The ProsenPeople

Jimmy Fallon Reads Man's Search for Meaning

Wednesday, July 15, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Arie Monas

A couple of weeks ago, Jimmy Fallon, host of The Tonight Show, tripped on a rug in his kitchen and fell. Initially, he believed it was an ordinary fall but as he got himself up, he saw that his finger was sideways. He was rushed to the emergency room and was then transferred to Bellevue hospital to have surgery done on his finger after being told he had a ring avulsion. The doctor operated on Fallon for six hours, leaving him in the intensive care unit of the hospital for ten days. Fallon had to keep himself busy while in the hospital, so he started reading the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

Written during World War II, Frankl describes his experiences as a prisoner in the concentration camp, Auschwitz, and how he came up with a purpose in life to feel positive about to keep him going. The question we all have is why Jimmy Fallon, whose job as a comedian is to make people laugh, was reading a very serious book. Frankl describes what it was like being a prisoner in Auschwitz, and Fallon was able to relate to his message given his state of being. He was lying in a hospital bed, away from what he likes doing most, and felt like a prisoner. He wanted to get out of the hospital; as he advised his viewers, “Get out of that hospital, get out,” urging them that they will be fine. While reading the book, Fallon found the true meaning of his life, which is to be on television and to talk to people who are at home or at a hospital and making them laugh. Upon finishing the book, Fallon said, “I absolutely loved it.”

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Fiction Not Facts

Wednesday, July 15, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Janis Cooke Newman wrote about why she writes historical fiction. She is the author of the novel Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln and A Master Plan for Rescue as well as a memoir The Russian Word for Snow. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I often think I’m the ideal writer for historical fiction, because I’m not a fan of doing research. Other writers tell me how they disappear down the rabbit hole, spending weeks in the library, or jumping from one obscure website to another. How months go by and they don’t get any writing done.

To me, the whole idea of settling in with a big stack of historical texts just makes me itchy. Mainly because it’s the fiction part of historical fiction I find so compelling—the story and the characters, not the facts.

Not that I’m willing to ignore them entirely. I’m one of those writers (and readers) of historical fiction who feels cheated if the narrative takes too many liberties. I don’t want the wrong side to win the war, or a real person to have three husbands she didn’t have. And frankly, I’d rather a fictional character not ride a subway line that didn’t exist, or eat a kind of hot dog that hadn’t been invented. But ultimately, I’m more interested in how it felt to live and love—and even hate—during a certain time period. And you don’t get that from facts.

When I’m writing, I try to be as imaginative with what I use for my research as I am creating my story. Because to really understand what it was like for my characters to live in their time—to really write their worlds—I have to go beyond history books. I sometimes even have to go beyond books.

For the boy, Jack, in A Master Plan for Rescue, I relied a lot on my own father’s stories about growing up on the northern tip of Manhattan during the early days of World War II. My father was the one who told me about the blue Son in Service stars people hung in their apartment windows whenever someone in the family went to war—and how those stars were replaced with gold ones if that son, or brother, or father was killed in action.

To write the chapter about Jakob—the young German Jew who falls in love with the ill-fated Rebecca as Hitler is coming to power—I read Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. These stories, full of decadence and violence, gave me a sense of what that German city must have been like at that moment in time—and did it better than any nonfiction book could have.

When I wanted to write the character Rivka’s escape from German-occupied Paris, I re-read Irene Nemirovsky’s wonderful Suite Francaise. Again, better than any history text, this novel allowed me to imagine into what it would feel like to be a young, deaf girl fleeing the Nazis on foot across an entire country.

For fiction writers, everything becomes a kind of research. But for those of us who write historical fiction, we’re dependent on it. The trick is not depending on it too much, and not limiting ourselves to facts. Because stories—like lives—are made up of more than facts. And that is what fiction understands best.

Janis Cooke Newman is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, on the board of Litquake, and a founder and organizer of the Lit Camp writers conference. Read more about her and her work here.

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Book Cover of the Week: Good on Paper

Tuesday, July 14, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Mark your calendars for January 26, because Rachel Cantor's next book will be hitting the shelves!

