Feeding the Jewish Soul in the Delta Diaspora

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Feeding the Jewish Soul in the Delta Diaspora

by Marcie Cohen Ferris
Southern Cultures, Vol. 10, No. 3: Fall 2004

"Throughout the nation food strongly defines ethnic and regional identity. But in the South, and especially in the Delta, a region scarred by war, slavery, and the aftermath of reconstruction and segregation, food is especially important."

Mention “The Delta” and vivid images come to mind of a dramatic, flat landscape etched by rows of cotton and bounded by the Mississippi River. One imagines catfish, juke joints, barbecue, and pick-up trucks in a world inhabited by white planters, poor white sharecroppers, and black blues musicians. Although the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta is largely populated by black and white working-class laborers and upper-class white landowners, the region is also shaped by a small group of Jewish southerners, now numbering no more than three hundred, whose families first arrived in the Delta in the late nineteenth century as peddlers and fledgling merchants.¬†Between the Mississippi River levee and Highway 61, amidst the shotgun houses, cotton fields, and Baptist churches of the Delta, are a handful of synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, Jewish-owned clothing stores, and businesses that were central to the economies of small Delta towns prior to the coming of discount stores like Wal-Mart. Less visible but nonetheless present are the adapted folklore and foodways of a transplanted culture, for feeding the Jewish soul, both spiritually and physically, has challenged Delta Jews from their first arrival in the region through today.