Houston Jews on the Homefront

By Katie Webber, HJHA Intern

Over the past few weeks I’ve been sorting through a box we’ve recently acquired from Beth Yeshurun. This collection is special because it is the remaining pieces from Beth El Synagogue, a synagogue which later joined with Adath Yeshurun to become Beth Yeshurun, now the largest Conservative synagogue in the United States. This box has included some amazing materials from Beth El, specifically from the late 30’s and early 40’s with an extensive collection of letters from active duty service members serving in World War II.

However, the pieces which have been the most interesting to me haven’t been letters from Tunisia or France, it’s been the materials from right here in Houston. The Rabbis of the City of Houston formed a special campaign which advocated for local Houstonians to play their part in helping those in Eastern Europe who were without food. These campaign materials spoke to the shared humanity of all people as “brothers” and the moral responsibility of Houstonians as both Americans and as Jews to help others in need.

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Beth Yeshurun’s Interfaith Seder

By Emma Siegel, HJHA Intern

Passover is a holiday about acknowledgment of the other and subsequent redemption. During Passover we recite this passuk: “A wandering Aramean was my father [’arami ’oved avi]; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous” (Deuteronomy 26:5). These words serve as a reminder that the Jewish people’s concern for others should stem from the historical experience of their own people.

The Seder is a time not only to reflect on the story of the Jewish people as oppressed and redeemed, but also to acknowledge the inequities that still exist. The very fact that we read in the Haggadah that we are still enslaved is perhaps the most instructive of this concept, “Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover. This year [we are] here; next year in the land of Israel. This year [we are] slaves; next year [we will be] free people”.  These words have inspired people from all faiths in their quest for freedom.

During the Civil Rights Movement, the Seder acted as a bridge between white Jewish Americans and black Americans. This is the principle that underlies the Freedom Seder and Congregation Beth Yeshurun’s Interracial Seder as well as the shift from the Seder as a Jewish tradition to a meal of contemporary intersectionality.

On April 4, 1969, the one year anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the first Freedom Seder was held in the basement of an all-black church in Washington DC. Attendees used Rabbi Waskow’s Freedom Haggadah, which incorporated both historical Jewish elements and discussion of social-justice heroes such as Gandhi and MLK.  It was this Seder, with 800 Jews and non-Jews, white and black, that allowed for the Passover Seder to be viewed as a Jewish avenue for social justice.

As I was processing a box of photographs from the Congregation Beth Yeshurun collection, I came across an envelope full of photographs entitled “Interfaith Seder.” These photographs, in pristine quality, were not just reflective of an Interfaith Seder.  Rather, these photographs depict a racially integrated and community-oriented Seder of individuals from different faith backgrounds. On April 4, 1971, on the third anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, Beth Yeshurun and the Julia C. Hester House conducted their own interracial Seder.

The Julia C. Hester House is an organization that works “to enhance the quality of lives in the Fifth Ward and the surrounding community through programs and services promoting self-empowerment”. Congregation Beth Yeshurun’s Message Announcement for the event stated, “V. Besselle Atwell, dynamic director of the bustling neighborhood center … is a firm believer in the maxim that mental and spiritual ghettos are even more binding than physical ones.”  Reading this statement, I was instantly reminded of a topic discussed at my own Seder this year, the Slave Bible. The Slave Bible was the bible used by Christian Missionaries to convert slaves in the Caribbean. Within this Bible, it was discovered that the entire Exodus Story had been removed, so as to avoid inspiring the slaves to commit acts of rebellion against their masters. It is striking to think about how the Passover Story was viewed as a threat to the entire construction of slavery, as something that could free one not only from their own ‘mental or spiritual ghetto,’ but from the chains of physical slavery as well.

It seems that the interracial Seder was one of the first genuine interactions between Houston’s black community and the Houston Jewish Community as cited in Congregation Beth Yeshurun’s ‘The Message,’ which noted that “[s]ince real contact with Houston Jews has, unfortunately, been quite minimal, it was felt that no interracial experience could be more valuable than participating in the Seder ceremony.” From Waskow to Congregation Beth Yeshurun, the Seder was used to break the social and political barriers of segregation and create ties between the black American community and white Jewish American communities.

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A Conversation with Sherry Merfish

 By Amanda Lopatin, HJHA Intern

When I asked Sherry Merfish to tell me her title, she wasn’t sure what to say, and after talking with her for an hour, I understand why. Sherry is a Jewish woman from San Antonio, a mother, an attorney, and a feminist. Sherry told me that the title that best encompasses all of her roles is “activist,” and I agree.

Last month, I sat down with Sherry to interview her about her archives, which Sherry generously donated to Rice University and the HJHA.  Beginning in the 1980s, Sherry led a nationwide campaign against the term “JAP,” or “Jewish American Princess.” A few months ago, Sherry donated her files from this campaign to the Archive.

