The Deep South is astonishingly lovely in the heady days of mid-spring. In the quiet corners of rural Mississippi, the droning hum of tractors and bees provides a lazy soundtrack for a lush green landscape of flower-dotted fields and gently swishing trees in full blossom.
The pretty byways of this sleepy region are ideal for exploring in May and June, a time of warm, magnolia-scented afternoons and temperate evenings before the sticky days of summer. Much of this state — among the nation’s poorest, by a variety of measures — has the feel of a bygone era. Time has effectively stood still along these winding country roads, in the small towns where progress long ago passed Main Street by, and in the provincial city downtowns, where sidewalks are still and sleepy in the heat of midday.
But history, including Jewish history, is more alive than ever. In the cradle of the Old South and the civil rights movement, the Jewish visitor can enjoy a road trip from the capital of Jackson to several nearby sites of Jewish interest, tracing the story of Jewish life through years of boom and bust, migration and abandonment. Mississippi is home to several campuses of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE), though few Jews live here anymore; the decline of local industry sent the children of Main Street merchants to professional centers like Atlanta, Washington and Dallas.
On a road trip up from New Orleans or down from Jackson, Natchez, Miss., is an ideal stop. Situated on the banks of the Mississippi River at its most serene and picturesque, this is the kind of town that makes you feel like an extra in “Gone With the Wind,” thanks to a gorgeously preserved landscape of graceful 18th- and 19th-century mansions. Indeed, Natchez boasts the largest concentration of antebellum buildings in the South; Greek Revival pillars, stately domes and shady lawns give the town an aura of romantic nostalgia.
A modest but active Jewish community of several hundred individuals flourished here in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Two decades before the Civil War, this merchant class founded Mississippi’s oldest Jewish congregation. Temple B’nai Israel stands as a proud, turn-of-the-20th-century monument to that heyday, its Italian-marble fixtures and soaring stained-glass windows welcoming a steady flow of visitors, its imposing organ listed on a historic register. With only about a dozen remaining Jews in Natchez, however, the synagogue relies on the local museum for maintenance.
The Natchez site of the MSJE offers guided tours of the temple and of historic Jewish homes to visiting groups, all by appointment (see information below; the museum also organizes guided heritage tours of other Southern towns). Currently, the Natchez MSJE is presenting “Of Passover and Pilgrimage: The Natchez Jewish Experience,” an exhibition about the community’s founding by Sephardic settlers in the 1700s, life in the South for its pioneering families, and Jewish identity in the Conservative Bible Belt.
While you’re here, it’s worthwhile touring several of the major antebellum estates that are now museums. In a sea of elegant, pillared mansions, the bizarrely beautiful Byzantine fantasy known as Longwood stands out. Built just before the Civil War and never finished (the original design called for 32 rooms!), Longwood is round — or actually octagonal — with a 16-sided cupola, oodles of Moorish filigree, and an onion dome for a crown.
History buffs or fans of Southern Gothic should make time for the famous Natchez City Cemetery, a 100-acre park on the river bluffs. The ornate mausoleum sculptures, vintage ironwork and simple headstones date back to the early days of American Southern settlement.
Equally historic is a Mississippi riverboat cruise; Natchez looks gorgeous from the water, and it’s fun to feel a bit like Huckleberry Finn.
Driving north from Natchez, you meander through verdant fields and oak forests before coming to Utica, a tiny Mississippi town — fewer than 1,000 people live here — that’s easy to miss.
Its bucolic remoteness was doubtless the draw for the Henry S. Jacobs Camp, a 300-acre summer destination for generations of Southern Jewish children. Today, the original campsite serves as the home base for the MSJE, which continues to offer programming for summer campers as well as visitors of all ages.
The museum, whose galleries are organized amid rustic pine buildings, brings together important artifacts from defunct Jewish communities throughout the South. Here in the sanctuary is the circa-1868 ark that once graced a synagogue in nearby Vicksburg; over there are the manuscripts of Jane Mendel, a civil rights leader from Little Rock, Ark.
The current exhibition is “Alsace to America,” a chronicle of 19th-century Jewish immigration to Mississippi from the French-German border region of Alsace-Lorraine. Wall texts, photographs and a video presentation illuminate the lives of these Jewish pioneers, who abandoned Europe for the American dream but imported their Old World traditions.
From Utica, you can wind up your road trip in Jackson, a small city with a modest Jewish presence but little of tourist interest. Or you can keep driving northeast, either on Interstate 20 or the more scenic Route 80, which bisects the vast Bienville National Forest en route to Meridian, near the Alabama border.
Bienville itself makes a pretty stop. Its acres of thick pine forests are laced with canopied walking trails, camping facilities and creeks emanating from vast, shimmering Marathon Lake.
Meridian, the county seat, has an airport with connections to New York, making it a logical end point for a Mississippi road trip. It is also home to a collection of historically important cemeteries, among them the Oddfellows Cemetery, one of the nation’s most significant African-American monuments; the Confederate Cemetery, where soldiers are remembered alongside generals; and the Jewish cemetery of Temple Beth Israel.
Dating to the Civil War, Temple Beth Israel Cemetery is the final resting place for generations of German and Alsatian immigrants, and its monuments are considered prime examples of Victorian funerary sculpture.
Together with a 19th-century downtown of chalk-white pillars and clapboard porches, these markers of history are a potent reminder of the way cultures and causes coincided in Mississippi’s ever-present past.
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