A Timeless People: Memphis

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06 Sep 2011
Arts & Media

The exclusive excerpt below, a continuation of Shabbat Shalom’s mini-series on Jewish communities across America, is courtesy of Dr. Saul Landa, a New Jersey dentist with a passion for photography, author of “A Timeless People” (Gefen Publishing), which highlights the history of 18 Jewish communities across America.

How to Grow a Jewish Community

The keys to growth are hospitality and education. Jack spoke of the attribute of hospitality that is unique in this community. “Every year, on the [eight-day] holiday of Sukkos, my mother and Aunt Bertha would have fifty people over every day, two meals a day. They had a family recipe for strudel that’s as secret as Coca Cola!”

While there were Hebrew schools to provide a basic Jewish education, the future of Orthodoxy was shaky. Realizing that the only way to ensure continuity was through quality Jewish education, the first Jewish day school in the South became a reality in 1949. Today, thanks to the dedicated efforts of many philanthropic families over the years, there is now an Orthodox elementary school and two yeshivah high schools.

“We had 650 kids in the Talmud Torah (Hebrew school),” Jack recalled,” before the yeshivah came along. Andrew added an ironic note: “Three years ago we started the Memphis Jewish High School which utilizes the progressive “Harkness Method” of learning: all of the students meet around a large oval table, no desks.” We both laughed as we thought of the Eastern European cheder, which used the same method hundreds of years earlier.


“Forty years ago,” Jack said, “my cousin Cheryl Loskove, who lived in Chatanooga (one of the first Jewish enclaves in Tennessee), was driving by a junk yard when she saw something flash out of the corner of her eye. Upon closer inspection, she found an aron kodesh (Torah ark) with two stained-glass windows that open vertically via a pulley system. It stayed in her basement until it was handed down to me and finally found its way to the beis midrash of our new Jewish high school.”

I visited Memphis in the Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceding the High Holy Days. Sitting at the Shabbos table with me were Lynne and Lenny Mirvis, whose daughter, Tova, wrote the novel, The Ladies’ Auxiliary, about Orthodox Memphis. Also at the table are Herman and Barbara (Bobbie) Goldberger, editors of Hebrew Watchman and Dottie and Hosh Katz. There were so many generations of Southern Jewish history around this table and yet, to me, they still felt like family.


When we started talking about customs of the upcoming Rosh Hashanah, they told me about the time the police showed up at Tashlich, a prayer customarily said near a body of water. More than fifty people had gone down to the bayou — a marshy area overlooking the river — to say Tashlich. They stood on the cliff and began saying the appropriate prayers while gazing at the river, fifteen feet below them. This went on for about a half hour when, all of a sudden, a police car came racing in from nowhere, lights flashing, sirens blaring. Coming to a screeching stop ten feet from the shocked group, two state troopers bounced out of their vehicle, hands on holsters. Running toward the group, they shouted, “Ok, where’s the body? Where’s the body?” Evidently, a passer-by had seen them looking down at the river and called the police: such a large group must have been staring at a floating body!

At the time, no one was laughing, but with the distance of time, we all enjoyed the story. We started to dig in to the fabulous meal that had been placed before us. Our Shabbos menu was a perfect bi-cultural blend: Gefilte fish, chicken soup, Southern fried chicken, black-eyed peas, string beans accompanied by a fine scotch, and for dessert, pecan pie. Kosher traditional meets southern comfort! Dottie, of course, is not the least bit surprised. She has written food columns in the local papers and published a kosher cookbook of recipes she’s gleaned over the years. You want Southern cooking? How about her Aunt Esther’s Gedempte Chicken or Carrot Kishke with Vegetable Fritters?

The Famous Kosher Que!

We reflected on the fact that food is the clearest symbol of Southern culture, but that it is also an integral part of Judaism. We celebrate daily life, holidays, and life-cycle events with meals, and every bite must be kosher.


Kashrus is not just a set of rules, it’s a way of life. Wherever the Torah speaks of the kosher food laws, the word kodesh — holiness — is used. The Talmud says that, in this regard, every home is a temple, every table an altar, every meal a temple offering, and every Jew is like a Kohen. Yes, we use food as a way to improve ourselves spiritually, to bring us closer to G-d, and to each other. I would soon have a taste of this mixture.

