiful,” Hoffman said.

Once open, museum visitors will be able to watch a video introduction in a theater gallery and view elaborate Jewish spice boxes, prayer books and tzedakah boxes often found in Jewish homes that are used for collecting coins for charity.

Organizers say the museum is designed to be a source of pride for the Jewish community, but it’s also intended to be a welcoming and informative space for the general public.

“This is a lesson on the American experience, what happens when strangers come to a strange land, where we work together to build communities … accept people that are different than ourselves,” said Jay Tanenbaum, the museum’s chairman, whose great-grandfather emigrated from Poland to the tiny town of Dumas, Arkansas, eventually running a cotton gin there and establishing roots for four generations.

Tanenbaum says his family’s history is one repeated “thousands of times over” across the South, as Jewish families like his worked hard to adapt and built strong, loving bonds within their communities.

He said he’s hoping that sharing these stories will help curb violence against Jews. In the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, acts of violence against American Jews was on the rise, with 2019 seeing the most violence in four decades, according to the Anti-Defamation League. That year included deadly attacks on a California synagogue, a Jewish grocery store in New Jersey and a rabbi’s New York home.

“If we put together a museum and have lots of visitors who are not Jewish who come to understand the similarities and the way we all work together and the loving relationships, we think that is maybe the best thing we can do to promote the safety and security of Jewish communities and Jewish individuals,” Tanenbaum said.

The museum’s artifact collection comes from the original Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, which first opened in 1986 at a Jewish summer camp in rural Utica, Mississippi. It was founded as a repository for artifacts from small Southern communities as Jewish populations began leaving for bigger cities.

That museum was shuttered in 2012, when organizers began looking for a location with better public access and to expand the mission from small-town artifacts to telling the full Southern Jewish experience across 13 states and spanning some 300 years, from Colonial times through the civil rights movement.

New Orleans was selected for the reboot for its vibrant tourism base, long Jewish history and historical connection to the broader South.

The museum is being constructed in a more than century-old building along one of the city’s main streetcar lines near the National WWII Museum, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the Contemporary Arts Center.

Originally scheduled to open in fall 2020, construction was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down much of New Orleans when the city emerged as an early hotspot for the deadly virus.

Tourism remains crippled, but the museum is on track to open within the first quarter of 2021, Hoffman said. An exact date has not been set.