Statewide Jewish history focus of new exhibit
The story of Jewish immigration to Tennessee and how they embraced the culture they found here is documented in a new exhibit which opened Dec. 9 at the Tennessee State Museum.
“Bagels & Barbecue: The Jewish Experience in Tennessee,” is a joint project of the Tennessee State Museum in collaboration with the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, Jewish Community Federation of Greater Chattanooga, Knoxville Jewish Alliance and Memphis Jewish Federation, with the participation of other Jewish communities around the state. The exhibit’s statewide tour is supported in part by a grant from Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The exhibit begins with the saga of early Jewish settlers emigrating from Europe, where most faced religious persecution. A few came to upper East Tennessee in the 1770s, and to Middle Tennessee by the 1820s. By 1870, groups in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga, had purchased land for cemeteries — a first concern of new Jewish communities — and founded congregations for worship.
Chronicling the life of Jewish families during the Civil War and Reconstruction, the exhibit focuses on the historic contributions during this period. Stories of interest include the beginnings of one of America’s most respected newspaper empires, which began when 20 year-old Adolph Ochs, son of Julius and Bertha from Knoxville, bought “The Chattanooga Times,” in 1878. In 1896, he added “The New York Times” to what is still today a family-controlled enterprise.
Stories of the huge wave of immigrants, who arrived between 1880 and 1924, who were fleeing anti-Semitic laws and mob violence, are followed by those of Tennessee Jews during World War II. More than 1,000 Tennessee Jews served their country in the armed forces. Many distinguished themselves; some perished. The secret Manhattan Project in East Tennessee brought many Jewish scientists to work on the atom bomb. These Oak Ridge families later hand-constructed their own synagogue, a feat possibly unique in American Jewish history. During the same period, Holocaust refugees and survivors were welcomed with housing, jobs and English lessons.
As the young left to seek their fortunes after the war, Tennessee’s Jewish population declined to less than 17,000 in 1960. The Civil Rights era raised ongoing challenges for Tennessee Jews. The Nashville Jewish Community Center was dynamited in 1958, while a Chattanooga synagogue was destroyed in 1977.
“Bagels & Barbeque” documents the recent influence of the Jewish community in Tennessee. Tennessee has seen an influx from around the nation of Jewish health and music industry professionals, university professors, executives, artists and their extended families.
In 1984, the Tennessee Holocaust Commission Inc. became the third such state organization in the country. And in 1998, to understand the enormity of Hitler’s astrocities, non-Jewish middle-school children in Whitwell collected six million paper clips worldwide. Dedicated to tolerance and peace and documented in an award-winning film, their internationally acclaimed Children’s Holocaust Memorial is another unique contribution to the ongoing, many-sided Jewish experience in Tennessee.
Scholars from across the state of Tennessee provided the research for the exhibit, along with noted authorities on Jewish history from other locations. The exhibition has been organized, designed and produced by the staff of the Tennessee State Museum.
“Bagels & Barbeque: The Jewish Experience” opened at the State Museum on Dec. 9 and continues through Feb. 3. Following its premiere showing at the museum, the exhibition will travel to other museums across the state.
The Tennessee State Museum is located at Fifth and Deaderick streets in downtown Nashville. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
The museum, which is closed on Mondays, is free to the public.
Published in The Messenger on 12.19.07
“Bagels & Barbeque: The Jewish Experience”, Jewish immigration, Tennessee, Tennessee State Museum