Georgia Jewish Community

            December 2013    
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A "Hineni" Moment

By Louis Schmier

Time is September, 1975. The place is my office on the campus of Valdosta State University in the south Georgia town of Valdosta. The telephone rang. I answered it. On the other end of the line was a woman who, in a thick southern drawl, introduced herself as the chair of the local Valdosta-Lowndes County Historical Society's Bicentennial Committee. She had called to thank me for agreeing to talk to the Society's membership in February about the presence of Jews in Valdosta. She went on to explain how my talk would fit into the series of planned local festivities celebrating the country's 200th anniversary. I cordially replied that it was my pleasure to be a part of their program. After I hung up, I thought to myself, "What the heck is she talking about?" I hadn't agreed with anyone to talk to any group about any Jews living in any Valdosta. In fact, as an historian trained in modern European History, I had no both no knowledge or interest in the history of the South, much less Valdosta and its Jewish community. I put the call out of my mind as I headed for class.

No sooner had I gotten home, and before I could tell my wife, Susie, about this strange telephone call, the phone rang. On the other end of the line, was Rona Fox, President of the congregation's Hadassah. In her usual excited, high-pitched voice, she asked me if the President of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Historical Society had called me. I answered her question with my question,

"What was that all about? I didn't know what she was talking about."

"I know," she told me.

Rona was. Rona went on to tell me that she had been asked to talk to the historical society about the Jewish community in Valdosta. In quick, short, non-explanatory sentences, she related what had led up to the phone call I had received.

"I didn't want to do it. I don't like speaking in front of people. I figured you're a professor and the historian of the Congregation. You're used to speaking to people. You know how to 'profess.' So, I thought I would 'palm her off' on you. I told her you'd be glad to do it."

"'Historian of the congregation?' When did I get that appointment?" I asked Rona.

"When I got that phone call," she replied.

"Thanks. Now tell me what am I going to talk about?" I asked.

"Oh, don't worry. You've got a way with words."

"So does your father," I said in rebuttal. "He's lived here all his life. He knows a lot more than I do. And, he's a good talker."

"But, you're our professor."

"'Our professor?'" I interrupted, "And when was I suddenly adopted by the Congregation?"

"When I got that phone call," she said.

"But, I don't know anything about this community." I argued quietly, trying to politely tell her that I wasn't interested in doing it.

She ignored me. "I think someone wrote a history of Valdosta years ago that had a couple of pages about us in it. You can use that and ask some of the old timers in the congregation a couple of questions to add some filler. It's no big deal. You only have to talk for about ten or fifteen minutes." Then, she added with her own inimitable chuckle, "You know, you're a professor; it takes you that long just to introduce yourself."

When I hung up, Susie and I looked at each other. I said, "I don't want to do this. I'm not going to do it."

Susie only said quietly, "You can't say 'no.'"

"Why not?" I asked her.

"Because I said so."

"Yes, ma'am." I was joking. She knew I was, but we both knew she was not. I was stuck.

I dallied around for more than a couple of weeks hoping everyone would forget about the talk. My Susie didn't. On more than an occasional occasion, she would throw a barb in my direction with her inimitable annoyed tone, reinforced by the piercing two laser beams of her "Litwak stare": "What are you going to say?" "Have you done anything?" "Are you going to be ready?" "You've got to say something."

After this prolonged barrage, I would retort, "You're obsessing about this. It's not all that important. Leave me alone. I'll figure it out. "

Upset with my sarcasm, she'd hit back with her zinger, "Don't you embarrass me!"

"Yes, ma'am," was submissive retort. But, she would have none of my mocking surrender.

This became an annoying weekly ritual. Following the model of my procrastinating students, I kept putting her off because I really wasn't interested in either the subject or the talk. And, if she was going to keep remembering and reminding, I was going to keep hoping I'd catch the seasonal flu so that I could use it as an excuse to cancel my appearance. No such luck, but I didn't know what strange "luck" lay ahead of me.

Finally, weakening under the weight of Susie's threatening barrage, towards the end of November, to keep peace in the house, I feigned defeat and went to the college library to glance at this history of the county and town Rona had mentioned. As soon as I read that it had been put together by the members of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, I felt a scoff coming on. A sneer formed on my face as I muttered, "Amateurs! Everyone thinks he can be an historian. And I wasted all that time and money at UNC to get my Ph.D. How silly me!"

