Author to speak at Temple B’nai Israel

By BETH BUNCH,

Leon Waldoff grew up in in Hattiesburg, living here for 18 years before heading to college at Northwestern.

He and his family were part of a small Jewish community that had settled in Hattiesburg. Most of the Jewish families living here in the 1930s and 1940s were immigrants from Russia and Poland.

Waldoff has been asked time and time again since he left the state more than 60 years ago, “How did your parents (Paul and Eva Waldoff) from Russia come to settle in Mississippi?” But it wasn’t until his daughter, Jessica, asked the same question that Waldoff said it “struck a deeper chord.”  He answered as best he could, telling of their experiences with one relative helping another, also called chain migration.

Several years after he retired from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, Waldoff decided to find the answer to that question. His story is detailed in his book, “A Story of Jewish Experience in Mississippi,” published by Academic Studies Press.

Waldoff will be speaking about the book during a talk at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, at Temple B’nai Israel. The temple is located at 901 Mamie Street in Hattiesburg. The public is invited to attend.

Waldoff said he will be talking about how he came to write the book and other things of special interest to members of the Jewish community. He will also explain about how his parents from Russia came to settle in Hattiesburg and about the life of Rabbi Charles Mantinband, who served the B’nai Israel congregation from the fall of 1951 until 1963.

Waldoff writes that he was a junior in high school when Mantinband came to Hattiesburg.

“I failed to appreciate how fortunate I was to know him and be able to meet with him to discuss questions I had about Judaism and, more generally, religion… It was only after beginning the research for this book and reading his correspondence, diaries and published essays, as well as essays about him, that I learned of the courage and wisdom he displayed during the crucial years of the Civil Rights movement and saw its significance for the story of Jewish life in Mississippi I was writing.”

The book is dedicated to his parents, Paul and Eva Stein Waldoff. They were among other Jewish families who owned a clothing store, one of six clothing and one shoe store, all owned by Jewish merchants on the same side of the street of one city block in downtown Hattiesburg.

While Jessica found the stories of her grandparents fascinating, Waldoff said all he heard “was a lot of stumbling and uncertainty, making me realize how little I actually knew about my parents’ experiences as young immigrants who had to learn a new language, find a way to make a living, adapt to the laws and customs of segregation in the Mississippi and survive the Great Depression.”

He described it as an unsettling and eye-opening moment that would eventually lead him to begin researching his parents’ experience as young immigrants and to discover that their story was indeed remarkable.

For Paul Waldoff, coming to Hattiesburg involved “breaking away from this family, but also changing his ideas about both himself and this country.”

Waldoff says in the Afterword of his book that he had “no idea that the story would evolve into the larger, more complex one it became and would include the experience of the Jewish community in Hattiesburg during the years of the Civil Rights movements, as well as the experiences of the communities in Jackson and Meridian. But my reading and research showed me how certain individuals in the story dealt with the issues they faced and in doing so represented what the experience of Jewish life in Mississippi was like over a period of five decades.”

In an article for the Jewish Journal, Jonathan Kirsh, author and publishing attorney, and book editor of the Journal, describes Waldoff’s book as “a heartfelt but also meticulously researched and deeply insightful account of one family” that tried to make a new life in the heart of the Deep South. Kirsh’s story can be found at https://bit.ly/2QQAvkX.

The paperback book is available on Amazon for $16.95.