Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
Southern Jewish Culture

Museum of Southern Jewish Experience to Mount Major Exhibit on Southern Jewish Culture in Jackson, Mississippi

The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE) in Utica, Mississippi, is planning its next exhibition Alsace to America: Discovering Southern Jewish Heritage, curated by Dr. Pamela Sezgin, to be shown in nearby Jackson, MS, May 29 - August 31, 1998.

Alsace to America is about how people operate with multiple identities which interact and change over time. Alsatian Jews in the American South have national, religious, and regional identities. These identities are defined and illustrated in different parts of the exhibit to show cultural change and flexibility in a New World setting. Alsatian Jews came to America with identities as French or German citizens, as French and German-speakers, and Jewish by religion. Old World documents such as birth certificates, identity papers, and edicts or decrees limiting movement in Alsace illustrate the political parameters of identity as well as the restrictions and reasons for migration to America. Artifacts such as Alsatian furniture, ceramics, household items, and items associated with home religious observances bring Old World customs into the New World setting. These artifacts will be arranged in an interior of a home showing the Sabbath evening meal, evoking the warm memories of family and hospitality. Unlike their brethren who clustered in large communities in northeastern or midwestern American cities, Alsatian Jews in the South found opportunity in uncharted areas. Artifacts from the businesses and professions they pursued in the New World context illustrate their pioneering spirit and sense of entrepreneurship. Southern identity was demonstrated with their active participation in the Confederate cause. Historic photographs of business districts in small southern towns, and Jews as peddlers and merchants illustrate traditional occupations. But new opportunities were also manifest in the 19th century, as illustrated by the activities of Jewish photographers, poets, planters, cotton factors, bankers, and architects. Although Alsatian Jews never formed their own, distinct communities, they did participate in the communal life of the Jewish and general communities in which they resided. An interior of a synagogue featuring a beautiful stained glass window and Holy Ark for housing the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) is recreated to represent Jewish communal life in the exhibit. As well, silver trophies and commemorative plaques from participation in civic associations show the contributions of Alsatian Jews in their new southern communities.

Additional segments of the exhibition will be on view at the museum's home site at the UAHC's Henry S. Jacobs Institute for Living Judaism in Utica, MS, and in its new venue, at Temple B'nai Israel in Natchez. The major part of the exhibition located in Jackson is designed to engage the larger audience anticipated for the Splendors of Versailles exhibit, sponsored by the Mississippi International Commission on Culture scheduled for the same period. The move signals an expansion of MSJE's recent planning efforts to reach a larger non-Jewish audience for its exhibitions and educational programming. The success of the venture will be watched by many smaller "niche' museums around the country. MSJE expects up to 50,000 people to visit the exhibit in Jackson, where space has been secured in the Mtel Center across the street from the Mississippi Museum of Art.

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Updated: 23-July-98