I went down to Ardmore looking for the last Jews in a town that could—if it were so inclined—lay claim to the title of “The Birthplace of Judaism in Oklahoma.” Even before the first land run, Jewish peddlers had established themselves in fledgling towns across Indian Territory. Early towns like Boggy Depot were set up by Jewish merchants to trade between Indians and white settlers. Until a few years after statehood, though, it was Ardmore that boasted the largest population of Jews in the Territory.
According to an encyclopedia entry from the Institute for Southern Jewish Life in 2014, Ardmore’s Jewish population has shrunk to two people in this once distinctly Yiddish-flavored town. Here, I should confess a certain morbid curiosity about populations in decline. I’ve always been attracted to cemeteries, ghost towns, and failed expeditions. And although I’m a goy, my family is mixed. So, I had to get down there. I wanted to meet these two Jews before they joined their brethren in eternal rest at Mount Zion Cemetery.
The day was miserable; snow was blowing sideways and flakes were hitting my cheeks like tiny little darts. I got off the Turner Turnpike and wandered down Highway 18, where the entire town of Meeker stopped for a Baptist funeral. Cell phone coverage was spotty. The phlegmatic tones of NPR on FM 89.5 gave way to something called American Family Radio. While I waited for the funeral procession to pass, I heard that America was under siege. Socialists, terrorists, and “illegals” were undermining the very fabric of our Christian civilization. The president wasn’t a Christian; he didn’t even love his own country. The air of paranoia and miserable weather had me in a strange mood.
When I finally made it to Stephanie’s Beautique on Main Street in Ardmore, I was relieved to be in a place whose motto on Facebook is “keep calm and stay classy.” The place was packed to the rafters with a seemingly unending collection of women’s dresses, formal wear, and accessories. The store’s namesake, Stephanie Baker, was supposedly one of the last two Jews in town. Stephanie and her best friend from high school, Phyllis Chandler, were happy to talk to me, but wanted to get something straight right off the bat: there were not only two Jews left in Ardmore. That was bunk. There were at least five. Maybe even nine or ten.
It really depended on how you defined who was Jewish. There was a guy in town born Jewish, but his stepfather raised him as a Baptist. There were the Daubes, who had a Jewish father but a Gentile mother who took them to the Episcopal church. “But they’re going to be buried in the Jewish cemetery,” Phyllis said. So, maybe we could count them as half.
Then there was Phyllis’s husband, Burke, a bit of an amateur historian and a self-described “closeted Jew.” A guy named Boomer, an Army veteran and groundskeeper for the now-defunct Temple Emeth who wore a muscle shirt in this awful weather, “had some Jew” in him. “German and Jewish,” he clarified. “Go figure.”
Phyllis and Burke escorted me around Ardmore. As we cruised Main Street, Phyllis pointed to an empty storefront that had once served as a Jewish bakery. That payday loan place used to be another Jewish-run clothing store. There had been a Jewish restaurant where you could get latkes and brisket. It was now a rib joint. Stephanie and Phyllis remember a time when all the businesses on Main Street would close down at sundown on Friday to observe Shabbat.
At the end of Main Street was Ardmore’s first department store, Westheimer & Daube, begun by Jewish pioneers. The exterior of the building, which had once held Ardmore’s most ornate Christmas displays, was now mostly boarded up, although it had been partially converted into an antique mall. Beyond that was a section of town suffering from typical small-town rot. One venerable old building had collapsed when a car ran into it.
We drove down a street that flourished for a brief time when the Carter County oil fields were discovered, and Ardmore could boast that it had more millionaires per capita than any town in America. Even it looked a little run down. “I don’t know what happened,” Phyllis said. “Ardmore used to be a lot nicer.”
Why did I care so much about the Jews anyway? They all wanted to know. That was a good question. I wondered that myself. I was living in California, and enjoying a pretty sweet phase of life with a paid sabbatical from my job as a professor. I still had family in Tulsa, but driving down to Ardmore during a Winter Weather Advisory—that was pretty odd.
I wondered, I told them, what happens when a once-thriving community disappears. What happens when there are no more Italians in Little Italy or Germans in Germantown? How does our sense of place change when the population changes? And does it even matter?