Those who read Rachel's first novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World: A Novel will recognize Rachel's signature penchant for tales of love, unconventional families, search of self, and the mysteries of language in Good on Paper, a story about a lost writer inexplicably invited by a renowned, Nobel Prize-winning scholar to translate his new manuscript—which may not be all that it seems. We're thrilled to see Rachel collaborating with Melville House once again on what promises to be a fantastic second novel!

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Why I Write Historical Fiction

Monday, July 13, 2015 | Permalink

Janis Cooke Newman is the author of the novel Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln and A Master Plan for Rescue as well as a memoir The Russian Word for Snow. She is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, on the board of Litquake, and a founder and organizer of the Lit Camp writers conference. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

One of the inspirations for my novel, A Master Plan for Rescue, is the story of the refugee ship, the St. Louis.

The St. Louis was built as a pleasure boat, meant to take passengers on one and two week holidays. But the 900 Jews who boarded it in the spring of 1939 carried one-way tickets, and it must have seemed miraculous to them that they were being allowed to leave Hitler’s Germany for Cuba, a country with no Nazis.

And perhaps it was too miraculous, for when the St. Louis arrived outside Havana harbor, it was not allowed to dock. For nearly a week, the ship sat anchored in the hot sun with the city in view of those 900 Jews, until the Cuban government, and the ship’s owners, insisted they raise anchor.

With nowhere to go, the St. Louis sailed up and down the coast of Florida. Frantic cables went off to President Roosevelt on behalf of its passengers, cables that pleaded for 900 visas. But America, it seemed, had enough Jews, and eventually, the captain had no choice but to turn the ship around and sail back to Germany.

I came upon the story of the St. Louis during a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. I had never heard it before, and once I did, I could not get it out of my head.

What could it have been like, I wondered, to have been one of those Jews? To leave Hitler’s Germany and step aboard a pleasure boat, and suddenly be brought fresh towels and cold drinks by a German waiter in a white jacket. To glide across the marble floors of the upper deck’s ballroom as the ship’s orchestra played a waltz. To spend all your shipboard money on the way to Cuba, because you were certain you would not need it anymore.

I wondered too, what it must have been like to wait in the heat outside Havana harbor with your bags packed, and see the city you had been promised. And to do it day after day. It is known that one of the 900—a man—slit his own wrists and jumped into the sea.

How did it feel, I wondered, to sail so close to the Florida coastline, you could make out the shape of the pastel-colored hotels? So close, that fishing boats filled with vacationers motored out and snapped photographs of you, because you had become another tourist attraction.

And what, I wondered, could it have been like to feel the ship beneath your feet turn back toward Germany—a country that was full of Nazis?

These questions haunted me as thoroughly as if those 900 Jews had taken to following me around. And so, eventually, I wrote a character onto that boat. I bought him a one-way ticket, and I gave him a broken heart—because broken hearts are always good for fiction—and through him, I imagined my way into the answers to those questions.

This is the great pleasure of writing—and reading—historical fiction. At its best, it becomes a delicious combination of time travel and reincarnation. Unlike historians, novelists are free to dream up entire lives that take place in other times. Writing historical fiction gives me the opportunity to experience life in another era, to know—or at least imagine—what it might have been like to step onto the deck of a pleasure boat on a late spring day in 1939, and believe I was heading toward freedom. It also gives me the license to create whatever destiny I like for the characters I buy my tickets for.

Read more about Janis Cooke Newman here.

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Book Cover of the Week: The Best Place on Earth

Friday, July 10, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Excellent news! Ayelet Tsabari's debut collection of short stories, The Best Place on Earth—which won the 2015 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature—is coming to the United States! Originally published by HarperCollins Canada, the book will be available to American readers in March 2016. Random House released the book cover for the American edition this week:

A vast improvement on the original, don't you think? And yes, it is available for pre-order now!

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, July 10, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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No, I Have Not Read 'The Jew in the Lotus'

Thursday, July 09, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

We all have one: that book recommended to us over and over again that we never read. Perhaps it becomes something of a personal badge past a certain number of echoed suggestions, or an internal protest against being repeatedly pigeonholed. I have little better reason than that, but it’s been nearly ten years since I was first asked if I’ve read The Jew in the Lotus—a question posed so consistently since then I can sense it forming before it’s uttered—and no, I still have not.

