Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
T upelo, a major city in Northeast Mississippi, has been home to Jews for over a century. This seat of Lee County is most famous for being the birthplace of Elvis Presley. The story of Tupelo’s Jewish pioneers goes back to the extinct town of Harrisburg, before Lee County even existed. Once the railroad came to the area in the 1850s, Jewish pioneers began to arrive. One of Tupelo’s first Jews, Simon Wolf, an itinerant peddler, decided to settle in the area around 1853, where he established a store.
Another of Tupelo’s early Jewish settlers was Emil Strauss. Born in Germany in 1850, Strauss first came to the United States in 1869, settling in Selma, Alabama, where his brother already lived. In 1873, he went back to Germany to marry his sweetheart, Rosalie Sondheimer. Five years later, Emil, Rosalie and their now three young children returned to the United States, settling in Fulton, Mississippi, where he opened a grocery store. Sometime in the early 1880s, the family moved to Tupelo and opened a butcher shop. Though his shop was probably not kosher, the Strauss family did not abandon all religious traditions. For example, in December of 1886, they had a bris for their newborn son at their home in Tupelo, which was covered in the local newspaper; indeed, the editor was one of the guests. Many local gentiles came for a “magnificent dinner” after the circumcision. Jews from others towns were also in attendance, which showed that there was at least a loosely connected Jewish community though there was no congregation in the area.
Emil Strauss was a very popular citizen in Tupelo. He was an active member of the local Masonic Lodge and the Knights of Pythias. Although he was a teenager in Germany at the time of the Civil War, Strauss became an honorary member of the local camp of Confederate Veterans, a fact that reflected his embrace of southern identity and how much he was accepted by the non-Jewish community. According to the local newspaper, when he and Rosalie celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1923, “the entire town went to their home with gifts that carried with them the love and confidence of the people of Tupelo.” When Emil died a few years later, Rabbi Harry Ettelson of Temple Israel in Memphis conducted the funeral, although J.D. Hunter, a local Christian minister and a longtime friend of Strauss’, assisted. Since there was no Jewish cemetery in Tupelo, Strauss was buried in Glenwood Cemetery. The most lasting impact of this early Jewish settler is Strauss Street, named after Emil.
By the early twentieth century, there were still only a few Jewish families settled in Tupelo permanently. While there were fewer than twenty Jewish residents in town during the Great Depression, Tupelo would soon change from a sleepy town of 5,000 residents to a bustling metropolis. In 1935, Tupelo became the first city affected by the Tennessee Valley Authority. With electricity and early construction of paved roads, Tupelo soon found itself amenable to manufacturers. By the late 1930s, with an influx of new residents to Tupelo, there were enough Jews in the towns of Northeast Mississippi to form the first Jewish organizations in the area. Based in Tupelo, the Northeast Mississippi Sisterhood was created in 1936 under the leadership of Marion Peltz and Mrs. Sol Weiner. The sisterhood gave women the opportunity to socialize and develop charities under the umbrella of a Jewish community. Mrs. Weiner’s husband Sol led a similar effort two years later to form Tupelo’s B’nai Brith Lodge. Also in 1938, the area’s first Sunday School was organized by then Sisterhood President Carrie Scharf. Held in the Tupelo City Hall, it began with eleven students and four teachers. Morris Gorden, Sol Weiner and Albert Feldman supervised the school while Mrs. Feldman, Lucille Weiner, Ben Weiner and Jerry Sherman taught classes.
With these organizations already in place, Tupelo Jews’ next step was to organize a congregation. After months of conducting informal services in various homes, the Jewish community officially organized Temple B’nai Israel on August 24, 1939, with Sol Weiner as its first president. They began meeting in the Tupelo City Hall, but then rented space above the Fooks’ Chevrolet dealership on South Spring Street. That year, a student rabbi from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati made the trip to conduct services for the high holidays. In 1945, the congregation added a holy ark and received its first Torah from the Vine Street Temple in Nashville.
As World War II came to a close, northeast Mississippi emerged as a regional manufacturing center. As a result of economic prosperity, Tupelo grew, bringing new jobs and new people to the area. A Jewish study in 1948 showed that 200 Jews now lived in the Lee County area, many of them retail business owners. In the 1950s, Gage and Weil Junk Company, as well as multiple dry goods and general merchandise stores, were owned by Tupelo Jews. Examples included Allen’s, Kuhn’s, Kleban and Matz, and Peltz’s Dry Goods Store. In the clothing sector, there was Weiner’s Department Store, “Outfitters for the Family,” while “The Style Center of Tupelo” could be found at RE-NAL’s Ladies Shop. While Lewis Fooks sold Chevrolet vehicles in Tupelo, other Jewish businesses sprang in neighboring towns including Booneville, with Feldman’s Department Store. Many of these businessmen were Masons and members of the Knights of Pythias Lodge, proving that they were welcomed as part of the greater Tupelo community.