When Shabbos ended, it was time to turn my attention to the pre-eminent event in Jewish Memphis: The Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth 20th annual Kosher Barbeque Contest. The passion for the “Que” in Memphis is indescribable. Memphis Jews are bonded by Southern culture and have adjusted their eating habits to those of their neighbors, despite the fact that the typical Memphis “Que” is as treif as could be. An old Memphis joke reflects this dual identity: An elderly Memphis Jew is going through customs and the agent discover five sets of teeth. The agent asks him, why five? “Well,” he explains, “one set is for dairy and one for meat.”

“And the other three?”

“One is for meat and one is for dairy for Passover.”

“And the last set?”


There is nothing like the Memphis Kosher Que! This year, fifty teams came from New York, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, as well as representing every Jewish organization in this community. They converge on Memphis, the barbeque capital of the world, to compete for prizes for best brisket, ribs and beans, as well as best booth design and name.

The teams are given their portions of meat, and a large table is laden with spices and ingredients provided for common use, all under the supervision of Rabbi Joel Finkelstein of Anshei Sphard. In the classic barbeque contests (of which Memphis has the largest in the world) contestants bring their own grills, meats, secret sauces and spices. In this kosher contest, the teams come with nothing but the shirts on their backs. The shul even provides the grills — two for each team and a two-page set of rules about kashrus. In this contest, the teams are answerable to a higher authority: Rabbi Finkelstein.

There is frenzy on Saturday night, in the social hall and meat kitchen, as participants frantically prepare their slabs of meat with rubs, spices, and marinades. This goes on until two o’clock in the morning!

The following day, services conclude at 8:30 am, and the heavenly aroma of barbeque wafts into the synagogue. I walk out into the parking lot — almost the size of a football field — and smoke is everywhere! The “Que” has been going on since 6:00 am. The ten-piece jazz band is slowly assembling and the judges, representing television, radio, the press, and local politicians arrive and take their seats. The M.C., George Klein, a member of Anshei Sphard, has his own claim to fame: he was best man at Elvis Presley’s wedding and Elvis at his.


The booths are going up, each with its own theme, vying for top prize: among them, “The Alta Cookers,” “Indiana Jonestein and the Temple of Israelites,” “Fleish Gordon,” “Jews Can Q, Can You?” “Blue Suede Jews,” “Grillin’ & Tefillin” (Chabad, of course!). The five-car train ride for adults and children goes from booth to booth for an up close and personal look at the grilling. Despite the sense of competition, camaraderie is evident among all the participants; they’re swapping cooking stories and recipes. There’s a congenial mingling of yarmulkes and tzitzit from Flatbush, baalei t’shuvah from Mississippi, Israel Bond ladies from Florida. A Memphis police officer tells me that despite the enormous crowd, this will probably be the easiest assignment he will have all year. By the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who won!


What a place! Jews have lived in the South for hundreds of years and each generation had to find a balance between its Jewish and Southern identities. Judy Peiser, executive director of the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis, remembers her Eastern European roots and growing up in a Southern home with an black housekeeper who prepared kosher versions of southern dishes like fried chicken greens, hot-water cornbread and cobblers, a scenario repeated all over the South throughout the years. In an interview she gave for the book, Matzo Ball Gumbo — a must-read to appreciate the true flavor of the Jewish South — she said, “We always have the ‘pack’ on our backs. We walk in two worlds.”

Dr. Saul Landa has been a photographer of Jewish subjects for over thirty-five years. He is also an avid athlete, traveler and hiker, and throughout his life has explored the world, including summiting Mount Kilimanjaro.

Dr. Landa’s four-year odyssey began with his participation in the OU’s 2006 Emerging Jewish Communities Fair, and resulted in a coffee-table sized book of 380 pages with more than 1,000 photographs (a combination of photos taken by the Dr. Landa and archival images from the featured communities), which he dedicated to the Orthodox Union. An associate clinical professor in Dentistry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine as well as an ordained rabbi, he resides in East Brunswick, New Jersey, with his family. Dr. Landa is available for guest speaking engagements and you are invited to contact him or provide information about your own community at: timelesspeople@gmail.com, or to visit his website: A Timeless People.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.