Uncovering a Sometimes Uncomfortable History About Houston's Black-Jewish Relationships

A thesis that became a book.
A thesis that became a book. Book cover detail
There’s no story here. Eight years ago when Allison Schottenstein was communicating with scholars and Jewish Houstonians about mid-century Black-Jewish relations, they told her she was wasting her time. Nothing there.

She was in Houston to find a topic for her University of Texas dissertation in Jewish history. Houston had desegregated quietly, nonviolently, everyone said. Houston was exceptional; there was nothing more to be said. Thomas Cole’s documentary, The Strange Demise of Jim Crow covered everything. She had seen it and read Cole’s book, too: No Color Is My Kind: The Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Desegregation of Houston. Some people suggested a focus on late Congressman Mickey Leland’s relationship with the Jewish community, about his program for Black youth to visit and work in Israel. That was a good story worth telling.

But she knew that wasn’t enough for a book, even when she paired it with a piece of history from 1943; Congregation Beth Israel’s adoption of the controversial Basic Principles then fascinated her. Its members declared that their race was Caucasian, their nationality was American, and that they were anti-Zionist.

Schottenstein explained that members were trying to align themselves with the white elite of Houston. They proclaimed themselves Caucasian because they were concerned that Jews would be seen as a separate race, neither white nor Black. They proclaimed they did not see salvation in Palestine (pre-state Israel).

“They really have an idea about America’s the promised land,” she said in an interview. Their intention, she wrote, was “to preserve the image of Jews as white Americans of Jewish faith and secure their first-class citizenship in a city that divided people based on skin color.” The members were criticized in Jewish publications, A rabbi in St. Louis argued that the temple was extending Jim Crow to exclude Black Jews. The controversy was even covered in Time magazine.

When Schottentstein gave a presentation about the principles to a group of rabbis, she was met with more resistance and disbelief. It can’t really say that. “When I showed them, they were shocked.”

She kept digging. At the Houston Jewish Herald-Voice office, she read the weekly newspapers in bound volumes and on microfilm. She paid special attention to articles, editorials and letters to the editor from the 1940s to the 1980s, looking for key words such as race, race relations, interfaith, African American. Inevitably, she also scanned the announcements of births, deaths, bar mitzvahs, weddings, anniversaries, and deaths. “It got so when I met someone, I’d know when their child was bar mitzvahed,” she said.

Through more research, and a lucky break—meeting interfaith activist Garland Pohl, who introduced her to many people — she came across local crisis points and events in Jewish-Black relations. She did the vast research a dissertation requires: visiting more than 80 archives, reading more than 50 oral histories, conducting about 75, reading books and articles whose citations take 22 pages.
A thesis that became a book. - BOOK COVER
A thesis that became a book.
Book cover

Her December 2017 dissertation became the 415-page book, Changing Perspectives: Black-Jewish Relations in Houston During the Civil Rights Era, out from University of North Texas Press in the spring of this year. In addition to the Basic Principles and Congressman Leland, the book includes early Houston demographics and history; accounts of the struggle to desegregate the Houston ISD and businesses, of the Jewish and white gentile exodus from Riverside Terrace near TSU as Blacks began to move in, Jewish objection to prayer in the schools, and Jewish relationships with other Black leaders such as the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and the Reverend William Lawson.

The book title came from suggestions in peer reviews. The title is bland with a slightly misleading subtitle. The book is about Black-Jewish relations, but it’s told from a Jewish point of view. As Schottenstein writes in the conclusion, she was looking “through a Jewish lens over the long civil rights movement.”

The through line of the book is that from the 1940s to 1980s, Houston Jews, never more than 2 percent of the population, were insecure about their place in the city, the South, and the United States, in the face of anti-Semitism. They acted and lived in a narrow safe space that widened over the years. Rabbis, Jewish activists and HISD board members who moved beyond safe positions were subject to threats, smears and election defeats. In a conservative town at a conservative time, they were afraid of being labeled Communist, attacked by the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations, bringing on the wrath of powerful gentiles.

Rabbis kept in mind the 1958 bombing of The Temple in Atlanta and other attacks on Jewish institutions whose officials were outspoken anti-racists. “But if we’re compared, for example, to what happens to African Americans, you know we’re talking about a much different situation,” she said.

Schottenstein now lives in Cincinnati, teaching U.S. history at a local private high school and teaching a graduate class on the Holocaust, online, at Gratz University.

Reading this book was like learning a secret history of Houston that took place while I was growing up—attending nursery school at the old Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Riverside Terrace, having my bat mitzvah at BY’s new location in Meyerland, going to Kolter and Albert Sidney Johnston Junior High (no longer named for that Confederate general, it’s now Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School) and then Bellaire High—as well as events that took place before my time.