Anyway, I turned to the book subsection titled "Hebrew Congregation." As I suspected, it was, like the rest of the book, merely a hodgepodge of organizational and institutional membership lists. Some of the conflicting sentences should have hooked me. On one hand, it said that among those founders who "upbuilt" Valdosta after the Civil War, were the Erlich, Marks, and Engel families. On the next page I found, "It is said three or four Jewish families settled here before 1900, but this writer could not find documentary proof." It was a contradiction to be sure and ordinarily it would have piqued my historian's curiosity, and I would have followed it up. But, I just laughed at the poor writing as proof of the authors' inexperience and amateurism. With a professional "what do they know" arrogance, I smugly closed the book.

I had done my duty. I had fulfilled my "yes, ma'am" responsibilities to Susie. I still wasn't interested in any part of this talk. With my disinterest proving to be stronger than my historical curiosity, procrastination became my name; nudging and elbow poking became Susie's game. Excuse after excuse, mixed in with a white lie or two, flowed from my lips. Cajoling and threats flowed from hers.

It's now the beginning of January, 1976. After asking around, I learned that no one in the congregation had heard of these people. I had done my duty once again. "What do you want from me," I shrugged and pleaded when Susie nudged again. Finally, in mid-January, about two weeks before the presentation was due, after Susie's elbowing nudge nearly broke two of my ribs, I could delay no longer. For the sake of my physical safety, to get her off my back, I reluctantly, very reluctantly, told her that I'd go back to that D.A.R. "history," jot down a few notes, and rehash its list for the presentation.

"That's not good enough," she said in a very admonishing tone.

"What do you want me to do?" I pleaded.

"You're the high and mighty UNC, Ph.D., historian. You figure it out. Do history," she shot back.

So, cowardliness being the better part of discretion, I decided to do something. I would play act as if I was an historian. I would go downtown to the county court house to see what was there and whether I could add a few tidbits that would satisfy Susie.

Now, what I am about to tell you actually happened. Every word is the solemn truth. No embellishment.

Once at the courthouse, I asked directions to the records room. To be honest, I didn't know what I was doing. I had never seen a city, county, or state record, much less had been in a local courthouse record room, in my life. With the help of Sarah Crow, Clerk of the Court, (she would later prove to be an invaluable asset), I went to the city property records. For some reason, I decided to look up the name "Marks." Not expecting to find anything, I harshly pulled out the index volume that contained the "Ms." And opened it. To my surprise, there he was, "Joseph Marks!"

"Wow," I remember thinking to myself, "there was a Marks family here no one I talked to in the congregation knows anything about. At least, the ladies got that one right."

Feeling my interest rising, I kept looking. Within literally a minute or two, I rewrote the history of the Congregation as its members knew it. As I leafed through the records related to Joe Marks, the dates kept going further and further back: 1910, 1904, 1899, 1895, 1894, 1893, 1892. Joe Marks had apparently been in Valdosta before both Nathan Golivesky and Abe Pearlman, and before 1900. I had discovered the evidence that the writers of the D.A.R. history had not.

"Some 'historians,'" I muttered to myself with a gleeful satisfaction and self-vindication.

Then, I felt myself getting a bit serious. My historical curiosity was getting the better of me. My training at UNC was kicking in. I felt a question mark rising within me. That two-sentence contradiction in the D.A.R.'s history started whispering in one ear while I heard the warning words of one of my UNC professors in the other ear. "Never leave a question mark," Dr. G.V. Taylor would tell us over and over in his seminars as he playfully banged his fist at the head of the table.

I noticed in the records that there had been a lawsuit filed against Joe Marks in 1893. So, more out of curiosity more than historical insight, to answer a question mark, I decided to take a look at the city legal records: volume A, page 527. Actually, I decided to go to those records to use as filler so I could tell Susie I had done my research in preparation for my talk while I would secretly rehash the D.A.R. history for my talk with something about Joe Marks sprinkled about for added spice.

What happened next is inexplicable, but it did happen. And, again, sometimes you just don't ask. I call those "don't ask" incidents "Divine timing."

Now, remember, I didn't know anything about these records. And, understand, that meant I didn't know one set of court records from another. Without asking for assistance, I scanned shelves looking for the city court records. I found a set of court records. But, instead of it being the city court records, I was standing in front of the records of the state court, the Superior Court. Not aware of my mistake, with nonchalance, I pulled out Volume A. I laid it on the counter. I looked at my hands. They were smeared with a dirt and grime of disuse that covered the tome. "Not exactly popular reading," I sarcastically thought.

I opened it and, not daring to wet my grimy fingers with my tongue, clumsily dry thumbed to the page I was looking for, page 527. I casually started reading the faded hand written words. I froze. Everything around me went dead quiet. I just silently stared. Didn't read, just stared, motionlessly stared--intensely stared. My eyes were glued to those words on the page. I was numb. My palms began to get clammy. I felt my temperature rising. Drops of sweat formed on my forehead. My muscles tightened. My breath got slow and heavy. My heart started pounding. A chill went through me. I almost started shaking. The adrenalin must have been flooding my body. Slowly, oh so slowly, maybe even painfully, my suddenly stiff fingers moved to the middle of the page, carefully caressing the faded writing as if I was doing all I could to conjure it back to life. There, in front of me, right before my eyes, probably seeing the light of day for the first time in over a century, was the "Oath for Citizenship of Lewis B. Ehrlich" taken in Valdosta, dated October 29, 1868![i] In one felled swoop, I had pushed the history of the Valdosta Jewish community back almost forty-five years before anyone in the contemporary Congregation thought it had begun. The writer of that section of the D.A.R. history, who I was later to discover was Thannie Smith Wisenbaker, was right. There he was, in1868, an Ehrlich, Lewis B. Ehrlich, Jewish, revered as one of the "upbuilders" of Reconstruction Valdosta, among its socially prominent "new moss," in what I thought was rabidly racist and virulently anti-Semitic South Georgia!

I didn't feel the thrill of discovery. I didn't erupt with a screaming "wow!" or some other pertinent expletive. I didn't bang the table. I didn't joyously stomp the floor. I didn't dance a victory jig. I just slumped, feeling drained of all energy and whispered slowly, oh, so slowly, "Oh, my god."

Then, I felt a calmness come over me. The only way to explain it is to call it existential or spiritual. "Divine timing." I felt enveloped by an Hineni, an "Here I am," a readiness to serve, feeling a "called to" after being put to the test. If I had a hat on, I would have ripped it off and tightly held its brim with both hands pressed against my chest in supplication as a sign of apology, and submission. As if hearing a command to obey, I sighed and slowly nodded my head. I literally lifted my eyes, just quietly looked up at the ceiling and took a deep breath--a long, deep breath-as I silently said to myself, "I hear you."

This moment was a marker. I knew at the core of my being something pivotal had happened and my life was about to change irrevocably. I felt I was about to enter a very special time. Like the Hebrews at Sinai, completely ignorant to what I felt I was called to, I nevertheless underwent a fundamental change in consciousness. It was what my son, Michael, would call a "Hollywood Moment." For me, it felt more like a "Hineni Moment." To this very day, I am still amazed. And, I still don't understand. And, I still don't ask. "Divine timing."

No matter. For the next fifteen years, I became a zealous convert, an advocate on a mission. I went on a scholarly binge to uncover the neglected, even often forgotten, story of the Jews in Valdosta, in Georgia, and throughout the South in those years after the Civil War. I secured a host of modest private foundation and family grants to finance my work; I joined the American Jewish Historical Society, attended its annual conferences, and sat on its committees; I helped establish the Southern Jewish Historical Society; I held leadership offices in the SJHS; I organized an annual conference of the SJHS; I poured through records housed in national, state, and local libraries, historical societies, and archives; I gained access to private papers; I acquired resident fellowships; I traveled, interviewed people, and copied photographs; I gave papers at conferences; I received National Endowment for the Humanities grants for preparing exhibits; I became a consultant or resident scholar for Jewish communities in Georgia searching out their past; and, I furiously published.

In the end, I discovered a more humane Georgia, a more culturally diverse Georgia, a kinder Georgia, a more receptive Georgia, a more hospitable Georgia, and a Georgia gentler than usually supposed. The culmination of my studies is my recently published book, Chant of Ages; Cry of Cotton: The Biography of a South Georgia Jewish Community's Beginnings, available in hard print at http://www.carefullteaching and as an ebook on Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and iBook.


from the December 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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