Bert Rosenbush Jr. enjoys a bittersweet form of celebrity in his hometown of Demopolis, Ala.: He’s the last living Jew there.
It’s a form of prominence he shares with Phil Cohen of Lexington, Miss. In Natchez, Miss., Jerold Krause is one of just a dozen Jews left. And Selma, Ala., a town that was central to the civil rights movement, is down to its last dozen, too.
It’s a paradox, in a way. Because, as Stuart Rockoff, director of the history department of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Life, in Jackson, Miss., observed, “More Jews live in the South today than ever before.” But today those Jews are almost all living in the region’s cities. “Smaller communities,” Rockoff said, “have really undergone a significant decline.”
From the early 19th century, Jews built synagogues alongside the cotton fields and plantation houses of the Deep South. Today, the vibrant communities they built are dwindling down to their final members. Yet even now, many of these Jews bask in a certain aura of accumulated high regard, built over generations, thanks to forbears who filled a niche as successful local businessmen, which they themselves continue to fill today.
In Demopolis, for example, 83-year-old Rosenbush lives on Bert Rosenbush Road, a country road outside the city center, next to a small lake. It’s named after Rosenbush Jr.’s father, who owned the family furniture store and worked part time as a funeral embalmer. According to 2010 U.S. census figures, the town’s 7,000-plus population is about 50% black.
In Lexington, where the first Jewish resident arrived in the late 1830s, Cohen, who is 75, still runs Cohen’s Department Store, on Court Square in the town center, its red-brick front still proudly displaying the family name in large letters for all to see. His grandfather founded the store, which opened in 1900. The town, with a population of 1,731 in 2010, has a historically large black majority and is the seat of a historically black majority county. Its population today is 1,731, almost 80% of which is African American.
During the early 1900s, Jews owned a variety of businesses in Lexington, including tailors, groceries and factories that provided goods not just for the town, but also throughout the state.
By the mid-1900s, throughout the region, a majority of the younger generation of Southern Jews began attending colleges outside the area or moving to larger cities. They left family-owned businesses behind. Congregation members began to dwindle, leaving synagogues that were infrequently used and often costly to maintain.