May 23, 2023| Main Spotlight: Connecting with Communities on Main Street | By: Josh Parshall, Director of History at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish History |
The Hesdorffer family arrived in Canton, Mississippi, after the Civil War and owned a number of local businesses over the subsequent decade. Courtesy of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.
May is Jewish American Heritage Month. How can your Main Street engage and support the local Jewish American community?
• Preserve historic legacies of Jewish business owners.
• Find opportunities to recognize and celebrate Jewish holidays as a community.
• Collaborate with communities leaders on a walking tour, mapping project, or event.
Next time you travel through a historic downtown district, take a close look at the names you see. Whether they are engraved on the upper levels of the storefronts, laid out in entryway tiles, or painted on brick walls, some of those names—Cohen, Kaplan, Levine, Berkowitz—might be recognizably Jewish. Others might not, but either way there is a good chance that Jewish retailers once occupied some of these local storefronts. Depending on where you are, you might find a remaining Jewish-owned store. More often, you’ll catch traces of local Jewish history, which provide clues to a larger American story: the ups and downs of these local Jewish-owned enterprises typically follow the ups and downs of the local economy.
As a historian of the Jewish South, I spend much of my time learning about small Jewish communities in places like Canton, Mississippi; Ashland, Kentucky; and Wilburton, Oklahoma. Jewish migrants usually arrived in such towns early in their development, starting out as peddlers or dry goods merchants in these emerging commercial hubs. Over time, the most successful Jewish retailers became prominent and highly visible members of their local communities. As conditions changed, however, the once commonplace Jewish-owned department store (as well as more modest establishments) began to go out of business. This occurred early in a number of nineteenth century and early-twentieth century boomtowns, but small-town Jewish businesses began to disappear nationally by the 1970s or so. In many cases, the descendants of Jewish merchants went into other professions or left town for larger urban centers, even as the rise of discount retail chains (and eventually online shopping) posed major challenges for many Jewish business owners.
As we celebrate Jewish American History Month, it’s a good time to revisit these histories, and also an opportunity to connect with the Jewish community today. If there is an active Jewish community in your area, you might be interested in collaborating with them on a project specific to your shared area and community interests. If there is no local Jewish community where you are, you can still take steps to make your Main Street feel welcoming for individual Jewish locals or visitors.
Celebrating Jewish Americans in Your Community
First, if your historic shopping district has visible signs of a Jewish presence, hold onto those. I may be a Jewish historian, but I’m not the only person whose curiosity is piqued when I see a name like Forsheimer or Rosenthal on an old sign or storefront. A preserved entryway or restored wall advertisement provides a sense of history anyway, but for observant Jewish visitors it may also provide a moment of connection in an unexpected place.
Second, look for ways to celebrate holidays more inclusively. Partner with a local synagogue to host a menorah lighting ceremony at Hanukkah, and/or place a menorah out alongside your decorative Christmas tree. There are also many other Jewish holidays throughout the year, more culturally significant than Hanukkah, such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover; learning about these holidays, including them in community calendars, and offering greetings help folks feel welcome. You can do the same for other minority religious groups in your community. Everyone feels more included when a community calendar lists Easter, Ramadan, Passover, and so forth.
Third, invite the local or regional Jewish community in your area to get involved in historic preservation. Collaborate on a walking tour of historic Jewish businesses or develop a digital mapping project that highlights the multi-ethnic character of local commercial life.
Finally, it’s worth noting that, for the most part, Jewish American want the same things as other folks. Our community is diverse, and (at our best) we embrace the diversity of other communities. A Main Street that is broadly accessible and comfortable for a wide range of people, across all identities, will also appeal to Jewish locals and visitors alike.