Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Greenwood, the county seat of Leflore County, is located on the Yazoo River where the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha Rivers converge. In this town of twenty thousand inhabitants along the eastern part of the Mississippi Delta, Greenwood has seen everything from steamboats and cotton to railroads and modern light industry.
Incorporated on February 16, 1844, Greenwood was home to a few early Jewish settlers. Ben Gerson came to this area in 1851, and he ran a general merchandise business in the budding town. By 1873, Greenwood had three dry goods stores; two of them had Jewish owners: M. Stein and Henry Sellinger. Henry’s son E.S. Sellinger later became assistant chief of police of Greenwood. By the 1880s, more Jews continued to arrive in Leflore County including jeweler Charles Stein as well as the Ettinger and Aron families. In fact, a publication known as the “Valley Flag” on October 4, 1884, carried the following notice: “The Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement were duly observed here by our Hebrew friends.” By 1886, this former wood-planked town changed forever, as Greenwood welcomed the arrival of the railroad. With the railroad, new immigrants came, and the city continued to prosper. This development continued until 1890 when a fire burned everything in the town. While certainly a tragedy, the town rebuilt itself in brick and continued the trend of prosperity into the twentieth century.
With enough Jews between 1890 and 1910, Greenwood began to form the foundations of a Jewish community. In 1897, a group of merchants met in a store house and formed the first synagogue, a Reform temple named Beth Israel. This temple remained small throughout the twentieth century and held worship services on Friday nights and during the High Holidays while also providing a Sunday school, a youth group, and a woman’s group. In 1907, the Orthodox congregation Ahavath Rayim was founded and featured traditional services in Hebrew frequently led by a resident rabbi. Both congregations not only served residents of Greenwood but also towns nearby like Itta Bena, Winona, Belzoni, Moorhead, Indianola, Sunflower, and many more. In addition, the two congregations shared members and were friendly to each other, welcoming children to joint youth group activities for example. Despite this cooperation, differing religious philosophies prevented the two from ever merging, which is quite an interesting phenomenon for such a small Jewish community.
In 1894, local Jews founded the Mark Stein lodge of B’nai Brith; the lodge later changed its name to the Albert Weiler Lodge in honor of the former Temple Beth Israel president. B’nai Brith, known for its fraternal service and social activities, was quite popular in Greenwood. Starting at a time when there were only about one hundred Jews in town, B’nai Brith grew to as large as sixty-three members in 1955 and still had over twenty members into the late 1970s. While B’nai Brith was certainly popular, Greenwood’s Christian residents treated the Jewish community with the utmost respect and allowed them to interact in multiple social scenes. The Lions Club, Kiwanis, Exchange, the Rotary Club, the Elks, and the Masonic Lodge all were examples of organizations that had multiple Jewish members. These Jewish families also found welcoming homes in other realms of Greenwood society including Greenwood Little Theatre, Community Concert Association, Greenwood Country Club, Leflore Country Club, and the Chamber of Commerce. Without a doubt, the Jews of Greenwood were residents of the area, not individuals separated by foreign practices as had been the case for their past lives in Russia and Germany.
The 1920s and 1930s were periods of growth for the Greenwood Jewish community. While business certainly tightened during the Great Depression, the Jewish community grew to over three hundred people by 1937. During this period, such names started to become synonymous with Greenwood including J. Kantor’s and Weiler Jewelry Store. Other establishments such as Kornfield’s Inc. Department Store and Starr Tailors came into being around the end of this period as well.
Although the Great Depression was tough for most businessmen, the 1940s was a period of change for the Delta economy. About this time, commerce began to decline in places like Greenwood because of a lack of industry and a heavy reliance on agriculture, particularly cotton. Cotton had been king in Greenwood throughout most of its history; however, the cash crop was not as lucrative anymore. As a result, the Jewish community declined by half by the end of the decade. While the economy began to change, Greenwood’s Jewish community did not perish; instead, it began a renaissance that benefited both congregations. While Beth Israel became more classical Reform to accommodate new Jews to the area, Rabbi Samuel Stone greatly increased membership at Ahavath Rayim. This growth was occurring at the same time as the foundation of the state of Israel, a period that even divided the Greenwood Jewish community. Although some feared that Zionism would lead others to view Jews as unpatriotic, many Jews of Greenwood disagreed and started bond drives for Israel. In its initial year, a group from Temple Beth Israel gave $35,000 with $10,000 donated in subsequent years.
In the late 1940s, Greenwood was still home to many local Jewish businesses. With many stores lining Howard Street, such Jewish places of commerce included Gelman’s Cafeteria, Bennett’s Men’s Store, The Trading Post, City Laundry, B&R Department Store, and Goldberg’s Shoe Store. By 1946, a memoir documented thirty Jewish families officially living in the town of Greenwood, including twenty four store owners, two junk dealers, two cotton merchants, and one dry cleaner.
Ilse Markus was a young girl in Germany during the 1930s. With Hitler’s rise to power, Ilse saw her father sent to a concentration camp after Kristallnacht, believing that she would never see him again. Shockingly, the Nazis miraculously released him because of his World War I honorable discharge papers. As a consequence, the Markus family had to flee Germany, where their travels landed them in China, where they owned and operated a small grocery store. After receiving their America visas, this family came to Memphis, Tennessee, where Ilse met and married Ervin Goldberg of Greenwood. For years, she and her husband ran Goldberg’s Shoes and Sportswear; Ilse and her family continue to operate three shoe stores in Greenwood today. As a German immigrant married to the child of an immigrant, the Goldbergs were members of the Orthodox synagogue and were a very religious family. Named Greenwood Commonwealth Mother of the Year in 1993, Ilse Goldberg used to buy frozen kosher meat from Chicago and St. Louis and get a truck to ship it down to Greenwood where she would stock over five hundred pounds of meat in her multiple freezers. Today, the internet and a butcher in Memphis make dietary life much easier for this woman, but this story certainly shows the desire of a Jewish family to keep one’s faith.
Despite the resilience of the Goldberg family, the Jewish community of Greenwood continued to decline. The 1970s Jewish population, which neared two hundred, was cut in half by the 1980s. Although cotton was not as lucrative anymore, many of the older residents had passed away, while those younger had departed with their college degrees, becoming doctors and lawyers in urban and suburban areas. Many Jewish-owned stores closed; some of their buildings exist no more. Others still remain but not to the extent of Jewish commercial life decades ago. By the 1980s, Greenwood’s Temple Beth Israel had diminished to the point that the synagogue closed. Ahavath Rayim’s membership has also greatly decreased, yet it still functions today as a synagogue with services led by longtime member Joe Martin Erber. Gail Goldberg, Ilse’s daughter-in-law, leads a regular Torah study session. Ahavath Rayim remains the only Orthodox synagogue left in the state of Mississippi.
Greenwood, a town where cotton was a staple, continues to prosper in the same way as it had a century ago. Through tourism, farming, and especially the rise of the Viking Range company, Greenwood has seen a resurgence in its economy and its downtown. Despite these new successful businesses, they have left a different mark on Greenwood, one that does not feature immigrant peddlers settling down after working hard throughout the Delta to make a living. Some Jewish institutions will continue to exist in Greenwood, but the days of Jewish businesses lining the streets of downtown are long gone.