Though Sherry had heard the term “JAP” in passing during her childhood, she only began to realize its abhorrent sexism and anti-Semitism after becoming a mother when she saw The Official JAP Handbook for the first time. Sherry found The Official JAP Handbook at Houston’s Jewish Community Center book fair in the 1980s, and she became increasingly appalled as she perused it. Sherry realized that age-old Jewish stereotypes (such as materialism, parasitism, and lack of trustworthiness) were being attributed to Jewish women. Sherry knew immediately that she needed to do something.

To raise awareness, Sherry started by bringing the issue to the Women’s Issues Committee of the Houston Chapter of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). But Sherry didn’t just want to talk about how despicable the stereotype was. She wanted to take action to eradicate it altogether.

Sherry Merfish and Ellen Cohen (currently a member of the Houston City Council, and at that time the Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee) went to a meeting of the Houston Rabbinical Association (HRA) with a goal: to get a resolution passed addressing the stereotype. The association, which was made up of all men at the time, blew off Sherry and Ellen’s concerns, telling them to learn to take a joke. Sherry quickly realized that she would not win the Rabbis over by telling them how hurtful the sexism of the stereotype was. Instead, she focused on this term being “anti-Semitism in new packaging.”

Within an hour, the Houston Rabbinical Association accepted a resolution to address the negative stereotyping of Jewish women, to educate young people about the harms of the stereotype in religious and day schools, and remove all merchandise touting the stereotype from their gift shops.

Sherry’s success with the HRA received national attention, and the AJC held a national press conference in New York where they invited Sherry to speak and share her work. This press conference sparked a national movement to fight against the JAP stereotype. Sherry fought the “JAP” stereotype everywhere she found it — on greeting cards, in synagogue gift shops, on college campuses, and even on Saturday Night Live.

Years of leading the campaign against the JAP stereotype made it clear to Sherry that she wasn’t content practicing law, but that she wanted to continue to change the world in bigger and bigger ways. Sherry decided to work for EMILY’s List, where she led a 20 year long career of activism in electing democratic women.

Thanks to Sherry’s work, the JAP stereotype largely disappeared from popular culture. It does, however, pop up now and again in television shows or books, and when it does, Sherry is still called on to speak out against it.

The Sherry Merfish Papers (MS-815) include letters, speeches, and JAP paraphernalia, and they are available to the public for viewing and research in the Woodson Research Center in Fondren Library.

 

Correction: A previous version of this blog post inaccurately stated that Sherry’s work to fight the JAP stereotype took place the the 1970s.

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Eulogies, Memory, and Archive

By Katie Webber, HJHA Intern

An important part of the function of memory is to collectively share the past with one another. History does not live within the pages of books, but in the stories we tell to one another. None of these stories may necessarily be “true,” but all are approximations of our understandings of people and events. When we come together to share this history we are in fact creating history and creating collective memory.

As I have worked in the archives for the past few weeks, I’ve thought about how we remember and create the most intimate of histories. Eulogies encapsulate the memories of our loved ones in a time of deep mourning for their loss. We look to spiritual leaders for support, such as Rabbi Jack Segal who was the Rabbi at Beth Yeshurun for 23 years and delivered hundreds of eulogies during his time serving there. I have spent hours trying to decipher the handwriting of scrawled notes about Beth Yeshurun parishioners, sometimes scratched out and started anew as Rabbi Segal has gone back and made edits.

It is clear to me that Rabbi Segal carefully considered his role as both the preserver of memory for those who had recently passed as well as the comforter to the remaining family members. He pencils in family members who are maybe not quite officially family members, writing down that they are a sister’s fiance or a close friend to the deceased. He also carefully weaves in Psalms, those which both lament in the ancient composer’s tragedies as well as comfort us in the present day. He talks of great men and women of the Bible, whose lives he likens to those who have passed. He also shares the accomplishments of each individual’s life, their career, family, and the impact they made on the Houston community.

In a way, Rabbi Segal was also performing the work of an archivist. He had incomplete information, snapshots from a person’s life, or a letter or call from a family member if he was very lucky, and with that he constructed a narrative history. As historians, we do the same. We are left with whatever writing people have kept and given to us, pictures from important life events, and, if we are very lucky, a short interview to talk to someone about their life. Neither a eulogy nor an archive can tell the whole “truth” about history, but they both do the important work of piecing together our collective memory and, hopefully, teaching us something about ourselves in the present.

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Debuting the HJHA Brochure!

After a winter break hiatus, the HJHA blog is back with an announcement… We now have brochures! Designed and created in collaboration with Rice University’s Office of Public Affairs, these brochures describe the HJHA’s story and mission and highlight some of the types of materials we are looking to collect. The HJHA team will be dispersing our brochures around Houston in the coming weeks to spread the word about the archive. To make sure that your synagogue, community center, or business receives a stack of brochures, please reach out to Dr. Furman at jf36@rice.edu.

