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Deli Blues

A once-thriving congregation in Greenville, Miss., now can barely gather a minyan on Shabbat, but it’s managed to keep a popular tradition—a deli-luncheon fundraiser—alive for nearly 130 years

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Hebrew Union volunteers Rebecca Barrett, Pat Kline, and Phil Kline, preparing take-out orders for the annual deli luncheon.(Philip Graitcer)

Half a century ago, the Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville, Miss., was the state’s largest synagogue; its sanctuary overflowed during the High Holidays, attracting worshipers from the city and surrounding communities. But many children of those earlier congregants have moved away, and by 2000, the temple dismissed its full-time rabbi. One tradition, though, has held on: Hebrew Union’s annual deli luncheon, a fundraiser for the Temple Sisterhood and a much-anticipated event for both the Jews and non-Jews of Greenville. (In 2009, 1,400 corned beef sandwiches were served.) Reporter Philip Graitcer attended this year’s luncheon earlier this month and filed this dispatch from a tradition that might not endure. [Running time: 7:50.] 

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Steve says:

This was fabulous. I’m sending it to friends, including Rabbis in the large congregation to which I belong in Boston. I loved hearing the Southern accents, but it was a sad story. It’s wonderful how Vox Tablet keeps coming up with fascinating podcasts.

aaron levy says:

A wonderful little story that needs to be told and retold for its beauty.
Thank you.

aaron levy says:

Thank you ..loved the story.

Duncan says:

As a Mississippi Jew, I know how hard it is to find any Jews down in the smaller areas of the Deep South, much less enough for a synagogue. Thankfully the Institute for Southern Judaism has a traveling rabbi and fellows/staff that make rounds to the smaller rabbi-less shuls. Thanks for the story.

Dolly Joern says:

Thank you for this. I was a member of Touro Synagogue in New Orleans many years ago and this brought back memories of the gracious South.

Rabbi Fred Davidow says:

I grew up in Greenville, Mississippi, and Hebrew Union Congregation was my spiritual home. Along with many other dedicated women of the congregation, my mother Thelma Davidow worked during her time to keep this Deli Lunch tradition alive. I am one of the children who moved away but I have always carried in my heart a love for my hometown synagogue.

Nathan Goldstein III says:

I grew up on a farm in Arkansas, just across the river from Greenville, and my home congregation was Hebrew Union Congregation, and my great grandfather, Nathan Goldstein, was the first president of the Congregation and served for 50 years as president. My mother, Betty Goldstein, was the Temple secretary for 35 years, and worked at the Deli(“Dutch”)Luncheon for over 50 years. Rabbi Fred Davidow, who commented previously, was a couple of years ahead of me in Sunday school, along with my cousin, Kitty Solomon Kossman, Esther Solomon’s sister in law. I left the Delta for college and have not moved back. I have lots of memories and a few family left in Greenville. By the way, growing up I was “Nicky” and I grew up with my cousin, Benjy, who spoke on the podcast.
I loved the story. Thank you.

Louis & Bettye Roman says:

We both grew up in the Hebrew Union Congregation. We now live in Memphis, TN.
Both our mothers, Evelyn Roman and Ella Stein Cornblatt worked for at least 50 yeqrs to help make the “Dutch Dinner” a success.
Our memories of our Temple are more than fond. We go back to Greenville most every year and are overwhelmed that so few dedicated people keep the Temple alive.
Congratulations and Best Wishes

Lori Beth Hirsberg says:

I grew up right down the road in Clarksdale, and thoroughly enjoyed this article. The dwindling population of Mississippi Jews is a startling and sad reality. I attended Temple Beth Israel as a child and the temple has since been sold and s no longer. I think the book “Shalom Y’all” is a testament to what once was thriving Jewish communities that are no longer.

