Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Known to some as the “catfish capital of the world,” this small Humphreys County seat (pronounced "bel-ZONE-uh") felt the influence of Jewish settlers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Names such as Cohn, Davidow, Shapero, and Goldberg found homes in this part of the Mississippi Delta. It was also the hometown of Lawrence Gordon, a Hollywood producer known for such films as Field of Dreams and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Beginning in the 1820s as a future river boat settlement, the town’s name originated from a New Orleans planter who bought the land and named it after the Italian explorer, Giovanni Battista Belzoni. The community of Belzoni did not have much of an infrastructure by the middle 1800s, including a lack of churches. These trends continued until after the Civil War, when mercantile operations began to develop along the Yazoo River, thus bringing the first Jewish people to the Belzoni area.
While the Livingston and Morris families were some of the first to open general merchandise stores and to grow cotton, others began to arrive by the 1880s as they brought their special trades to an ever-growing community. Such examples were the Cohn family. When Morris Cohn arrived in the Belzoni area as a German immigrant, he bought a tract of land and established Messrs. Cohn & Company, a business that eventually became known as one of the oldest dry goods and grocery stores in Belzoni. Selling quality goods, Cohn became very successful in terms of both wealth and reputation. His success allowed him to explore other ventures including banking, insurance, and oil.
While Morris Cohn exemplified personal success of Jewish merchants, Cohn also promoted the general welfare of Belzoni as well. Stephen Castleman, a young Catholic man who worked for Cohn, became mayor of Belzoni during the 1890s. Castleman, who married Cohn's daughter Pauline, earned the title of “builder of Belzoni” because he updated the town’s government using an official state village charter from then Governor John Marshall Stone, which created a board of school directors and a council of aldermen. These new political arenas allowed town merchants greater access into civic affairs. For example, one of Morris Cohn’s sons, J.D., not only joined his father and brother, Abe, in the family business as a salesman and an accountant, but he also served as an alderman and a school board member.
In 1880, Solomon Davidow arrived in the United States from Poland and began selling clothing and goods as he traveled down the East Coast. After his long travels as a peddler and lengthy family stays in Yazoo City and Pulaski, Tennessee, Davidow decided to settle in Belzoni in 1892. He opened the Davidow Dry Goods Store, which earned him a reputation for selling the most popular goods from the East Coast at reasonable prices. Eventually, he married Frieda Cohn, daughter of Morris, and had great success through his excellent business skills. Unfortunately, Davidow’s wife’s sudden death in 1914 caused him to fall into a state of depression, which decreased his prosperity by the time of his death in 1927.
While Jews became very prominent in both the political and mercantile realms of Belzoni around the turn of the century, this small community was never large enough to have a functioning synagogue or Jewish cemetery of its own. During the renaissance period of the town in the 1890s, Belzoni Jews were only able to hold minyans in private homes. In 1937, fewer than forty Jews lived in Belzoni. Most Jews did not settle for long in Belzoni, many of them moved on to larger Delta towns like Yazoo City, Greenville, and Indianola. Without Jewish institutions, Jews in the area most likely practiced their faith either in private home or at a synagogue in a neighboring town. In the case of the Cohn family, business led these Jews to Greenville, where they worshipped at the synagogue and were buried in the cemetery. Due to long distances, poor roads, and slow methods of transportation, Belzoni Jews attended services somewhat rarely, usually reserving the long trip for major holidays like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. As a result, Belzoni Jews were not typically members of a congregation. Owning a store in a small Delta town did not lend itself to strict observance of the Sabbath or kosher dietary laws. Nevertheless, they observed the most important Jewish holidays.
Although many moved in and out of the area, a Jewish presence persisted in Belzoni throughout most of the twentieth century. General goods establishments and clothing stores arose during the 1920s like Goldberg’s with its motto, “The Home of Good Things to Eat”, and later Goldberg’s Department Store, which still exists today. During the latter half of the twentieth century, many of the Jewish families of Belzoni traveled to Greenwood, where they worshipped at both Ahavath Rayim and Beth Israel, though the long distance made these trips relatively infrequent.
Some Jewish immigrants, like members of the Davidow family, came to Belzoni from rural areas in Europe; in Belzoni, they found a way of life that was not much different from the “old country.” Although Jews were a tiny minority of the population, they found ways to survive and even thrive in the Mississippi Delta.
Although cotton as well as river and railroad trading routes had originally brought Jews to Belzoni, many Jews left as small catfish farms replaced the large cotton plantations of the past. Certainly, some could have stayed in business, but the role of Jewish merchants had changed. Most of the young Jews raised in Belzoni, like movie producer Lawrence Gordon, left for greater opportunities in urban areas. Despite the decline of Belzoni’s Jewish community, the impact of Jewish life on this small Delta town is enshrined in its history.