But of course the history wasn’t secret. I was oblivious to public events. When you’re young or at least when I was young, the private is what matters. Thus, I didn’t know that white-haired Rabbi William Malev, who was friendly with my parents but quite the opposite when he paused his sermons to stare down at us teen gossipers during services, spoke out for integration. The former New Yorker also said that gentiles should take the lead, that “segregation was an American fight, not a Jewish fight.”

The late Iowa-born Rabbi Robert Kahn was tall and stately in his dark robe, speaking with the voice of God, people said. I had no idea that as associate rabbi of Beth Israel during World War II, he spoke publicly in favor of Black equality and decried the Red Cross practice of separating the blood of Black and white donors. Temple leaders admonished him: Jews should avoid “explosive subjects.” He resigned in 1944 and became the rabbi at a break-away temple, Emanu El, founded by Beth Israel members who disapproved of the Basic Principles. There he continued to be vocal about Black-white equality, calling segregation “immoral” in 1951. He also worked on interfaith and interracial programming. In the mid-1950s, during Houston’s Red Scare, he was attacked via a widely-distributed circular accusing him of being the worst thing possible: a Communist.

Schottenstein said she admired Kahn for his passion and being the consummate rabbi. Yet, she wrote, he and most other Houston rabbis were not ready to commit to activism. “Instead of fighting to change the status quo,” Schottenstein wrote, “they worked within the broken system.”

Congregation Brith Shalom, where our next-door neighbors belonged, was led by Rabbi Moshe Cahana, whom I saw as foreign and ethereal. I didn’t know he was born in Palestine (pre-state Israel), where Arab terrorists killed his mother and grandmother, was educated at the Sorbonne, that he and two local Episcopal priests traveled to Birmingham in 1963 to join Reverend Martin Luther King, and that he returned to Alabama in 1965, answering King’s call for clergy to join protesters crossing the Pettus Bridge in Selma.

He called himself a “non-Negro” and said white religious groups were “sinners” for not speaking out against discrimination. The Cahanas received threats in response to the rabbi’s activism, his son told Schottenstein. She interviewed my uncle Irving Pozmantier, who was a Beth Yesh leader. He told her that he’d talked to members of Cahana’s congregation about their rabbi’s actions. “We were all uneasy about it,” Pozmantier told Schottenstein. “[W]hat was our role?” She writes: “Many southern congregants—especially in New Orleans, Jackson, and Memphis who were threatened by white supremacists—felt like Pozmantier and did not want to bring the ‘wrath of the non-Jewish community’ down on them.”

I used to get Cahana mixed up with Rabbi Hyman Judah Schachtel of Beth Israel, because they both had accents. That was the end of their similarity. Schachtel was born in England, recruited from New York, and was a “celebrity rabbi,” as Weiner writes in “Jewish Stars in Texas: Rabbis and Their Work”—hobnobbing with elites. In her book Schottenstein writes that Schachtel spoke for the brotherhood of man but “overlooked the treatment of the Black residents of Houston.”

Schottenstein’s interest and awareness of inequality and racism came from her maternal grandfather, who was born in what’s now southern Poland. He survived the Holocaust, and later in Cincinnati with his brothers recreated the family’s European feather business. “He had definitely a clear point of view about the discrimination of African Americans,” Schottenstein said. He considered that Blacks in the U.S. and Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe had “parallel journeys.”

As an undergraduate, Schottenstein focused on Jewish and gender studies at Brandeis University near Boston. The emphasis was always on Jews in Europe and the Northern United States, she said. “The South was something we really didn’t talk about.” In classes it was rare to talk about Black-Jewish relations.

When Southern Jewish-Black relations were discussed, the topics were Jewish segregationists and Jews who owned slaves. Her thesis was on film and literary portrayals of children with one Black and one Jewish parent. She enrolled in the University of Texas for graduate school, writing her master’s thesis on Sam Perl, a lay rabbi and merchant in Brownsville who united communities on both sides of the border. It won the history department’s best thesis award.

It is an odd time to be thinking about the wording of the Basic Principles, when present-day anti-Zionists see Israel as a white settler project. Beth Israel dropped the principles in 1968. Schottenstein agrees that no synagogue would promote such language today. Many Jewish institutions are making efforts to include Jews of color as rabbis, leaders, and engaged members. And, she said, “Almost half of the Jews in Israel are Mizrachi Jews”—Jews of the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of the Caucasus.

Texas has been classified as South as well as Southwest. Schottenstein has no question about where Houston belongs. Throughout the book she places Houston squarely in the South. “We don’t really think about Houston the same way we might think about Alabama,” she said, “but it definitely had a full force of segregation and so you had Jewish business people who are wanting to fit in.” It had the largest school system and was the slowest to desegregate, she writes. “We know a lot of places drag their feet but definitely Houston was slow,” she said.

Like any historian, she’s found herself longing to meet the people she’s researched but who died before she learned about them. “I’m 100 percent in love with Mickey Leland,” she says. “I wish I could bring him back to life.”
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