After barely a week to recuperate and ingest vast quantities of turkey, I’m back on the road. Over the next ten days, I’ll be swinging through Arkansas and Alabama visiting two spots where Jewish life is nearly extinct and one where it has achieved a remarkable and unexpected birth.
First stop is tiny Helena, Arkansas, an economically depressed town tucked into a crook of the Mississippi River. In the 1950s, Helena was a happening place, and glimpses of its past are on display at the Delta Cultural Center, which tells the story of the town’s role as one of the incubators of the Delta blues.
For a time, Jews dominated the retail trade along the town’s main drag, Cherry Street. Today, only one Jewish storefront remains: David Solomon’s law office.
When I dropped in on Solomon Friday morning, he looked like he had just stepped out of a Harper Lee novel. He was wearing a brown plaid suit with pants hiked up nice and high and a yellow bow tie and spoke with a refined southern drawl. As I entered his office, he dropped his tortoise shell reading glasses on to the desk and smiled.
Solomon’s family history in the area reaches back at least to the Civil War, but at 93, that history is nearing its conclusion. Solomon’s three sons all live in the northeast, and when he passes — which won’t be anytime soon, judging from his ruddy health and Herculean work ethic — an era of Jewish life in Arkansas will end with him.
To my surprise — and frankly, incomprehension — neither Solomon nor his wife, Miriam, seem much troubled by that. Both describe themselves as realists who have made peace with the fact that their town has changed, and with it, a Jewish community with more than 175 years of history.
"I relate everything to economics," David said, describing with remarkable equanimity how the mechanization of farming, followed by the rise of the big box retailers — including Arkansas’ own Wal-Mart — had transformed the economic base of the region and accelerated the decline of Helena.
"People are going where they can make a living," he said. "That’s it. And when they can’t make a living here they go and move to the part of the country where they can get a job."