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Cheese pancakes, goose dinner, and a “trendel”: Beth Israel’s surprising guide to Hanukkah celebrations

Chanukah (or is that Hanuk(k)ah?) is on our minds this week, as many of us light the candles each night, gather with friends and family to eat latkes and spin dreidels, and exchange gifts.  Unlike most Jewish holidays, Chanukah’s central rituals are performed at home, not in synagogue.  This distinction necessitated the publication of how-to guides, so that American Jews could faithfully observe Chanukah each night without the watchful presence of a rabbi or cantor to lead them.

One such guide, Congregation Beth Israel’s “Hanukah at Home,” aimed to instruct Jewish Houstonians from Texas’s oldest synagogue in the proper performance of holiday rituals.  There is no date printed on the pamphlet, but references to democracy and American values, common during the early years of the Cold War, lead me to suspect that it dates from the late 1940s.  “Hanukah at Home” can be found in our collection of Beth Israel archival material, MS 711, available to researchers and community members for viewing in the Woodson Research Center in Rice University’s Fondren Library.

“Hanukah at Home” prescribes rituals that are utterly baffling to the modern reader who is accustomed to contemporary traditions.  For one, Beth Israel members were encouraged to dine on cheese pancakes and other dairy delicacies, not potato latkes, which we all think of as the quintessential holiday food.  The tradition of eating cheese on Chanukah comes from the story of Judith and Holofernes, and you can read more about it here.

For another, the Beth Israel guide informs the reader that “[g]oose is the traditional main dinner dish during Hanukah, served with potato pudding.”  Does a goose feast sound strange to you?  It isn’t!  Here again, “Hanukah at Home” is documenting a holiday tradition that has been largely lost to history.  See Jeffrey Yoskowitz’s New York Times article about the Chanukah goose feast here.

Finally, the guide advises readers to enjoy spinning the “trendel,” not the dreidel – a four-sided top with Hebrew letters on it.  According to Rabbi David Golinkin, trendl was a term used by German-speaking Jews to refer to the Chanukah toy, from a word meaning “to roll.”  (My thanks to Rabbi Steve Morgen of Beth Yeshurun for helping find this source!)  You can read Rabbi Golinkin’s surprising history of the dreidel, and its non-Jewish origins, here.

Most of Beth Israel’s founding members in the mid-19th century claimed ancestry from German-speaking lands, but it is fascinating to see a German term used here in place of the more-familiar dreidel, in a document that seems to date from the 1940s.

There is so much more to say about this guidebook, which encourages readers to sing “Rock of Ages” and “America” each night after candle lighting, and which offers a different theme and set of values for Jewish families to ponder for each night of the holiday.  On the first night of Chanukah, as Beth Israel families exchanged gifts, they were asked to keep in their hearts “the thousands of children in the world who are hungry and cold and without the love and warmth of home and friendship.”   On the sixth night, readers were called to remember that “every human being, no matter what his color or his race,” is a child of God and deserving of love. 

Looking back in history deepens our appreciation of how customs evolve and endure.  From the Houston Jewish History Archive at Rice, best wishes for a joyous holiday, however you choose to celebrate!

For more on the history of Congregation Beth Israel, the oldest synagogue in Texas, visit their website and learn about their wonderful archive here.

 

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“Oysters a la Goldman”: Some new recipes for your Thanksgiving table

 

“Island Treasures: A Book of Choice Recipes,” Galveston Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, 1950

With Thanksgiving upon us, many of us are busy with food shopping and menu planning.  It’s the perfect time to look back in our catalog of South Texas Jewish cookbooks for recipe inspiration.  What we often find are attempts to integrate traditional Jewish foods with local and regional cuisines, in ways that sometimes stray from traditional dietary laws.

As a case in point, consider this cookbook, “Island Treasures,” produced by the Galveston section of the National Council of Jewish Women in 1950.  Below, you’ll find recipes for “Golden Glow Salad,” “Texas Corn Bread,” “Creole Gravy with Chicken,” and “Oysters a la Goldman.”

We are grateful for our wonderful collection of South Texas Jewish cookbooks, and we are always looking to add more to our library!

 

 

 

 

 

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Introducing the HJHA Blog

Programs, Congregation Emanu El, Houston, TX, c.1975

Welcome to the Houston Jewish History Archive’s new blog!  My name is Dr. Joshua Furman, and I am the founding director of the archive.  Here, you can look forward to reading exciting updates about our collections of South Texas Jewish history, posts from HJHA interns and Dr. Furman about our ongoing work, and updates on the kinds of materials we are looking to collect here at Rice.  We’ll also keep you informed about upcoming events related to the archive, and share tips about how you can visit us at the Woodson Research Center here on campus.

Feel free to ask questions and share your memories in the comment section below!  For more information about the HJHA, or to suggest a topic for the blog, contact Dr. Joshua Furman, or visit our website.

 

 

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