The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India is the 1994 bestselling chronicle of the 1990 dialogue at Dharamsala between Tibetan rinpoches and a delegation of Jewish Buddhists, scholars, rabbis, and mystics: thirty years into its people’s exile following the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Central Tibetan Administration sought counsel from a council of Jews on organizing and mobilizing a diasporic ethnic and religious community into a nation that could thrive in the modern world. In an inspired and inspiring moment of interfaith collaboration, the Dalai Lama held a forum on how these two of the world’s oldest religions had managed to withstand both time and persecution up to the present day, and what they could learn from each other’s histories and models for the future. Kamenetz’s account of the encounter found a wide, passionate audience among Jews, Buddhists, clergy and adherents of all faiths, and anyone interested in the unlikely survival of a small, esoteric religion and what wisdom it could impart on another of its kind, facing the same challenges two centuries apart.

Monday was the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, an occasion commemorated through the week across the globe and with special fervor in New York City, where he is celebrating his reincarnativity among the Tibetan denizens of the City and pilgrims from afar—among them my best friend from high school.

Tenzin had been forcibly enrolled in an ESL course at the start of our Freshman year, at the same large district school where I took an accelerated language program that our home school did not offer. We would wait for the bus shuttling us back to our small, alternative high school with our winter coats on backwards, a lazy accommodation for the backpacks we couldn’t be bothered to take off or adjust from the moment we left our classrooms on one campus until we took our seats in opposite corners of the Science lab we shared at the second. We built a cursory friendship on complaining to each other about our respective morning waste-of-time enrollments—until Tenzin successfully tested out of the unnecessary ESL class and I switched to an independent study, continuing my studies through classes at the local university instead. By the spring semester of our Sophomore year we were coordinating our schedules to take all of our electives together, claiming the far corners of classrooms, sitting in the windowsills and snapping our gum against our teeth. Anything that could not be graded we shared only with each other: our (blessedly angst-free) forays into creative writing, our most embarrassing, unconquerable crushes, stories from retreats and shabbatonim and their most tantalizing unchaperoned moments, questions of identity and the values with which we’d each been raised.

The first place I drove as a licensed motorist was to Tenzin’s house, the same afternoon I passed my driver’s test. We celebrated over a classic Bollywood movie and Frooti frozen into mango popsicles we scooped out of their severed juiceboxes with the straws. We spent our Senior year sitting comfortably at separate tables in the classes we shared, operating from opposite ends of the room in our benevolent unified reign over the school. Tenzin held court among the athletes, the jocks, Model UN, Black Student Union (there wasn’t much other support for students of color), the funky girls, the girls who had tried out cheerleading for a neighboring school Freshman year, the guys whose parents were frequently out of town and purportedly oblivious to the SOLO cupped parties reliably thrown in their absence; I kept company with the musicians, dancers, artists, and stoners in and about the studios on the first floor, the Science Olympiad and Mock Trial competitors, the editors of the satirical school newspaper, and the uninhibitedly brilliant clowns cramming in the same credits I was catching up on over our final semester of high school. (We left the theater kids to themselves.) We would converge on the back lot where only seniors were granted parking spots around the large grass square that was the hub of social activity (for as long as it was cleared of snow); we sat on the hood of Tenzin’s car and caught each other up on the affairs of our peers, favorite teachers, families, and selves each day before heading home.

These are the examples I gave when a more newly acquired friend asked what my relationship with my high school best friend “does for me.” It was an awkward question to consider—What does any friendship “do” for a person?—and it became frustrating evident that these memories were not answering what was meant by it. “I mean, what do you two find in common?” It took me a while to connect that this unsatisfied curiosity about an observant Jew’s friendship with a Tibetan Buddhist was at its core just a variation on the old classic: “Have you read The Jew in the Lotus?”

