A couple of years ago, I became aware of two museums in Mississippi that deal with the state's history. Unlike many of Mississippi's older, more established museums, these are fairly new, having been around only since the mid-1980's. They are not, however, Civil War museums, museums that showcase Native American history and culture, or museums that chronicle the history of the music phenomenon known as The Delta Blues. They are museums that have a mission "to document and preserve the rich history of the Southern Jewish experience." If you are among those who may be searching for information about Southern Jewish ancestors, their lives, and their customs, the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, or "ISJL," may just be the place to visit. Two locations now exist, the original location in Utica, Mississippi, near Jackson, and a newer site in historic Natchez, Mississippi. The ISJL's website describes the original museum facility as sitting on "a beautiful rural setting on the 300-acre site of the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi.....with exhibit galleries and a central sanctuary that is actively used for programs and services." The Natchez museum is located at 213 South Commerce Street at Washington Street, and houses an exhibit that documents the history and everyday life of Natchez's Jewish families, beginning with the arrival of the first Sephardic Jewish families in the late 1700s. Of interest here, is the fact that the oldest Jewish congregation in Mississippi was housed at the temple in Natchez. Behind the stained glass windows and historic walls of Temple B'nai Israel are a century-old organ and an ark made out of marble.
For readers who live outside the State of Mississippi, it may be a surprise to hear that the Magnolia state would have enough Jewish population to warrant these two museums. But the fact is that Jews have lived in the South since the 18th century. A large portion of that population likely resulted from the mass emigration of Jews from the Alsace-Lorraine region in Europe to the United States during that time period. And many of these families migrated further south. This theory is supported by information on the museum's website that states "as early as 1820, more Jews lived in Charleston, South Carolina than in New York City." If you haven't visited Mississippi's wonderful museums, I encourage you to do so. And don't forget to include the ISJL. These museums will certainly be worth the "southern experience."