Nathan Bubba Barham says:

I also grew up in Greenville and attended Hebrew Union. When my mother died and I went back to bury her, there were a couple of things that happened I wanted to pass along. I introduced myself to the Rabbi as Bubba. He had never met a Jewish Bubba and asked if he could call me Nathan. There was a couple visiting the temple when I was there. They were from California, traveling across the US visiting any and all of the temples they could find. I talked with them and they told me that Hebrew Union was by far the most beautiful temple they had seen in their travels. I hope others will go visit the temple for it is truly a work of art.

you say the shul is small because kids moved away. BUT this is not entirely true. The Jews had small families only 1 or 2 kids per family so when a few kids moved away the community diaspeared. BUT if they would have had any real leadership, the Jews would have been told to be fruitful and multiply and have many kids per familyThis way if they had 8-`10 kids per family and even if 1/2 left they would still have a fast growing congregation.
In conclusion like the rest of american Jewry this congregation was destroyed on the self holocaust altar of liberalism and birth control.
the truth hurts but the truth is the truth!

Nathan Goldstein III (Nicky) says:

The truth is that shushan has been eating mushrooms or smoking something. He is entitled to his opinion, as is each of us, but he is hardly the purveyor of “truth.”

Enough said. As Bubba commented above, the Temple is beautiful; I was confirmed with his sister, Bobette.

shushan says:

so nathan how many kids did you have? it is impossible for the shul to shrink and disapear if congregants had large families. Goldstein is delusional because he cant admit he was conned into destroying his people thru birth control.

Pat Skott says:

I was in Greenville last week and at Hebrew Union, as I was on a tour with others studying the History of Jews in Mississippi. Hebrew Union is a beautiful place and a distinct history. I hope that I will get back there someday.

By the way, Shushan, how many kids did you have and how many live in Greenville today?

Sandra Sacks Mislow says:

I loved listening to the stories.My father,Joe Louis Sacks, was from Friars Point,Mississippi. My sisters and I loved the stories that our Daddy and Aunts told us about being Jewish in the Deep South. All of them moved to Memphis and I have family there. One of my sisters lives in Israel and the other is in Atlanta with me. It is always special to meet people from the Delta and share stories with them. This was a real treat to hear.

Edward Kaplan says:

I grew up in Cleveland at Adath Israel congregation (son of Tobe and Millie Kaplan), was a Bar Mitzvah and received the first Boy Scout Ner Tamid award given in the State of Mississippi ( Iwas told.). I visited Hebrew Union many times. Most recently we visited the museum in Greenville about 3 years ago which also is something to be very proud of. Growing up Jewish in the Delta was an important part of my life. Such a tradition as you have maintained is something to be proud of. It is sad to hear, as I understand it that since both Clarksdale and Greenville synagogues have “closed,” that maybe Cleveland remains the only viable congregation.

Rabbi Fred Davidow says:

The comments made by shushan are a typical, hateful simplistic view of Jewish life in the South and it reeks of self-righteous disdain expressed by Orthodox Jews for liberal-minded Jews. In my generation and afterward Jewish youth went off to college and went into professions. Small Southern towns were not large enough to re-absorb doctors, lawyers, professors, accountants, etc. Jews seek to live in cities with large Jewish populations and thus many Jews who grew up in small towns gravitated to metropolitan areas like Atlanta. The Jews from the Delta have not disappeared. They have simply transplanted themselves to large cities, but retain their love for their hometowns in the Delta. Shushan’s comments are based on supercilious ignorance.

Old story. But still interesting. You could do the same story for Clarksburg, W. Va., where my mother-in-law was from. You’d even get similar Southern accents. And, natch, the closed shul.

My mother, Julia Zalk Stratton, spent her first ten years in Yazoo City, Miss. Nice place. I’ve visited my relatives In Miss. and even met the rabbi from the podcast story.

In 75 years, all the American Jews will be in Chi., Atlanta, Houston and the coasts.

Hope not!

Shalom y’all, from Cleveland, Ohio, not Miss.!

-Bert Stratton

Temple Beth El in Fargo ND (a city with a long Jewish history, but with very few Jews at the moment) holds its “Annual gourmet brunch” every year in the “spring” or whenever the flood doesn’t threaten the city. It doesn’t serve corned beef sandwiches, but it offers food different enough from what people usually eat up here that the brunch manages to attract about 600 people a year.

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Deli Blues

A once-thriving congregation in Greenville, Miss., now can barely gather a minyan on Shabbat, but it’s managed to keep a popular tradition—a deli-luncheon fundraiser—alive for nearly 130 years

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