Throughout high school and since, every time someone from my nuclear and extended Jewish community met or heard about Tenzin, invariably I would see the inquiry scrawled their intake before the blurt as soon as the word “Tibetan” dropped. The Jew in the Lotus (and, indeed, the dialogue it chronicles) is by most accounts an excellent work, and an interesting, provoking piece of modern interfaith history involving some of the most revered Jewish leaders and thinkers of our time—a concentration of my personal heros among them—yet I still cringe every time someone insists I must read it. It’s a recommendation that reduces a significant relationship in my life to a perceived experiment, as though it developed out of a philosophical fascination with another culture instead of an innate and deep affinity between two people—who just happen to each come from rich and somewhat unusual heritages. Our friendship is not a project; it is not founded on some mission of mutual understanding or a quest to solve or contemplate the future of the nations we belong to. One assumes I’ll appreciate The Jew in the Lotus because it addresses so many of my “interests”—but my best friend isn’t an interest, and to suggest so is a subtle yet troubling exotification—on the shallow yet slippery end of the spectrum of dehumanization—of a person very dear to me.

But the cultural exchange is indeed part of our relationship. We connected as teenagers over being raised in traditional households and belonging to small and stretched communities steeped in custom and faith. We spend holidays together with each other’s families as often as we can: Losar, Sukkot, Shabbat, rinpoches’ teachings. We learn more about our respective cultures’ death and wedding rites as those events become increasingly relevant to our lives. We continue to discuss our personal musings on identity, of diaspora, of peoplehood together; we slip into the languages and names we use only at home and pick up each other’s foreign phrases and scattered words; we fill each other in on the political or violent moments facing our communities and the histories and complexities behind them.

Today the Dalai Lama begins a series of teachings for the people honoring him on his accession to octogenarnia. If I can make it out of the office in time, I will be joining his audience—not to carry out some interfaith agenda, not to observe a foreign sacred space, but to sit with my friend’s family at an occasion important to them, without any thought beyond that as to what it means to be a Jew in the lotus.

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Dry Goods Merchant and Freedom Fighter: Samuel Fleishman of Marianna, FL

Thursday, July 09, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sabra Waldfogel wrote about the Jews who lived in Mound Bayou. Her most recent book is Freedom’s Island, about an all-black Mississippi town menaced in the 1880s by a greedy cotton planter and a former Klansman, and aided by a Jewish merchant. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

On October 3, 1869, in Marianna, Florida, a crowd of twenty men ordered merchant Samuel Fleishman to leave the town where he had lived and done business for sixteen years. He told them that he would rather die than leave. That night, four men removed him from town by force. He never returned. A little more than a week later, his body was discovered in rural Jackson County. No one was ever charged with his murder.


Street Scene in Marianna, 1880s, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Living South, Looking North

Samuel Fleishman was born in the 1820s in Bavaria, where Jews were severely restricted in their occupations, their residences, and even in their opportunities to marry. He left Germany in the 1840s, settling in New York City, where he worked as a peddler and swiftly became an American citizen. By 1850, he had moved to Gadsden County in Florida, joining a relative already there, to set up a dry goods store. Three years later, he moved again, to Marianna in neighboring Jackson County, where his business prospered.

Fleishman lived in the South, but he retained close ties to the North. He traveled to New York to buy goods for his store, and he married Sophia Altman, born in New York, whose family had also come from Germany. Sophia’s brothers were dry goods merchants in Manhattan; the younger, Benjamin Altman, would rise to fame as the founder of a retail empire by the end of the 19th century. Fleishman had business dealings with his brothers-in-law until he died.

Fleishman’s new home was hospitable to business. Jackson County was a Whig stronghold before the Civil War. The Whigs, political opponents to the Democrats, felt that the federal government should promote internal improvements and the free flow of trade. Their views appealed to cotton planters, particularly those who had strong ties to the Northern brokers who bought their cotton and the Northern mills that wove it into cloth. Fleishman, who benefited from the freedom to do business and who had close connections with his relations in New York, must have found the Whig platform congenial.

When the Civil War broke out, Fleishman did not rush to join the Confederate cause, and when the Confederacy subjected men over forty-five to the draft, making him eligible for the Confederate Army, he fled to New York. He spent the war assisting his Northern brothers-in-law in their dry goods business. His business interests helped him to cast his fate with the Union.

