Jewish Stars in Texas

From the frontier to the modern suburbs of Dallas, Hollace Weiner’s new study covers 100 years of Jewish history in Texas, organized around the story of 11 rabbis, each a pioneer of Texas Judaism. If you’re expecting to find gun-toting, circuit-riding rabbis on horseback, a la Clint Eastwood in a yarmulke telling a shopkeeper open on Saturday to “Make my minyan,” you’re going to be disappointed. But if you want to know what happened in this state before all those yenkees invaded in the last 20 years, launching jihads in every respectable Southern Reform congregation and inserting more Hebrew in the prayer service (and wearing prayer shawls and yarmulkes in a way that seems to say that the local yokels don’t know how to dress for prayer), then read this book.

There is a distinct Southern Reform tradition. It is based on a combination of necessity, 19th century European liberalism, the growth of democratic nations, and the fact that Jews were no longer locked in the shtetl, but were able to become civic and community leaders. It was partly assimilation to evade the anti-Semitism that was very much a part of American life until World War II. But it was also assimilation in a very positive way, taking advantage of the doors that opened to the life of the larger community and the opportunity to engage in the larger, often difficult, political and social debates of the time. Very often engagement in the community for Reform Jewish leaders meant fighting for social justice and serving the greater community. These rabbis stood up to the Klan, backed civil rights, built ties with Mexico, helped thousands of more recent immigrants, championed the working class, and were catalysts for intellectual and cultural life in communities that were just emerging from their founding as frontier towns.

It wasn’t universal, but the liberalism of religious practice in many of these Southern Reform Jewish leaders was often matched by a liberalism in political life, particularly on matters of race. Talk about traditions: Put away the tallis and tell me where that political and social leadership is now. Where are the Henry Cohens and Ephraim Frisches and Levi Olans today? And where are the congregations who expect their leaders to be catalysts for change?

Hollace Weiner, a veteran of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newsroom, does talk about a few orthodox and conservative rabbis in passing, but she concentrates on 11 Texas rabbis–10 Reform and one Conservative–who had significant effects on their communities. Most came to Texas from Europe via the Northeast, the Midwest, or the South. Most were raised in Orthodox households and came to more liberal practice as a new generation in this country or through Reform movements in Europe. Either by design or by happenstance, all became big fish in the little pond of Texas Judaism and seemed to revel in that position, particularly in comparison to their colleagues leading congregations in the Northeast, where rabbis were a dime a dozen.

Perhaps the most influential of all these leaders was Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston, rabbi to the state’s most prominent Jewish community at the turn of the century. Cohen served Galveston from 1888 to 1952 and in the process became known as the chief rabbi of Texas. He raised ecumenism to an art form, convincing Galveston’s Catholic bishop to join him in protesting the Alfred Dreyfus Affair in France and the pogroms in Russia. He joined forces with Galveston’s Monsignor James Kirwin to oppose the Klan in the 1920s. He taught at the medical school and fought for the admission of an African-American student. Cohen successfully lobbied the Legislature to raise the age of consent for statutory rape cases from 10 to 18 and, as a member of the state prison board got the system to institute vocational training, parole reforms, and the separation of first offenders from seasoned criminals. He ministered to all faiths, particularly after the great hurricane of 1900. Between 1907 and 1914, Cohen oversaw the “Galveston movement,” in which 10,000 Jews entered the country through the Port of Galveston, many staying in Texas. Cohen saw that they were treated fairly and had a means to get to their destination. Through his tenure of more than six decades, Cohen helped define Jewish life in Texas and he served as a matchmaker for other rabbis and growing Texas congregations.

These included his son-in-law Ephraim Frisch, who took over the pulpit of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio in 1923. Frisch campaigned against legislation to ban the teaching of evolution, opposed the local school board’s requirement for compulsory Bible reading in the classroom, called for a boycott of the Berlin Olympics, and preached against the poll tax. He was an avid New Dealer, a friend of Clarence Darrow, Maury Maverick, and Diego Rivera. His wife, Ruth Cohen Frisch, held classes for high school and college kids and steered a number of them into theatre and the arts. He encouraged young people to question their belief systems. Frisch helped organize an adult education circuit that brought lecturers and music into all neighborhoods of the city. He did make a number of people angry–backing pecan shellers in their strike against employers that included some of his congregants, like the Freemans and Seligmann. He spoke out against the arrest of Emma Tenayuca and members of the Workers Alliance. Eventually, in 1942, his congregation forced him into retirement.

Tyler Rabbi Maurice Faber also made a few people angry, but not many of his congregants. In 1915, he was the first clergyman and second Jew to be appointed to the University of Texas Board of Regents. Born in Hungary, Faber became a civic leader in East Texas. He negotiated with the Carnegie Foundation to fund a library in Tyler and helped build the library’s collection. He oversaw the town’s Associated Charities and Welfare Committee. He fought the emergence of the Klan in Tyler, and he later fought the very governor, James Ferguson, who had appointed him to the Board of Regents. When Ferguson tried to usurp the authority of the Regents and demanded the firing of seven professors, Faber led the opposition to the governor, who called for his resignation. Faber did resign, but only after voting to exonerate the faculty members.

Not all of these rabbis were champions of social justice. But many were scholars and book lovers in a barely literate world. Rabbis Cohen, Frisch, and Faber built large book collections. Texas’ first ordained rabbi, Heinrich Schwarz of Hempstead, brought volumes of poetry and Hebrew scholarship with him from Prussia in 1873 and started a lending library. Thus in Hempstead in the late 1800s there were lunch conversations in German about Immanuel Kant, carried on by Rabbi Schwarz, his brother Sam, and sculptor Elisabet Ney and her husband, who lived nearby. Other cultural pioneers, Rabbi Alex Kline and his wife Eleanore, brought an understanding and appreciation of contemporary art to Lubbock in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, Border rabbis Sam Perl, a haberdasher and lay rabbi in Brownsville, and Martin Zielonka of El Paso built close ties with Mexico. Zielonka, in particular, helped Mexico build its capacity to accept and help Jewish immigrants, as immigration restrictions in the Twenties squeezed refugee opportunities for entrance into the United States.

Jewish Stars in Texas begins with Heinrich Schwarz’s arrival in 1873 and ends with Rabbi Levi Olan, who served Dallas’ Temple Emanu-El from 1949—1984. Olan was a singular figure in Dallas in the ’50s and ’60s. He opposed McCarthyism, anti-Semitism, and racism. In the wake of the Kennedy assassination, Fortune magazine called Olan Dallas’ “most powerful religious voice.” Olan studied John Dewey and Martin Buber and believed in a “moral universe.” He championed federal public housing and the integration of schools. He joined Martin Luther King, Jr., in leading a rally against the poll tax in Dallas’ Fair Park Auditorium in 1963. He never shied from doing what was right.

When I first saw the title, Jewish Stars in Texas, I thought that could be the name of a Mel Brooks movie. But it turns out to be a story that needed telling. There they are–a pantheon of past Jewish leaders that is, unfortunately, not mirrored in the Jewish present. In a state with a miniscule Jewish population, where anti-Semitism was not uncommon or politely hidden, these rabbis had remarkable reach. Hollace Weiner’s new study helps extend that reach a little further.

Geoff Rips is a former Observer editor and great-great-grandson of Rabbi Heinrich Schwarz, whose face adorns this book’s cover.

Geoff Rips is a novelist and a former editor of The Texas Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST