NEW ORLEANS – The long-awaited Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE) opened its doors to the public today. Exhibits explore the many ways Jews in the American South influenced and were influenced by the distinct cultural heritage of their communities, covering 13 states and more than 300 years of history.
“The cumulative histories of Jews who settled in the south is a remarkable testament to the possibilities of America,” said Jay Tanenbaum, MSJE chair. “In telling these stories, we hope to show how people of different religions and cultures can come together to build better communities and how we can unite for a better future.”
The Southern Jewish experience occupies a unique placement in American culture. The Museum highlights the exceptional bonds of friendship that developed between Jews and gentiles in the South. Backed by the 4000 artifacts in its growing permanent collection, the Museum uses multi-media and interactive exhibits to trace the many ways Jews contributed to the cultural, political, and economic landscape of the American South, often working side-by-side with their non-Jewish neighbors to establish some of the first towns in the region.
Exhibits Covering Three Centuries of History
Visitors will view a super-wide format introductory film before proceeding into the first gallery. There, the history will unfold in chronological order beginning in the early 1700s South. One feature is a map of lesser-known immigration waves including the early 1900s immigration to America via Galveston, also known as “the Ellis Island of the South.”
Another highlight from this period is a community quilt from the late 1800s made by the Jewish Ladies’ Sewing Circle in Canton, Mississippi, likely raffled in support of Canton’s Temple B’nai Israel. This ‘crazy quilt’ forms the base of an interactive experience seen later near the Museum’s exit and serves as a metaphor for the diversity of American communities. Tanenbaum added, “Our communities are sewn of different peoples with different backgrounds but bound tightly to offer warmth and create something of beauty.”
The Museum offers visitors a brief introduction to the beliefs, traditions and celebrations of the Jewish people. Framed by nearly 50 replicas of stained-glass windows from southern synagogues, Judaism’s sacred texts, symbols and sounds will be seen and heard.
Food is also at the center of the Southern Jewish experience and exhibits touch upon the adaptations of southern and soul cuisine with Jewish foodways. Recipes, photos and advertisements show how Jews balanced the marriage of Jewish and Southern traditions.
As visitors move through the Museum toward contemporary times, they will learn through rarely exhibited images about the post-WWII phenomenon of Jewish intellectuals moving to the South to teach at Historically Black Colleges and Universities as a result of antisemitic quotas at many institutions.
The Museum’s civil rights exhibit, “Civil Rights and Activism,” follows the stories of the Southern Jews who were activists in this historic movement, demanding equal rights for all people. Through photos, artifacts and an interactive oral history station, this exhibit explores the wide range of roles and perspectives held by Southern Jewish activists throughout the twentieth century.
The permanent exhibits conclude with a feature on Southern Jews in popular culture that spotlights notable figures that were a product of the Southern Jewish experience. From musician Kinky Friedman’s album to a Bill Goldberg wrestling figurine and a glittered, lacquered bagel from a Jewish Mardi Gras krewe, the Museum is proud to display artifacts illustrating the fusion of cultures.
In addition to the first-floor core exhibitions, the Museum will host a special exhibition gallery on the second floor with rotating, interdisciplinary shows. The Museum will open with a proprietary photography exhibition in that space, featuring works by Bill Aron, who documented Jewish life in the American South in the 1980s and 1990s. Details on future exhibitions will be announced soon.
The Museum’s gift shop will feature select items, many unique to Southern Jewish culture, and is accessible to the public without Museum admission.
Visiting the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience
The Museum is open every week Wednesday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed during certain national and Jewish holidays). Tickets and memberships can be purchased at www.msje.org or on-site. Admission: $15 (adults 18-64), $13 (seniors 65 and over, students and active military), $10 (children 6-17), $13 (group rate: 8 or more). Children under 6 and Museum members gain free admission.
A gala celebration to officially commemorate the Museum’s opening is planned for early October.
To support the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, visit www.msje.org/support.