Free to Do Business

When Fleishman returned to Marianna in 1865, he found the place greatly changed. The war had ravaged the county, destroying his business. Emancipation had freed half of the population. The Union Army was garrisoned there, represented by a black regiment, which galled the defeated Confederates of Jackson County. And early in 1866, the Freedmen’s Bureau, charged with enforcing the rights of former slaves, opened an office in Marianna. The Bureau agents were unapologetic supporters of the Radical Republicans, who believed that Emancipation meant social, political and economic equality for former slaves.

Fleishman sided with the Union and the Radical Republicans. He was one of the few residents of Marianna to befriend the agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau, who thought so highly of him that they recommended him for the position of tax collector in 1867. The Bureau’s regard for him infuriated his neighbors. Later that year, someone shaved the manes and tails of his horses and vandalized two buggies worth $200. It was the beginning of the harassment that would end with his expulsion from Marianna and his death.

To rebuild his dry goods business, Fleishman turned his attention to a new set of customers: freed black people. He treated them with common decency, which offended his Confederate neighbors. Much more threatening to the planters of Jackson County was Fleishman’s willingness to sell directly to former slaves and to extend them credit. After the war, cash-poor cotton planters hired black laborers by employing them as tenants and extending them credit against the future crop. A merchant like Fleishman threatened the cycle of credit and debt that became a new form of white control over black people. And for that, even more than his sympathy with the Bureau and its politics, or his courtesy to his black customers, he was in deep trouble in Jackson County.

The Martyr

During Reconstruction, the counties that suffered the most violence were evenly divided in population between black and white. In Jackson County, which was the scene of murderous violence between 1868 and 1871, the racial ratio was fifty-fifty. As elsewhere throughout the South, the Jackson County planters who despised free blacks and their allies, the Radical Republicans, found their own allies in the organization that used violence and murder to terrorize both: the Ku Klux Klan.

In Jackson County, the relationship between planter and Klan was literally familial. James Coker had been one of the richest planters before the war and afterwards, was still one of the town’s leading citizens. His son Billy, whose tendency to violence was fueled by alcohol, was foremost among the “redeemers” who harassed, intimidated, and assaulted black people, whether political or not, and who targeted whites who were Radical Republicans.

On September 28, 1869, the local redeemers shot and killed the town’s constable, a free black man named Calvin Rogers, along with a number of bystanders, including women and children. After the murders a rumor spread that Fleishman was urging black people to retaliate and offering to provide them with guns. The rumor sealed Fleishman’s fate. He was forcibly removed from Marianna a few days later, and ambushed on the road a few days after that.

Samuel Fleishman never intended to die for freedom. He wanted the freedom to do business. But on October 9, 1869, his dedication to that freedom made him a martyr.

Sources

I am deeply indebted to Daniel Weinfeld’s biographical essay, “Samuel Fleishman: Tragedy in Reconstruction Florida,” Southern Jewish History (2005, Volume 8), pp. 31-76, as well as his fuller treatment of the context, The Jackson County War: Reconstruction and Resistance in Post-Civil War Florida (University of Alabama Press, 2012). On the role of the Klan throughout the South, the best source remains Allen W. Trelease, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (Louisiana State University Press, 1979).

Sabra Waldfogel writes historical fiction about Southern Jews and African Americans in slavery and freedom. For more information about her and her work, visit her website.

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Summer 2015 Jewish Books Preview

Wednesday, July 08, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Miri Pomerantz Dauber

With summer now in full swing, it's time to start your summer reading! Choose a hot-off-the-press June release or one of the forthcoming July or August books, head to a beach or pull up a deck chair and lose yourself in one of these great new titles. Look out for follow up books from Julia Dahl and Judy Brown, two new memoirs (with recipes!) that explore the power of cooking, and new books from Etgar Keret, Joshua Cohen, Pam Jenoff, Talia Carner, and Alice Hoffman among many others. Explore the land of the midnight sun, revisit the early 20th century and meet the stars of the Modernist era in England or the characters roaming New York City's Bowery in the Jazz Age. Whichever books you choose, happy reading!

