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Starkville’s Jewish Heritage

December 24, 2010

This article pays special tribute to the generations of Jewish Starkvillians who have helped form the fabric of our local history, culture and society. These people toiled tirelessly and achieved success which helped strengthen our town. These ties bind the Jewish heritage to the chord of our local history.
Carolyn Katz, wife of Ralph Katz, the owners of Katz Bridal and Formal Wear, the last Jewish merchant in Starkville, tells the story of the immigrants (Jews) in coming to Starkville, becoming merchants and the many contributions they made to our town.
In the late 1800s, there was a large influx of Jewish immigrants from Poland, Russia, Lithuania and Germany. Because they were Jews, they were deprived of the right to own land or property, the right to choose where they wanted to work, and refused the privilege of voting. Yet, when a young man was 21 years old, he was required to join the army and fight for a country that denied him civil rights. So these young people immigrated to the U. S. to achieve justice and possibly a chance at the American Dream. They did not like the cities, as they were crowded and dirty, so they looked for rural areas. At the suggestion of a friend or a distant relative, they came to Mississippi. Some settled in Vicksburg or Hattiesburg. A number of them chose the Delta, and a large number came to Northeast Mississippi, especially Starkville.
In 1880, Stern and Goodman opened the first dry goods store in Starkville. This was the grandfather of Arthur and Raymond Goodman. Two sons, Max and Phillip, continued the business, and it became Goodman Brothers. When Phillip died, the boys sold it to Alex Loeb. In 1912, Raymond and Arthur Goodman opened the first movie theater, the Blue Bird. They later opened the Rex and later the State Theater. In the late 1890s, Blumenfeld and Fried opened a dry good store. After it closed, the business became a wholesale grocery business with Simon Blumenfeld, the son, as the owner and manager. It was located on the present site of Bell’s Building Supply.
Many of these immigrants peddled before they were able to acquire enough money to open a business, as my father-in-law, Thomas Katz. He opened a store on Main Street in 1904, and it remained in business until 1995, changing with the times. Mr. Herman Kleban and his partner, Louis Matz, opened a store at the corner of Washington and Main Street.
When they went bankrupt during the depression in 1932, Mr. Kleban went into business with his son, Morton, who had just returned from receiving a law degree at Vanderbilt. University. They opened Kleban’s Shoe Store which was a big success. At one time, it was the largest and the most successful shoe store in the State.
Max Rossoff owned a general merchandise store, which later became a fine ladies dress shop under the management of his daughter, Evelyn Rossoff. She brought high style to Starkville in the 1940s always wearing one of her selections in the store, complete with hats over a high blond pompadour. Joseph Kleban, a nephew of Mr. Herman Kleban, also opened a dress shop on Main with merchandise more popular priced. Main Street included a small grocery store owned by Ike Katz, brother of Thomas Katz, which later became a pool hall. On the second block of Main was another shoe store owned by Mr. Harry Gordon and his son, Herman. On the side street of Main and Lafayette was a Mom and Pop restaurant, the Tip Top Café, owned by Sidney and Shirley Hart. After Mr. Hart died in 1949, it was closed. The Starkville News was a weekly paper owned by Birney Imes. Henry and Morris Meyer, nephews of the Blumenfeld family, bought this. We know this paper today as the Starkville Daily News. After the Meyer Brothers sold the newspaper, Henry, who had a journalism degree from Alabama, became a journalism professor at Mississippi State University. He was also an advisor The Reflector, the university newspaper.
At his death, the building was named in his honor. Mr. Henry Leveck came to MSU as a freshman, and he remained at MSU all his working life, with the exception of several years in WWII. He was Director of the Animal Husbandry Department for many years, well known all over the State for his work in this field. At his death, a building was dedicated in his honor. His wife, Hortense, was a fine piano teacher and gave a wonderful start to so many young people. She also worked tirelessly to promote musical events in the community.
Being a merchant was only a small part of the Jewish Heritage. These immigrants cherished their faith and were anxious to pursue it. Most of them came from traditional homes. There was no way to follow the dietary laws or to buy kosher food. My mother-in-law was a very practical woman. She said, to her kosher meant clean. Her house was clean. Therefore, her house was kosher. Unfortunately, the closest synagogue was in Columbus, MS. The roads were impassable at times, and they had very little transportation. They banded together to hold religious services on Friday nights at the old opera house located on South Washington Street in the building where Thomas Jones and Associates are now. On the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, they closed their businesses and went to Columbus. They spent the night at the Gilmer Hotel so they would be there early the next morning. When the roads were better, they journeyed to Columbus and became a part of the congregation, serving as officers, lay leaders and religious schoolteachers.
They were active in the community and very philanthropic. There was no Red Cross or Salvation Army here at that time. When there was a fire or an emergency, my father-in-law would contact his brother Ike, and they would gather sheets, pillow cases, blankets and food for the victims from all the other merchants. Both men and women joined or formed various clubs. At one time, there was a member of the Jewish faith in every club in Starkville. They were also presidents of the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Merchants Association and many civic clubs. They also delved into politics, serving as aldermen and department head of the park commission. Mr. Simon Blumenfeld donated all the cement to MSU for the first swimming pool there. The women worked in the schools as room mothers, PTA advisors and helped to form the first band at the High School and provide uniforms. Reading was vital, Miss Mena Blumenfeld and my mother-in-law, Alice Katz, among others, helped to establish the first library and supported it until their deaths. Miss Mena, as she was known, never went anywhere without a basket of towels, had-hemmed by the blind ladies in Jackson at the Home for the Blind. She sold these with the proceeds going to those unfortunate women. In later years, women were charter members of the Junior Auxiliary, the Community Theater and the Starkville Civic Orchestra which evolved into the Starkville/MSU Association which is now in its forty-fifth year.
From the beginning, the Jews of Starkville were so appreciate of the way they were so graciously received into the community, and of the privileges accorded them as American citizens, they wanted to return some of the gratitude they had felt all these years. That is why the Starkville community will always be a part of the Jewish Heritage.
More recently, about 20 Jewish students at Mississippi State University have formed an organization.

Dr. Bryan Baker remembers...

I have fond memories of Henry Leveck at Mississippi State University. He had the utmost respect of his peers far and near and was a real asset to the university.

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