A museum dedicated to examining Jewish life and culture in the South will make its New Orleans debut early this fall — eight years after its original Mississippi location closed its doors for the final time. Renovations began last February to transform part of the former office building at 818 Howard Ave. into the new home of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE), which will span across two stories and contain 9,000 square feet of exhibition space.
The museum will explore Southern Jewish history chronologically from the past 300 years, a feat Executive Director Kenneth Hoffman said was a challenge given the varied experience of the community across the 13 Southern states featured in the museum. Exhibits will start with the post-colonial period and follow the immigration of Jewish people from Northern and Eastern Europe to the Southern United States. Many became merchants, giving farmers a way to sell their goods, but they still had to grapple with being in a new country and living in the Bible Belt, where they were a religious minority.
A Rendering of an Exhibit in the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience where Visitors
Can Select one of 13 Southern States to Hear the History of its Jewish Community
“Each Jew had to decide: How am I going to do this? How am I going to navigate this new environment?” Hoffman said. “Those are very specific stories, but for visitors to the museum, they're going to see something very human. They're going to see something very recognizable, which is strangers in a strange land, having to make decisions about how to get along in their communities (and) what kind of identity they want to have. “That's a universal thing because everyone goes through that to some degree.” The museum originally began in 1986 as a family’s collection of Jewish memorabilia at Union for Reform Judaism’s Henry S. Jacobs Camp, a summer camp located in Utica, Mississippi that also drew children from neighboring states spanning from Louisiana to Tennessee. Jewish people from small southern towns would contact the Jacobs family with a similar story: The Jewish communities in their towns were disappearing. People were moving away. They wanted to know what to do with their cultural artifacts, so that they wouldn’t just end up in the dumpster, Hoffman said.
The collection expanded, with the Jacobs family gathering stories to bring the items to life. But ultimately Utica — a town southwest of Jackson with less than 1,000 residents — didn’t see many visitors, and the museum ultimately shut down in 2012. Hoffman said many cities were considered for the museum’s relocation but that New Orleans was chosen because of its existing status as a tourist destination and its storied Jewish history. Another selling point was Tulane University, where more than a third of students are Jewish, and its growing Jewish Studies program.
Exhibits will also cover the Civil War, Holocaust and Civil Rights Movement through the lens of the Southern Jewish community, incorporating oral histories of Holocaust survivors who moved to the South after World War II. There will be thousands of artifacts including ceremonial objects like menorahs, Torahs and Seder plates, as well as store records and prayer books.
Other notable displays include a late 19th century wedding dress worn at a New Orleans Jewish wedding and items exploring Jewish figures in pop culture, including popular novels by Mark Twain and Harper Lee with Jewish characters. In one interactive exhibit, visitors can press on a Southern state and learn about the history of its Jewish community. The final exhibit will be a surprise, where visitors will have the opportunity to contribute to a new piece for the museum based on one of its artifacts.
The Straus family, Jewish American immigrant family whose members prospered as owners of Macy’s department store in New York City and distinguished themselves in public service and philanthropy. The Straus family originated in Otterberg, Bavaria (Germany), from which Lazarus Straus, the patriarch, immigrated to the United States in 1852. He settled at Talbotton, Georgia, where he was joined by his wife and three sons, Isidor, Nathan, and Oscar Solomon. During the American Civil War the family aided the Confederacy, but, following its defeat, they resettled in New York City. There they established the merchandising firm L. Straus and Sons.
Southern Jewish Heritage Collection Image
“The idea is that not only are you walking through the museum and looking at a bunch of other people's old stuff,” Hoffman said, “but then you are going to be asked to, if you wish, participate in creating something brand new based on who you are and the things you believe. “We really want this museum to be a living museum — to be a museum not only about yesterday but about today and tomorrow.”
The museum toopen in the Fall of 2020 will charge admission but the price has not yet been decided, according to Hoffman. The team is also looking into grant opportunities to allow discounts for teachers and students.