Academic journal article American Jewish History

Whistling "Dixie" While Humming "Ha-Tikvah": Acculturation and Activism among Orthodox Jews in Fort Worth

Academic journal article American Jewish History

Whistling "Dixie" While Humming "Ha-Tikvah": Acculturation and Activism among Orthodox Jews in Fort Worth

Article excerpt

Fort Worth's Jewish history is a tale of two congregations--in common parlance, a "temple" and a "shul." At the shul, Ahavath Sholom, a traditional congregation dating to 1892, men and women sat separately, worshipers davened in Hebrew, and minutes were written in Yiddish. The temple, chartered a decade later and named Beth-El, originated as a Classical Reform congregation that dispensed with head coverings, prayer shawls, chuppahs, and all but a few lines of Hebrew. Although the shul was the pioneer institution forging a local Jewish communal identity, it has received scant attention from historians on its home turf and from those surveying Orthodox Judaism on a national level. (1)

One reason for this oversight is that Reform Jews have long dominated the popular image of southern Jewry. Those who became Reform arrived earliest--before the Civil War in Fort Worth--and rapidly integrated into commercial and civic affairs. Despite the turn-of-the century proliferation of immigrant congregations whose members observed Jewish dietary laws and championed Zionism, notes Leonard Rogoff, "Classical Reform is usually taken as the normative religion of the Southern Jew." (2) Bolstering this perception, observes demographic historian Lee Shai Weissbach, is the fact that many of the oldest congregations in the small-town South adopted Reform Judaism early in the movement's history, and their leaders were often visible in civic affairs. (3)

Another reason Fort Worth's Orthodox community was omitted from a number of survey articles is that it did not formally affiliate with a major branch of Judaism until 1992. Congregants at Ahavath Sholom (and those in many small-town congregations across Texas) waged a tug-of-war between Orthodoxy and Conservatism, between traditional practices and American influences. Because Ahavath Sholom remained unaffiliated, its rabbis and auxiliary organizations were not written up in regional and national publications that reported news, views, and activities of various denominations. The congregation fell below the radar.

Yet another reason for overlooking Fort Worth--as well as smaller Texas locales with vintage Orthodox congregations--is that the region is situated in a far corner of the Diaspora, 1,500 miles southwest of New York and 993 miles south of Chicago. Orthodox Judaism is most commonly associated with large concentrations of Jews residing in urban areas. Fort Worth's Jewish community has never totaled more than 0.2 of a percent of the city's population. (At the start of the twenty-first century, the city had more than half a million people but fewer than three thousand Jews, who represented less than 0.1 percent of the populace.) From afar, the little Texas shul in a city nicknamed Cowtown appeared out of the mainstream. But was it?

A decade ago, volunteers in Fort Worth began systematically archiving materials pertaining to the local Jewish community. A Yiddish minute book, dating from 1898 to 1905, was rediscovered. This legal-sized ledger contained the minutes of 145 meetings. It was a metaphorical Rosetta Stone, for the handwritten Yiddish constituted yet another obstacle to unlocking the institution's past. During a four-year period, a volunteer team of two Yiddish speakers and one typist translated and transcribed the 199-page volume. (4)

The reward was a mother lode of information, such as the identity of the congregation's first rabbi (who was fired after two months), the date of his hiring (January 10, 1904), and the reason for seeking a Jewish professional after more than a decade without one (to supervise the Talmud Torah, as the religious school was known, and to "be a teacher for the children"). (5) The minutes also pinpoint the start of the congregation's struggle over Orthodox affiliation--a contentious vote in 1898 against joining the newly formed Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. (6) Also mentioned are efforts at sophistication, through the purchase of spittoons, and the persistence of superstitious customs such as shlogn kapores, twirling a chicken above the head to atone for sins prior to Yore Kippur. …

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