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The Jews of Mound Bayou

Monday, July 06, 2015 | Permalink

Sabra Waldfogel writes historical fiction about Southern Jews and African Americans in slavery and freedom. Her most recent book, Freedom’s Island, about an all-black Mississippi town menaced in the 1880s by a greedy cotton planter and a former Klansman, and aided by a Jewish merchant, has just been published. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Isaiah MontgomeryIsaiah Montgomery,
founder of Mound Bayou

When James Marr, resident and alderman of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, undertook his duties as census enumerator on June 1, 1900, he counted the Fink brothers, Frank and Joe, who were working as grocers. He listed them as black, but they were not. They were Jewish immigrants from Russia.

Jews ran groceries, dry goods stores, and general stores in small towns all over the South, and anywhere else, the presence of two Jewish merchants would be unremarkable. But Mound Bayou was an extraordinary place, an all-black town where no white person lived without invitation.

Who asked the Finks to live and work in Mound Bayou, and why did they accept? The answer lies with the man who founded and built Mound Bayou—visionary and entrepreneur Isaiah Thornton Montgomery. Montgomery was slave to one unusual man and son to another, and he brought his lifelong experience with racial accommodation and racial uplift to his dealings with the Finks.

Joseph Davis: The Utopian Slaveowner

Isaiah Montgomery was born in 1847 on the Mississippi plantation of Joseph Emory Davis, older brother to future Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Joseph Davis, a lawyer before he became a planter, was troubled by slavery, and when he met the utopian thinker Robert Owen, he decided to apply utopian ideals to the peculiar institution. He became a man of substance. On the eve of the Civil War, he owned 345 slaves.

More than his wealth set him apart. He treated his “servants” with a decency and a dignity highly unusual among Southern slaveowners. For Davis, assuring his slaves comfortable housing, food, and clothing was only the beginning. He encouraged their enterprise, allowing them to sell produce and to keep the profits, and he gave them the opportunity for self-governance. Davis’ slaves had their own court, where they resolved disputes and reviewed complaints from overseers. Isaiah Montgomery recalled of his childhood that “we just barely had an idea of what slave life was.”

Benjamin Montgomery: The Entrepreneurial Father

Isaiah Montgomery grew up observing an equally unusual relationship between his master and his father. Davis believed in encouraging the talents of his slaves, and the best example—and the greatest beneficiary—was Benjamin Montgomery, who first came to Davis’ attention when he ran away. It was common to punish or to sell a runaway slave, but instead, Davis “inquired closely into the cause of [Ben’s] dissatisfaction.” He discovered an educated, talented man, whom Davis came to respect and depend upon.

Benjamin Montgomery was skilled as a machinist and an inventor, but his greatest talent was for business. Davis set him up as the proprietor of a small general store on the plantation in 1842. Montgomery was soon was able to establish his own line of credit, and in addition to running the ever-expanding store, he also began to act as Davis’ agent in selling the plantation’s crops. On the eve of the Civil War, his store was patronized by the Davis family as well as by the Davis slaves, and Davis trusted him to manage the plantation’s business affairs. He continued to manage the Davis holdings throughout the Civil War.

In 1866, a war-weary Joseph Davis struck a bargain with the Montgomery family. He agreed to sell them the Davis holdings, and Benjamin Montgomery applied his considerable entrepreneurial talent to running a large plantation. Isaiah Montgomery, who managed the plantation’s store and oversaw one of his father’s three holdings, became his father’s right-hand man.

By the end of Reconstruction, the Montgomery family ran one of the largest and most successful cotton plantations in Mississippi. The family combined their belief in hard work with a dedication to education and cultivation. Isaiah Montgomery clearly saw that success in business and moral uplift went hand in hand.

The decline in the cotton market during the 1870s, combined with Benjamin Montgomery’s death in 1877, put the Montgomery plantation in jeopardy. Unable to repay their loan to the Davises, the Montgomerys relinquished the plantation to the Davis family in 1881.

Isaiah Montgomery Builds a Refuge

Inspired by the spirit of his father, Isaiah Montgomery wanted to create a “refuge” where black autonomy, financial success, and moral uplift could intertwine and encourage each other. In 1887, he bought a tract of undeveloped land from the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railroad, with the intention of establishing “a Negro colony,” in the later words of his friend Booker T. Washington. After a year of back-breaking effort, the town began to take shape, populated by farmers raising cotton and small merchants in town serving them.

