Poetry of exile: Andrei Codrescu
Land, labor, liberty

The Jewish Texans

In two days, I'm heading south to spend a week with my family in San Antonio, and my head is already halfway there.  So imagine my pleasant surprise when I opened my mail this morning to find a slim paperback book: The Jewish Texans!

I had forgotten that one of the people I met at Elat Chayyim over Passover had offered to send me her copy of this charming little book. I wish I could find a scan of the cover; it depicts a smiling fellow in a fancy suit and bowtie, with a brushy handlebar mustache, who looks every bit the 1860s gentleman. (He turns out to be rancher Meyer Halff; I'm pretty sure one of my sister's best friends is married to one of his descendants.)

It was published in 1974 by the Institute of Texan Cultures, as part of their series The Texans and the Texians, a collection of pamphlets dealing with "the many kinds of people who have contributed to the history and heritage of Texas."  (Other titles in the series included "The German Texans," "The Norwegian Texans," and a special bilingual set, "The Mexican Texans" and "Los Mexicano Texanos.") I remember the ITC as the folks behind the Texas Folklife Festival (a staple event of my childhood, a kind of educational carnival: think German oom-pah music, Czech kolaches, and every kind of folk art you can imagine) but I'd never gotten the chance to read one of their books before.

Beginning about 1837, Jews came to Texas in constantly increasing numbers. Some settled in the commercial centers of Galveston, Houston, and San Antonio; others in the small towns and at the crossroads of rural Texas. As their strength increased, they began organizing the traditional institutions of Jewish life: benevolent societies, cemetary associations, synagogues, and community centers. Many of these early immigrants brought with them little more than the clothes on their backs and a desire to make the most of whatever opportunities befell them. Virtually all became useful, productive, and responsible citizens of their adopted homeland.

(That's from the introduction.) The book goes on to profile notable Jewish Texans, from Adolphus Sterne (a lawyer, merchant, linguist and financier who participated in the Texas Revolution) to Haymon Krupp (cofounder of the Texan Oil and Land Company, which financed a gusher of an oilwell),  Stanley Marcus and A. L. Neiman (who founded Neiman-Marcus, naturally) to Frances Sanger Mossiker (a writer of literary nonfiction). Along the way it profiles organizations like the Hebrew Free Loan Association of San Antonio. A few years back I wrote a children's textbook about the state of Texas, but I didn't know to include any of these folks!

I got a special surprise when I reached the last page; the inside back cover sports a black and white photograph of a 1950s-style synagogue sanctuary, with wooden-backed pew seats, two angular lecterns and a central Torah-reading table, and vaguely cubist-looking stained glass behind the Ark. The photo caught my eye. It reminded me of the synagogue we belonged to when I was a kid, where I became bat mitzvah -- but maybe it's just that every synagogue of that era looked more-or-less alike? (We left there the year after; though two of my brothers are now members there, it's moved to a new building and has a totally different look and feel now.) I checked to see if the location of the photo was listed anywhere, and found it in small print inside the front cover. Sure enough, it's a picture of the old Alterman-Salkind Sanctuary of Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, my first synagogue stomping grounds.

I think I'll have to slip this slim little tome into my suitcase on Saturday. Something tells me my parents would love looking through this. The language is a little bit dated, but it's still a sweet portrayal of the community I come from. And next time somebody up here in New England jokes, "there are Jews in Texas?" I'll have printed proof that not only are there Jews where I come from, but we've been there a pretty long time.


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