THE JEWS OF NEW ORLEANS
AND THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA: A HISTORY
OF LIFE & COMMUNITY ALONG THE BAYOU
By Emily Ford and Barry Stiefel
The History Press, $19.99, 158 pp.
Jews have been literally crawling all over the Mississippi Valley almost from the day Louisiana was colonized in the 17th century. It was “literally crawling” because so many of them supported themselves after they arrived as itinerant peddlers who traveled up and down the Mississippi and other rivers and bayous selling necessities and frivolities to the people on isolated plantations.
Typically, the men would work this way until they could acquire a store in a community serving those areas. Often they went into the factoring business, dealing with the cotton and sugar cane which made the area rich, or they set up import/export businesses in New Orleans, which until the Civil War was among the top three ports in the United States.
At first they were Sephardic Jews who hailed from Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and the colonies of those nations as the Inquisition pushed them out of Europe and the Caribbean. And even though the Code Noir of French-owned Louisiana made practicing the Jewish religion illegal, Jews managed to thrive in New Orleans and the surrounding area. Even when Spain took over the area, Jews held on, although there were many cases where their goods and assets were seized.
With the advent of the 19th century, the area where Jews were most badly treated shifted toward Alsace-Lorraine and Germany and, as the century progressed, eastern Europe and Russia. The Jews who came to America then were Ashkenzic Jews, whose language, culture and even liturgy differed markedly from their Sephardic brothers. But their way of surviving was the same: farming simply wasn’t a traditional Jewish profession, and Jews for a very long time had been known as craftsmen, merchants and professionals.
As the Jewish population in the Mississippi Valley grew, it became obvious that the small religious gatherings they had conducted in each other’s homes were no longer satisfactory, and as their wealth and social status accumulated, they began to form congregations and build synagogues.
This book comprises a detailed list of those congregations and synagogues, telling the stories of the rich benefactors who were instrumental in building and plotting the buildings themselves, the consolidations among them as times and neighborhoods changed and the histories of those which were sold so new ones could be built.
Genealogists or Jews whose people live in the areas close to the Mississippi will find the book informative. Special emphasis is put on places where Jews were outstanding in public service, numbers or influence, such as New Orleans, Vicksburg, Natchez and even Port Gibson and Donaldsonville. There are photographs and drawings of the temples and narratives about the architects who built them.
An interesting sidelight is the coverage of the development of Reformed Judaism, in which the area played a large role.
What the book does not provide is the more human side of things. Although the names and stories of wealthy men and the economic roles they played in the area are presented, the stories of their communities and human relations are not. For example, Isaac Monsanto and his family were prominent in New Orleans during the 1760s. They purchased a plantation, Trianon, outside of the city and were among the wealthiest citizens in the area. But with the transfer of Louisiana from French to Spanish control, all non-Catholics were expelled. The Monsantos were stripped of their property and exiled. Isaac Monsanto died in Point Coupee in 1778, without having regained his wealth. A history of the marriages, descendents, businesses and burials of the Monsanto family is given, but no personal insights.
Thus, someone interested in the history of history of B’nai Israel and Beth Shalom in Baton Rouge or the development and withering of the Jewish community in Donaldsonville will find the information here.
An illustrative example of the factual tone of the book is its story of the “Last Jew in Donaldsonville.” Gaston Hirsch, a French World War II veteran, moved to Donaldsonville after that war and was caretaker of Bikur Sholim Cemetery until his death in 1994. But who was he? Did he go to synagogue, and if so, where? How did he feel about his role as a veteran, a Jew, an immigrant, a Donaldsonville resident? Did he eat crawfish (though shellfish are forbidden to Jews)?
Buy the book for the facts — with which it is filled and which are treated fully and accurately.
Just don’t expect your heart to be warmed.