The post-Reconstruction years in Mississippi saw the growth of sharecropping and debt peonage, a new form of enslavement for black farmers without capital. As the Republican Party—the party of President Lincoln and emancipation—declined in strength in Mississippi, so did the franchise for black voters. Throughout the South, Democratic politicians became convinced that the black franchise was the cause of political disruption in Southern elections. Mississippi became the first Southern state to disenfranchise its black voters in 1890.

Isaiah Montgomery’s feelings about black autonomy did not extend to participation in politics. He was the only black delegate at the 1890 convention. He sat on the franchise committee and argued for the poll taxes and literacy tests that effectively disenfranchised blacks, firm in the belief that the best course for black Mississippians was economic autonomy rather than involvement in political life.

Isaiah Montgomery Promotes Mound Bayou

Mound Bayou became an incorporated town in 1898, and held its first municipal election the same year. To no one’s surprise, Isaiah Montgomery was elected mayor, along with three aldermen and a constable. Montgomery had always been Mound Bayou’s greatest advocate, but his new responsibility as mayor spurred his efforts to encourage the town’s development. In 1900, Mound Bayou became a depot on the railroad that had always run through the town, which promised future growth.

Montgomery also became involved in an organization with a mission close to his heart: Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League, which supported the efforts of black business owners all over the country, but particularly in the South. Montgomery helped Washington organize the League’s first meeting in Boston in September of 1900, where he spoke about Mound Bayou.

Montgomery was more than the town’s mayor. He was its foremost merchant, but also it and its leader and biggest booster. By 1900 he was clearly overextended, with three businesses to run: his own, the town’s, and the League’s. He needed someone to mind the store in Mound Bayou. Sometime around 1900, he met the Finks, who were working as grocers in nearly Beulah.

Enter the Finks

The experience of the Fink brothers was typical of Jews of their generation. They were born in the Russian Empire. Their father, a grain and coal merchant, left for America in the wake of the rise in anti-Semitism after the czar’s assassination in 1881. Once established in New York, Abe Fink sent for his wife and seven children, who settled there and became citizens. After their father’s death in 1892, the children made their way in the world, the daughters marrying and the sons going into business. Frank and Joe’s sister Celia married a man named Barnett Wolf, who moved to Mississippi to run a grocery in Beulah, and Frank and Joe followed shortly after.

The Finks must have struck a chord with Montgomery: refugees from persecution, hopeful to advance themselves through the business of storekeeping, with ties to grocery suppliers and a line of credit. Their manner must have struck him, too. Like many Jewish merchants in small Southern towns, they had become used to serving black customers and treating them with courtesy. They must have been unusually open-minded to contemplate the prospect of living among black people as social equals.

“No white man has ever lived here”

Everything in Mound Bayou occurred under the paternalistic scrutiny of Montgomery, and the transformation of the Finks into black people in the census was no exception. It was a way to protect the Finks, who were breaking the rules of proper racial behavior in Mississippi. But it was also a way to protect the image of Mound Bayou, which would become highly visible after Booker T. Washington began to help Montgomery publicize and raise money for “a town owned by Negroes.”

By 1901, the Finks had left Mound Bayou—Frank married, and he and Joe bought land in Duncan, north of Mound Bayou, where they ran a store and grew cotton. Three years later, when Booker T. Washington visited Mound Bayou, he wrote, “no white man has ever lived in this community since it was established, except the man who introduced the telephone system, and he remained only long enough to teach some of the townspeople to manage the exchange.” The Fink brothers, white and Jewish, who briefly threw in their lot with Mound Bayou’s, slipped from view and from the town’s history.

Sources

The best source on the intertwined history of the Montgomery family and the Davis family remains Janet Sharp Hermann’s book, The Pursuit of a Dream (Oxford University Press, 1981). It is fascinating to read Booker T. Washington’s 1904 piece on Mound Bayou, “Mound Bayou, Mississippi: a Town Owned by Negroes.” Information on the Finks comes from the census and from Fink family descendants—I’m especially indebted to Joe Fink’s grandson, Mark Hein. Also see Margery Kerstine and Judy Tucker, “Jake Fink: A Delta Entrepreneur,” Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies; December 2000, Vol. 31, Issue 3, p. 214.

For more information about Sabra Waldfogel and her work, visit her website.

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