Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Time A Jew Partnered With the Klan For Justice

I published his back in March when I was just beginning to blog.
since I had few visitors then, I'm guessing that few of you have read this. So I'm repossting what I think is a fascinating story!

I swear this story is true. In her final years, I met and befriended a sweet old Jewish woman named Miriam, who is no longer with us in this world. Or perhaps she is, and I can just no longer see her. Miriam died about 5 years ago. She was 93 years-old when she passed from this life and I still remember what a big heart she had. She loved to tell stories of her childhood and parents and the people she knew and loved. The year before she died, I visited her in Corpus Christi, and we sat together on her sofa and talked. She told me this story, which I am now about to pass on to you.

When Miriam's father, Hiram, and her mother, Hannah, emigrated to this country, they entered through Ellis Island, like many refugees from all over the world. After being processed and checked for head lice and other contagious illnesses, they were allowed to pass through customs, and, mingling with the many other tired strangers, they headed for the train station.

They bought train tickets with their meager remaining money and headed south, thinking south was about as good a direction as any, having no other intuitive or directional compass. They did not know anyone in this strange new country, but they were determined to make a new life free from religious persecution.

When the train finally reached the end of the line, they found themselves alone, standing by the tracks in a small rural decaying Mississippi town. Without anywhere else to go, however, Hiram and Hannah decided to stay there and raise their family. It was a time of fear mixed with expectation and hope, each day taking their feet further along the path into the unknown and away from their past.

When they got settled, they discovered that there was another Jewish family living there, also immigrants, also from Eastern Europe. The father of that other family hired himself out as a handyman, finding work where he could. Times were tough, but they all got by, and were always able to put some food on the table.

This small Mississippi town was all-white and all Protestant, except for these two Jewish families with their strange traditions, odd way of dressing and thick accents. And although many in the town looked down upon these two families, they were tolerated because they had skills the community needed.

The Black families, most descendents of freed slaves, lived in their own community a few miles down the road, not exactly being encouraged to settle near the whites. Catholic immigrants, especially the rowdy intemperate Irish and noisy Italians, were looked upon with suspicion. These townspeople didn't especially cozy up to Pope-lovers either. They shimmered with an inbred quality reminiscent of the story of Narcissus, who saw his reflection in the mirror, and fell in love with himself.

Miriam’s father was a cobbler, and after a time, his hard work paid off and he was able to open a small shoe store. They co-existed peacefully with their neighbors, for they maintained a humble profile (code for knew their place) and kept to themselves.

There was a bit of trouble once when Miriam was a teenager. She was given the title of Tri-County Beauty Queen, for she was the most beautiful girl in the three neighboring counties. Miriam didn’t exactly brag about her youthful good looks, she was beyond that when we met, but I saw a picture taken on her wedding day, and she was quite lovely.

The town had never selected a Jewish girl as the County Beauty Queen before and some Klan members were not happy with the election results, especially those who had daughters of the right age. These men and some women saw Miriam's reign as an insult to white American womanhood, saw Miriam as taking this title from their own girls.

Some muttered that the coveted position of Beauty Queen was something that defined the town, and should be given only to white Christian girls. They felt in her winning as if something pure, some part of their tradition was now lost to them, as other Southern traditions had been lost in the Civil War. The Civil War always lurked in the background of their psyches, never to be forgotten, never to be forgiven. It was an invisible cord that both bound them together and strangled their ability to change and move forward.

When the radiant Miriam rode in the parade float down Main Street, triumphant and somewhat giddy, she was unaware of this ill-feeling toward her. In an instant, she said, she went from ecstatic to terrified, as the float was doused with kerosene and set ablaze by one of those unhappy lost men.

The hem of Miriam’s dress caught fire, being one of those ruffled Southern confections. She nearly burned, but for the quick-thinking efforts of a classmate, a young man who grabbed a blanket and smothered the flames on her dress, leaving her with only minor burns.

But the fact of Miriam being set on fire for rising above her station is not the story I want to tell. This is a story about domestic violence .

Making a Deal with the Devil

One day when Miriam was a small child, years before the Beauty Queen incident, she was playing with marbles on the wooden floor of her father’s store. She was young, about 6 years old at the time, so this would make it around 1913, right before World War I. When the other Jewish family came into the store to buy shoes for their children, Hannah noticed that there was something wrong with the Jewish man's wife. His wife kept turning away and hiding her face.

Hannah quietly went over to her, to ask a question, and saw the dark bruises hidden beneath her headscarf. Her question died away and she said nothing, when, looking into the woman's eyes, she saw her shame. She knew what caused those bruises. Hanna knew, in the way, that women sometimes know these things, that her husband was beating her.

Hannah was disturbed. Jewish men were not supposed to beat their wives. It was wrong and made all Jews look like animals. Back in the old country, the extended family, the community and the Rabbi worked together to stop this sort of thing, but there were no Jewish relatives, community or Rabbi here, only these two families.

The pieces came together in Hannah’s head. She had visited the woman a number of times over the years, bringing food and other small gifts, as she knew they were poorer of the two families. In this farming community, poor was always a relative term.

The woman always made excuses not to visit her back, but neither Miriam, or, I suppose, her mother Hannah, took "no" for an answer, both being strong, determined women with a stubborn streak. The woman finally confided that her husband didn’t like her to leave the house and got very angry when she disobeyed him.

She told Hannah that she knew a good wife was supposed to obey her husband, so she couldn't leave the house without his permission. Besides, she added, it only made it worse, because he drank and took it out on her and the children.

Hannah knew she had to do something, but didn’t know what. She prayed for guidance. Then she talked to her husband, asking him to reason with the man, but Hiram refused. Hiram said it would do no good, the man was a brute. But Hannah persisted and kept pestering Hiram until he threw up his hands in resignation and decided to take drastic action if only to get some peace and quiet at home.

It was in the late summer when the local sheriff came into Hiram’s store. Hiram approached him because he knew the sheriff was a Klan member, if not the leader. In small Mississippi towns, there are many secrets and no secrets.

These were not good times for a lot of folks economically, and this man had five children. Shoes for five children cost a lot, relatively speaking. Hiram asked the sheriff if he would like free shoes for all of his children to help them start school. The sheriff, not a stupid man, understood that Hiram wanted something, and they talked. In fact, they came to an understanding and the sheriff went home that night with new shoes for all of them.

A few nights later, there was a burning cross in the front yard of the abuser’s home. The Klan members called him out into the yard and hit him a few times, not enough to really damage him or keep him from working, but hard enough to hurt and to mark him. The Klan leader, in full regalia, told him that if he ever hit his wife again, they would kill him and burn his body in the woods. They put the fear into him.

And after this "come to Jesus meeting" he never hit his wife again. And that is how Hiram ended one family’s domestic violence problem in Mississippi and the strange, unholy alliance between one Jewish man and the Klan.


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