At the beginning of the 20th century, parts of New York City had become transplantations of Jewish shtetls in the Old Country. Immigrants on the Lower East Side were so densely packed that the place’s unhygienic conditions provoked a rallying cry for Congress to restrict Eastern European immigration. New York’s German Jewish population, which had assimilated quickly and prospered in the financial industry, became concerned about a possible anti-Semitic backlash. The financier Baron de Hirsch thought Russian Jews should be sent to Argentina, Africa, or Canada—anywhere but New York. A banker named Jacob Schiff worried that the waves of Jewish immigrants from Russia would lead to a repeat of the pogroms—this time in the New World.
Schiff came up with a plan to reroute Jewish immigration from Ellis Island to the American South and Southwest, where land was plentiful and Jews were few and far between. He sunk at least half a million of his own dollars into a scheme to make Galveston, Texas, the new hub for Eastern-European Jewish immigration. For a while, the Galveston Plan seemed to work. The first steamer to arrive in the port was greeted by the mayor and a brass band. Rabbis came from Houston and Fort Worth to help the newcomers find a place to live.
Many stayed in Texas, but others caught the Santa Fe Railroad north to Oklahoma. Phyllis Chandler’s grandfather, Ike Fishman, got off at Ardmore and started peddling bananas from a cart in the booming town. He later started a scrap metal business, which proved to be extremely lucrative when oil was discovered in southern Oklahoma in the 1920s. Two of Coleman Robison’s grandparents—Romanian Jews whose last name was changed from Rabinowitz at the port of entry—came over as part of the Galveston Plan.
But by and large, the plan failed. Immigration officials in the conservative South started to judge Jews—and Catholics as well—as “morally defective.” The deportation rate was four times higher at the Port of Galveston than at Ellis Island. And word of a swampy land run by bigoted goyim circulated back to the Old Country. By 1914, the Galveston Plan was done.
For most of its history, Oklahoma has been a remarkably hospitable place for Jews. Even the poor Yiddish speakers from Russia—those “great unwashed” that Schiff so feared—quickly worked their way into the mainstream of Oklahoma life, especially in small towns like Ardmore and Muskogee. According to Burke Chandler, some of the Old World tension between German and Russian Jews survived in southern Oklahoma for a while. Some of the German and French Jews—yes, there were even French Jews in Ardmore—had sprung for first-class tickets on their steamships, while the Russians came over crammed into third class.
Western European immigrants were largely Reform Jews who might do a little work on Shabbat, marry Gentiles, and not keep kosher. The majority of Orthodox Jews were from Eastern Europe and held fast to the Torah as the direct word of God. Some Orthodox immigrants, such as Phyllis’s grandfather, never totally assimilated. She was raised in the nearby town of Healdton, where her grandfather tried to keep kosher, driving to Oklahoma City to buy matzo and kosher meat. “This place wasn’t good enough for him,” she says.
Although Phyllis also married a Gentile, she keeps up connections with her Orthodox heritage. Rabbinical students come visit her from Oklahoma City to bring her matzo.
“And the matzo’s always stale,” Phyllis chimes in. “They [the Orthodox students] are so annoying. They won’t shake women’s hands, and you have to walk behind them. I go hide when they come to town.”
Since the 1960s, many of the old ways have disappeared. When Burke moved from Tulsa in the late 1970s, he was “shocked” to see one Jewish Ardmoreite, Harry Galoob, eating a ham sandwich. He ended up marrying Galoob’s sister, Phyllis, to the delight of his mother back in Tulsa. “She thought I should marry a Jewish woman,” he says.
Jews became the town’s scrap-metal dealers and tailors, dry goods merchants and dressmakers. “Growing up here, I was never excluded from anything,” Phyllis tells me.
“And Phyllis was in everything,” Stephanie quips.
This, at least, is the story Oklahoma likes to tell itself: we are still a young state where newcomers can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and worship whatever god they want. And there’s plenty of truth to that. Rabbi Jeremy Simons, who has spent some time traveling around Oklahoma and other parts of the South, said he’s faced more anti-Semitism in California than he has in the Bible Belt. “Religion is so important here,” he says. “Because I wear a kippa, people stop me on the street to ask me about Judaism.”
