The Last Jews of Natchez (Gravy Ep. 14)

The reporter at age 12 with her mother, Mildred Amer, on the bimah of Temple B’Nai Israel. This photo was taken during the 1994 Natchez Jewish Homecoming, an event that celebrated the town’s Jewish history. (Photo courtesy of Mildred Amer)

People are often surprised when Robin Amer tells them her family is from the South. That’s because her family is Jewish, and a lot of people don’t realize there are Jews in the South, especially in tiny towns like Natchez, Mississippi. But Robin’s family has lived there for 160 years, and their traditions—and foodways—are a unique hybrid of their European Jewish heritage and their Southern home.

The Jewish community in Natchez has been dwindling for years, though. Now, it’s down to only a handful of people, including Robin’s 96-year-old grandmother and 98-year-old grandfather. In this episode of Gravy, Robin returns to Natchez to learn what might be lost when they’re gone.

Jewish food in Natchez combined Alsatian influences from Germany with creole influences from New Orleans. Here, a page from the reporter’s family recipe book shows the instructions for making “Grand Ma Gross’ Leb Kuchen,” a kind of German gingerbread. (Photo by Robin Amer)
Jewish food in Natchez combined Alsatian influences from Germany with creole influences from New Orleans. Here, a page from the reporter’s family recipe book shows the instructions for making “Grand Ma Gross’ Leb Kuchen,” a kind of German gingerbread. (Photo by Robin Amer)
From right: The reporter’s grandmother, Elaine Lehmann; grandfather, Robert Lehmann; and great-grandmother, Mildred “Mimi” Kern; photographed in their clothing store, Ullman’s, in the mid-1950s. There were nearly 50 Jewish-owned businesses in Natchez by the turn of the last century. (Photo courtesy of Elaine Lehmann)
From right: The reporter’s grandmother, Elaine Lehmann; grandfather, Robert Lehmann; and great-grandmother, Mildred “Mimi” Kern; photographed in their clothing store, Ullman’s, in the mid-1950s. There were nearly 50 Jewish-owned businesses in Natchez by the turn of the last century. (Photo courtesy of Elaine Lehmann)

You can learn about the Natchez City Cemetery here.

A bed of thick rosemary grows on the grave of seven-year-old Rosalie Beekman, the only person killed in Natchez, Miss. during the Civil War. Although rosemary is most commonly used in cooking, folklore and tradition link the herb to remembrance of the dead, especially in war time. (Photo by Robin Amer)
A bed of thick rosemary grows on the grave of seven-year-old Rosalie Beekman, the only person killed in Natchez, Miss. during the Civil War. Although rosemary is most commonly used in cooking, folklore and tradition link the herb to remembrance of the dead, especially in war time. (Photo by Robin Amer)

Go here to find Marcie Cohen Ferris’ book “Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South.”

Food scholar Marcie Cohen Ferris (left) holds a tray of traditional braided challah, while Macy Hart (right), President/CEO of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute for Southern Jewish Life, watches the proceedings of the 1994 Homecoming. (Photo by Gretchen Haien)
Food scholar Marcie Cohen Ferris (left) holds a tray of traditional braided challah, while Macy Hart (right), President/CEO of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute for Southern Jewish Life, watches the proceedings of the 1994 Homecoming. (Photo by Gretchen Haien)

You can see pictures here of Stanton Hall, where the Jewish Homecoming– the site of the “Ham Biscuit Incident”– was held in 1994.

Attendees of the Natchez Jewish Homecoming circle a buffet table at Stanton Hall. The menu featured a mix of Jewish and Southern dishes, some kosher and some treif, including the infamous ham biscuits. (Photo by Gretchen Haien)
Attendees of the Natchez Jewish Homecoming circle a buffet table at Stanton Hall. The menu featured a mix of Jewish and Southern dishes, some kosher and some treif, including the infamous ham biscuits. (Photo by Gretchen Haien)
An heirloom monogramed oyster plate belonging to the reporter’s grandmother. Although kosher law forbids eating shellfish, most Jews in Natchez still partake. (Photo by Robin Amer)
An heirloom monogramed oyster plate belonging to the reporter’s grandmother. Although kosher law forbids eating shellfish, most Jews in Natchez still partake. (Photo by Robin Amer)

You can find the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute for Southern Jewish Life, which helped put on the Homecoming, and received the Natchez temple as a donation in 1992, here.

Elise Rushing is one of the few remaining members of Temple B’Nai Israel in Natchez. “I light the Shabbat candles every Friday because I’m the only woman there to do it,” she says. (Photo by Robin Amer)
Elise Rushing is one of the few remaining members of Temple B’Nai Israel in Natchez. “I light the Shabbat candles every Friday because I’m the only woman there to do it,” she says. (Photo by Robin Amer)