When Jewish Heritage North Carolina (JHNC) created our multimedia project Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina—a film, a book, a museum exhibit, an archive, a cantata, a school curriculum—our historian conducted research by traveling the byways and highways of the State to large metropolitan communities as well as small country towns. While Sunbelt centers were booming with new congregations and synagogues, older congregations, mostly Down East, were closing their doors. Wilson’s Beth El was being turned into a private residence while Weldon’s Temple Emanu-El and Lumberton’s Beth El were sold to churches. In Lumberton the Judaica was stored in a warehouse. Weldon and Wilson redistributed their Judaica to thriving congregations in Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and Virginia Beach, places where membership families had resettled.
Borrowing or renting a truck, JHNC hauled a treasure lode of documents, books, Hanukkiot, religious-school paraphernalia, and ritual textiles to be archived, exhibited, or recycled to other congregations. Old prayer books—bindings broken and pages torn, with their “thees” and “thous” and lack of gender inclusivity—needed ritual burial. In one moving ceremony, a Torah scroll from Weldon was placed in Concord’s newly organized Temple Or Olam at a bar mitzvah with Weldon congregants receiving Torah honors.
For JHNC the Judaica was the portal into North Carolina Jewish history. Board and Sisterhood minutes traced religious and community development. Prayer books, typically Adler for the High Holidays and Union or Silverman for Shabbat, documented minhag (synagogue custom). In Wilson we found Yiddish books, translations of Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant which gave insight into the immigrant’s cosmopolitan culture. A shofar with a fitted trumpet mouthpiece showed adaptability.
Most colorful, however, were the ritual textiles: Parochet, the curtains before the ark and valences over them. Covers for reading desks stained with wine or clotted wax. Torah and challah covers. Torah mantels, the older ones in rich satin or velvet with glittering rhinestone and gold thread, vivid scarlet and royal blue or creamy white for the High Holidays. The most dramatic featured recumbent lions framing a Ten Commandments, perhaps above an urn overflowing with flowers, often padded in high relief. Almost invariably they were inscribed with dedicatory names of the donor, usually in memory of “beloved” parents or a late spouse. One fabric was donated by “Jewish Ladies Aid Society.”
Jewish Heritage North Carolina amassed a considerable collection of textiles. Our leadership recently met to review the items. It was like unearthing buried treasure! Those items that were too torn, stained, or threadbare for recycling were given to Judaica textile artist Debbie Secan of Raleigh for repurposing. JHNC still has a collection of Judaica fabric available to give to your congregation at no cost. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to view the full inventory.