In reality, though, there have been some dark moments of anti-Semitism in Oklahoma, starting with the very beginnings of statehood. In 1910, Oklahomans voted to move the capital from Guthrie to Oklahoma City. The night after the vote, Assistant Secretary of State Leo Meyer took the official state seal out of Guthrie, catching the attention of the Guthrie Daily Leader, which proclaimed in a headline, “Shylocks of Oklahoma City have the state by the throat.” Meyer, himself Jewish, was part of an “unparalleled conspiracy on the part of Jews and Gentiles of a rotten town to loot the State for twenty-five years.”
This supposed conspiracy did little to damage the state’s reputation as a haven. Only two years after the Guthrie incident, The Daily Ardmoreite ran a glowing article about the arrival of a commissioner from a Jewish Industrial and Agricultural Aid Society in New York. “Thousands of progressive and scientific Hebrew farmers may settle in the state in the present year,” the article stated. News about Ardmore spread far and wide. Even as Oklahoma City and Tulsa grew, Ardmore still counted as the second-largest Jewish town in the state.
Its distinctly Yiddish flavor grew when a World War I fighter pilot showed up in town in the early 1920s. Bill Krohn spoke Yiddish while growing up in eastern Pennsylvania and came to Oklahoma for a new adventure. He settled into life in Ardmore, writing a column in the Daily Ardmoreite about oil news. He didn’t reveal his Jewish identity to the many oilmen he met, but he greeted everyone downtown with the phrase sholem alechem, Hebrew for “peace be upon you.”
The perhaps apocryphal story goes that Krohn ingratiated himself to wildcatters, who took him along to discovery wells where he hoped to get the scoop about Oklahoma’s next big oil field. One night, on a rig floor, he witnessed oil spouting straight into the air. “Sholem alechem!” he shouted to all the roughnecks, who had no idea what the expression meant. The name stuck, and Sholem Alechem became the name of an entire oil field between Duncan and Ardmore.
Krohn started a club—also called Sholem Alechem—that met in the lobby of the Ardmore Hotel. Technically, it was a “benevolent society,” but in reality it was little more than an excuse to smoke cigars, drink booze, and play cards. The club counted among its members another Jewish Ardmore oilman, Walter Neustadt, the benefactor of a literary prize at OU sometimes called “America’s Nobel Prize.” David Halpern, a Tulsa photographer who spent years documenting rural Oklahoma Jewry in a project called “Prairie Landsmen,” heard the outsize stories about Krohn’s club and decided to track down the old Mobil Oil sign for Sholem Alechem. He says that the few locals who still know about the oil field assume its name derives from the Chickasaw language.
Even as oilmen like Neustadt and Krohn prospered, peace was not always upon Oklahoma’s Jews. Krohn’s rise in fame paralleled the rise of one of the state’s most notorious anti-Semites, Governor “Alfalfa Bill” Murray. Curiously, Krohn was, at first, a booster for Murray. They were both colorful characters: the walrus-mustachioed Murray would deliver a stump speech standing on his head. Krohn published the first account of the governor’s life. In it, he acknowledged that the governor “ain’t much for looks. But what a man! He’s got the guts and what it takes mentally and otherwise to literally translate the meaning of the title ‘Governor.’ ” Rumor has it that Krohn helped convince Murray to build the lake just south of town that now bears his name: Lake Murray.
At the time, Murray had his sights on the Democratic Party’s nomination for president as a Dixiecrat challenger to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After a resounding defeat, though, Murray started to rant about a Jewish conspiracy against him. Krohn left the state for other prospects in Illinois around the same time Murray produced tracts like “Palestine, Shall Arabs or Jews Control It, or America Admit 100,000 Communist Jews from Behind the Iron Curtain?” Murray, who by this time was fortunately retired to a hotel in Tishomingo, argued for adoption of Adolf Eichmann’s “Madagascar Plan.” This was a plan to force much of the Jewish population to relocate to the African island.
