Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Yazoo City, Mississippi
Yazoo City, Mississippi had a small, but influential Jewish community. The Jewish story of Yazoo City was one of acceptance and assimilation, and in several cases, intermarriage and conversion. While Jews never formed a congregation in Yazoo City, they maintained a Jewish community in this southern Delta town for well over 100 years.
According to local lore, the first Jew in Yazoo City was Louis Rosenberg, a self-proclaimed rabbi who arrived sometime before 1850 from Posen, Poland. Despite his possible background as a Jewish spiritual leader, he quickly assimilated, marrying a non-Jew named Sarah Sayers and fathering four children. Rosenberg became an innkeeper in Mechanicsburg, Mississippi. Louis and Sarah Rosenberg had two daughters and one son, all of whom married non-Jews and abandoned any semblance of Jewish practice.
According to naturalization records, several other Jewish immigrants trickled into Yazoo City around this time. Samuel Friedlander was naturalized on May 3, 1843; in that same year, citizenship was sought by three other Jewish immigrants. In 1854, they were followed by Jacob and Louis King, and in 1860, Abraham Rosenthal.
In 1878 there were several businesses run by members of the Jewish community including a hardware store called Harris and Nierman and the Independent Lock and Ladder Company, run by David Wolerstein. The Wise Brothers’ Store was founded in 1875 by Herman Wise, and existed as a fixture of Yazoo City up until 1969 when it was sold by their descendants. Louis and Herman Wise had married their cousins, Julia and Eugenia, and arrived in Yazoo City around 1870. After building the largest dry goods store in the city, they began investing in local cotton plantations. According to Yazoo City legend, the great fire of 1904, which destroyed much of Yazoo City, was started in the Wise home on the day their daughter Pauline was scheduled to be married.
In the aftermath of this fire, another Jewish citizen was recognized for his strength in adversity. Hirsch’s clothing store was opened in 1890, and in 1905, the Yazoo Centennial stated, “Mr. W. Hirsch belongs to that set of Yazoo City business men upon whom discouragement and disaster seem to act merely as incentive to greater effort, and he is to-day conducting a larger business in a finer store than was the case before the fire.” The store was started by William's father, Myer, who left Germany with his wife Rose in 1884, leaving their young son William with his grandmother. She later brought 5-year old William to America and Yazoo City.
New waves of Jewish immigration maintained the Jewish community of Yazoo City. In 1878, there were approximately 44 Jews in Yazoo City. In 1882, there was a huge flood of the Mississippi river, and seeing a business opportunity in the rebuilding economy, there was an influx of Jews. New additions to the Jewish community included N. Ostrov, who opened the Famous Store in 1905 and M. Davidow who opened a general store.
As the Jewish population grew it became easier and more attractive to hold onto Jewish traditions. By 1937, the Jewish population rose to 61 people. In 1941 the Yazoo City Herald announced that, “Many of the Yazoo members of the Jewish faith will be out of the city Wednesday that they may have the privilege of worshipping in the synagogues of Jackson, Greenwood, and other cities. Their places of business will be closed between sundown Tuesday and sundown Wednesday.” Though the article does not mention how many stores were closed, the presence of the article shows that Jews represented a prominent position in the commercial livelihood of Yazoo City. It also shows that Yazoo City Jews observed the high holidays even through they did not have a synagogue or congregation of their own.
Similarly, the local paper ran an article addressing the presence of Jews in the armed forces during World War II. This could have been due to the European stories of the Holocaust that had trickled into Yazoo City or the prominence of Jews within their own town. The article asserts that over half a million Jewish men served in all branches of the military, and nearly 26,000 had earned citations for valor and merit. This article challenged the anti-semitic stereotype that Jews weren’t courageous or patriotic enough to fight for their country. Regardless of the reason for publishing the article, it displays Jews in a very positive light, and suggests that positive relationships existed between Yazoo City Jews and their neighbors.
The most intriguing evidence of interfaith cooperation can be seen in the formation of a Christian Committee for the United Jewish Appeal in 1947 under the leadership of J.F. Barbour, the father of current Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. The fund sought to raise money to help Holocaust survivors still living in Displaced Person Camps in Europe. An article in the local newspaper stated that Jews were the group to suffer most dearly from the ravages of war, and “are still carrying the heaviest post-war burdens.” The article urged the citizens of Yazoo City to donate money to reach a goal of $6,500. In order to urge contributions from the Yazoo City citizens the article begs, “In the past our Jewish friends and neighbors have always contributed generously when called upon for humanitarian causes. It is only right that the Christian faith should answer the call of the distressed across the waters and give our means that they may again take their rightful place among the people of the world.” This effort was a remarkable example of the amicable community relationships between Jews and gentiles in Yazoo City.
Jewish life in Yazoo City seems to have peaked in the 1940s, and by the 1950s the Jewish community had begun to decline. Yazoo City Jews gradually moved to larger cities with bigger Jewish populations such as Memphis and Jackson. Often their financial stability depended on railroad commerce, and as the value of this trade dwindled, Jewish residents of Yazoo City gradually moved away in search of better opportunities. Though their numbers declined, the remaining Yazoo City members stayed active and visible, with Jewish citizen Harry Applebaum serving as mayor from 1954 to 1960.
Though Yazoo City Jews never had a congregation or a synagogue, they still made very important civic contributions to their community. Their presence was large enough to command attention within the community, and their contributions warranted respect and admiration from their neighbors. They were essential in keeping the town afloat after the disasters of the flood and fire, and they were well liked by their neighbors. Sometimes this resulted in total assimilation and conversion, causing Jews to lose touch with their religious roots altogether. Other times, however, it forced the Yazoo City Jewish community to work harder for their faith, and travel long distances for religious worship and education.