With a much larger Jewish population in the area, Temple B’nai Israel needed a new, bigger location to accommodate its members. In 1953, the congregation moved to the space over Biggs Furniture Store, but, by 1955 began exploring the possibility of building their own place of worship. Several members led the way. Manny Davis, who owned a sportswear manufacturing business in Okolona, made a large contribution to the building fund and offered to match the contributions of other members. Morris Gorden, who owned a successful store in Baldwyn, used his business contacts with Jews in other cities to raise money for the synagogue. The building committee printed a brochure that had an architect’s rendering of the temple, and a personal appeal from congregation president Maurice Stein, which asked their “friends and neighbors” for a contribution “so that our new House of Worship may be a vital factor in the civic, cultural, and spiritual life of this community.” Sol Weiner, who served as secretary and treasurer of B’nai Israel for 40 years, collected these donations.
Many of these contributions came from local gentiles. Of 88 individual donors to the building fund, 41% were non-Jews. In addition, twelve local companies, including nine banks, donated to the cause. In the dedication program, many area banks and manufacturing companies bought ads, including the Bryan Brothers packing Company in West Point, which advertised its “Prairie Belt Bacon.” The new building was dedicated on September 1, 1957 during which Tupelo’s mayor, James Bullard, gave remarks, as did the pastor of the First Methodist Church.
B’nai Israel has never been defined by its adherence to an individual Jewish movement or ideology. At the building dedication ceremony, Rabbi Meyer Passow, of Memphis’ conservative congregation gave the featured address, while the Reform Rabbi Alexander Kline, of Clarksdale gave the benediction. The congregation held bar mitzvahs, which had been abandoned in many Reform congregations across the country, as well as confirmation, a ceremony which originated with Reform Judaism. Over the years, B’nai Israel has been very successful in balancing the different religious practices of its members.
B’nai Israel was the epitome of a regional congregation. At the time of the synagogue dedication, it had members from 13 different towns, some as far as 75 miles away. Never with a full-time rabbi, the congregation would sometimes hire a student rabbi on the high holidays, but most often, services were led by lay readers. In 1957, B’nai Israel held Shabbat services every Friday night and a weekly Sunday school all without rabbinic supervision. A number of members have led services over the years. In the 1950s and 60s, Murray Stein, who owned a dress shop on Main Street, acted as the lay leader. In the temple dedication booklet, he was identified as “lay rabbi.” He was even active in the local clergy association. Since his death in 1968, several other members have filled this role.
While “the King” is certainly the most famous person from Tupelo, a number of well known Jews have roots in Tupelo as well. Most notable is Jack Cristil, the voice of the Mississippi State Bulldogs for over 50 years. Coming from a family of Russian immigrants in Memphis, where the father only allowed English in their home, Cristil has called hundreds of football games and over a thousand basketball games. Using his simple, smooth style, Cristil amassed great popularity with legendary stories featuring Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp and Alabama’s Bear Bryant as well as an icy Liberty Bowl in the 1970s. With phrases such as “colder than a pawnbroker’s heart,” this Jewish legend has done it all, including leading services at the local synagogue and interviewing Elvis Presley himself.
While Tupelo had 120 Jews in the 1960s, only about 20 families remain in the area today. Yet Tupelo has flourished over the last 50 years, seeing its population double since 1960. Tupelo has been held up as a national model for economic growth and community development. If this growth had occurred a hundred years ago, Tupelo would have likely become one of the largest and most vibrant Jewish communities in the state. But Tupelo’s emergence has occurred during a period in which the Jewish storeowner has largely disappeared. The sons and daughters of shopkeepers have gone to college, become professionals, and moved away to larger cities. Thus, the local Jewish community has not benefited much from Tupelo’s economic growth. Originally a home of German Jewish merchants, Jewish families with names like Franks, Bloom, Weiner, Matz, Sherman, and Weil are not as common today in Lee County. Nevertheless, B’nai Israel remains active as its members strive to maintain their Judaism into the 21st century.