Here’s the thing: as a secular urban-dweller who cringes whenever an Oklahoma politician speaks, I came to Ardmore expecting to hear tales of suffering and discrimination. Curiously, though, most anti-Semitism in Oklahoma has happened in the cities, not in the smaller towns. The Silver Legion of America, a fascist group active in the 1930s, considered Tulsa, not small towns or even Oklahoma City, for its headquarters. The Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art in Tulsa has in its collections a label reading “Communism is Jewish. Boycott Jew Stores,” which briefly appeared on Tulsa Jewish storefronts in 1986.
In the past 20 years or so, though, even the most conservative Christians across the South have come to embrace Jews. Rabbi Simons says he fields calls from Gentiles anytime there’s a crisis in the Middle East. He’s become a de-facto representative of Israel. “The challenge,” he says, “is to talk about it in a way that is holy but still respects different opinions while having a conversation.” It’s harder for him to talk to Jews than to Christians about Israel. “There’s an old saying: you have two Jews and three opinions,” he says.
The reason for the embrace of Jews, however, probably has more to do with a resurgence in Christian Zionism than a newly tolerant Oklahoma. According to this movement (supported by worthies such as Pat Robertson), Jews must be allowed to reconstruct the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where a mosque now stands. This will be a signal to God that the Second Coming of Jesus is at hand. Jews, in other words, are pawns in a game of biblical apocalypse.
After World War II, Ardmore built a new modernist synagogue in preparation for a bright future. The architect of the temple, Ludwig Isenberg, was also its lay rabbi. Isenberg and his parents had come over on one of the last passenger steamships out of Hamburg before the Nazis started sending Jews to concentration camps. Isenberg’s parents were cattle farmers who had a distant relative in Stillwater. Five years after applying for an exit visa, the Isenbergs were allowed to leave Germany in 1938. The elder Isenberg took a small Torah from the local synagogue. He wrapped it in dirty clothes and stuffed it in a trunk. The Nazis confiscated everything of value, but they missed the Torah, which found a home in Ardmore’s Temple Emeth for over half a century.
Despite a huge oil boom in the 1950s and another wave of Post-World War II Jewish immigrants, the community started to decline by the 1960s. There was a feud between the two most prominent families (the Daubes and the Neustadts) over the fate of Ardmore’s most important department store that went all the way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. It’s a feud that some may take to the grave. At the same time, Rabbi Isenberg would travel to Las Vegas to play poker without designating a replacement rabbi to hold services. Numbers slowly dwindled until the Temple was forced to close in 2003, only to briefly reopen for Isenberg’s funeral a year later.
Temple Emeth now sits empty in downtown Ardmore. It was almost bulldozed over its asbestos insulation, and later was sold to a local businessman who eventually ended up giving it to the Goddard Center.
The center’s groundskeeper, Boomer, shows me around the Temple. Phyllis won’t come with me: “It’s like going to a funeral, going in there. I prefer to remember it during better days.”
There is something creepy about it. There’s a stack of old playing cards in the kitchen, some of them burned at the edges (an errant cigarette?). There’s a room full of vintage beauty chairs with hair-drying domes crammed into an old classroom. While the asbestos has been removed and the building appears structurally sound, some rooms look like they were abandoned in a hurry decades ago. Boomer and I marvel over an unopened package of paper straws. “Did you have these growing up?” he asks me.
“Nope,” I say. “That was before my time.” There are other condiments in the kitchen with expiration dates from 20 years ago.
Coleman Robison was one of the first boys—and perhaps the only—to be bar mitzvahed at Temple Emeth in 1956. Robison is a Tulsa lawyer who left Ardmore in 1964, only returning for the occasional visit. He remembers the town fondly. “It was a good place to grow up,” Robison told me. But he always felt a little bit like an outsider. “We weren’t in the mainstream.”
Robison’s mother had to pull him out of Christmas plays, and Jews were still excluded from the country club. “That was before the separation of church and state was recognized in Oklahoma,” he says. By the time of Robison’s youth, the Jewish community was already in decline. By the 1960s, the prospect of selling scrap metal or dry goods to cowboys didn’t seem as appealing as it once did. Most of the post-war generation moved to nearby cities: Dallas, Tulsa, Oklahoma City.
On the second floor of the Sherwin Miller Museum, you can see a model synagogue put together with artifacts from a number of now-defunct Oklahoma synagogues, including Temple Emeth in Ardmore and Temple Beth Ahabah in Muskogee, which closed in 2010. There’s a bema from Ardmore and a Torah from Muskogee. There is a wall describing a dozen or so Jewish communities in small Oklahoma towns. In some, a once-sizable Jewish population has disappeared entirely. In others, like Ardmore and Seminole, there are only a few Jews left, most in their 60s and 70s. They are people like Phyllis and Stephanie, whose task has been to assure their “perpetual care” at Mount Zion. “When there is nobody left here,” Phyllis says, “we now have a trust that will mow us and keep us clean out there. They’ll rake the leaves and trim our trees.”
A famous rabbi, Simon Rawidowicz, once wrote that Jews see themselves as the “ever-dying people.” It is precisely this fear—that the present generation may be the last—that paradoxically keeps Judaism alive. That’s what Rabbi Simons tells me by way of context when I ask him if it makes him sad to see Judaism disappear from small towns. “Jews have been a minority religion for at least 2,000 years,” he says. “Of course it’s sad. It’s sad for everyone, especially the last members of a community. But it’s just like the human life cycle.” We are born, we grow and thrive, and then we get old and die.
Jews thrived in small-town Oklahoma. They were machers: an untranslatable Yiddish term for someone who gets stuff done. A macher is a person who brokers deals or works as a “fixer”—mostly for good, but occasionally for ill. Half a century ago, you would have had a few machers at the chambers of commerce in Muskogee, Ardmore, and Ponca City.
I pick up the day’s copy of the Daily Ardmorite. It has a fancy pullout brochure about the town’s economic revival and thumbnail photos of all the members of the Chamber of Commerce. Nary a Jew there. But the guy who runs the brand-new La Quinta Inn off I-35, Mitesh Patel, is an hotelier looking to expand his Ardmore-based Apollo Hospitality Group into North Texas. Now, that man seems like a macher. Indeed, it’s often said in 21st-century America that immigrants from India are the new Jews, but that’s another story.
Back in Tulsa, I ask Coleman Robison if he’s saddened by the prospect of a purely Gentile Ardmore. “It is what it is,” Robison says. He has a poster of a coffee mug in his well-appointed law office: “Oy freakin’ vey,” the mug reads. Robison speaks with some difficulty and walks with a cane, but his eyes still gleam with vitality and a sense of humor bordering on the macabre—he’s also on the board of the Mount Zion Cemetery Association.
Robison goes back home occasionally to visit the graves of his parents, but now he’s more concerned about the future of the Jewish community in Tulsa than he is about Ardmore. “The same pattern is repeating itself here,” he says. Most of it boils down to economics. “I saw the bright lights of the city and never wanted to go back,” he says. Now all his children have moved to Connecticut with no intention of coming back to Tulsa. “The opportunities just aren’t here,” he says.
On the surface, Tulsa appears to have the most prosperous Jewish community in Oklahoma. Its Jewish population is larger than that of Oklahoma City. The Sherwin Miller Museum gleams with a new brass exterior on the south Tulsa Zarrow Campus, next to a swanky new retirement community and a robust Jewish Community Center. Names like Kaiser, Schusterman, and Kravis are inextricably linked to the city’s redevelopment.
But Tulsa’s Jewish population, too, is shrinking. According to the Institute for Southern Jewish Life, “About two-thirds of the Jewish children raised in Tulsa don’t come back after college; while the city continues to attract new Jewish families, they are unable to offset this loss.” Many Jewish Tulsans quietly speculate that the community has built up an infrastructure—an expanded museum, community center, retirement villas—that won’t be supported by a declining population.
What this means and whether it even matters depends on how you see the state’s identity. Oklahoma has been, at various times, a destination for displaced Native Americans, white sharecroppers, black freedman, and Jewish merchants, among others. All these populations have evolved. Some have moved on entirely.
More recently, the state’s Latino population has quadrupled, and its Asian population has doubled since 1990, giving rise to a new nativist movement that has more in common with Alfalfa Bill Murray than it would like to admit. So, as Oklahoma says its long goodbye to its Jews, it might also want to consider how it says hello to its newcomers: Muslims, Latinos, and Hindus.
Originally published in This Land: Summer 2015.