Visiting synagogues and sites of Jewish interest in exotic locations is a great vacation focus for the Jewish traveler. Yet, you don’t have to travel long distances to find fascinating examples of Jewish history and culture. Only fifty five miles south of Dallas lies the town of Corsicana, Texas where recently the last Jew in Corsicana treated us to a tour of the amazing Moorish style synagogue, the Jewish cemetery and a juicy bit of local Jewish lore.
In the 1800s many Jewish immigrants ventured west from the crowded port cities where they had entered the United States. With little capital and few marketable skills some became itinerant peddlers. When opportunities presented themselves, these peddlers put down roots, established mercantile businesses and fledgling Jewish communities arose.
The Houston and Texas Central Railroad arrived in Corsicana in 1871. A thriving economy based on cotton, cattle and oil lured more and more Jewish families to the area. By 1898 sixty families organized a Jewish congregation and began construction of Temple Beth El, which was completed in September of 1900. The building is a spectacular example of Eastern European wood and gothic masonry motifs modified for American frontier construction. Similar structures with a large central rose window, flanking arched windows, twin octagon towers and onion domes also exist in Charleston, West Virginia and Butte, Montana. Attesting to the wealth of the Corsicana Jewish community, the stain glass rose window with a Mogen David and the Ten Commandments below were created in the august studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Corsicana’s Jewish community expanded as a result of a major oil boom in the 1920s. Attracted by the region’s prosperity, the total number of Jewish families rose to approximately 200, almost equally divided between the Orthodox and Reform congregations. Jews were active in every facet of local life. The importance of Jewish merchants and businessmen was most apparent during the High Holy Days when Jewish owned establishments closed their doors and economic activity came to a virtual standstill. When the oil played out and the city’s economy declined the Jewish community migrated to places offering greater economic and cultural opportunity such as Dallas and Houston. By 1981 the congregation had dwindled to the point that it was disbanded.
The building, with its distinctive architecture, octagonal towers and two onion domes, was in a state of disrepair and scheduled for demolition. A group of concerned citizens formed “Save the Temple,” and held dinners, styles shows and musical reviews, and with the help of private donations and state and local grants, were able to raise more than $100,000 to restore the building. It was deeded to the City of Corsicana, rededicated in 1987, and is now used for activities and club meetings. The interior of the building, aron kodesh, bemah and all remained unchanged. Once a month, a rabbi travels from Dallas to hold services in the historic synagogue for the Jews of the surrounding counties.
After photographing the synagogue we visited the impressive and impeccably maintained Jewish cemetery where one of the tombstones is carved with only the two words: “Rope Walker”. Our tour guide, the last Jew in Corsicana, told us that very little is known about the deceased, not even his name. He had been hired to perform a publicity stunt to attract customers for the grand opening of Meyers & Henning Dry Goods Emporium.
It was a hot day in 1884. The mayor of Corsicana was there and a band was playing. The stunt had been advertised widely by M & H as an “astounding, astonishing, amazing, unbelievable, never seen before or ever again act of strength, gravity and defiance of common sense.” The man would walk a rope strung across Beaton Street from the second story of M & H, catty-corner across the 5th avenue intersection to the roof of Jackson’s Saloon and Gentlemen’s Relaxation Salon. Making the feat even more difficult, the man, having only one good leg and one wooden leg, would walk the rope with a cast-iron stove on his back.
The band began to play. The mayor cut the red ribbon and the peg-legged man started across the rope twenty feet above the ground. When he reached the middle of the rope, the end attached to Jackson’s Saloon suddenly slackened causing the tightrope walker to fall. The cast iron stove fell on him, crushing his chest. He lingered in great pain and by evening, when it was evident that he would die, he asked for a rabbi. As Corsicana had no rabbi, the owner of a downtown grocery store, Bernard Simon, came to him and the man painfully whispered the Shema. The only other thing he said, also in perfect Hebrew, was to ask that he be “buried with my people.” To this day he lies with his people in the Corsicana Jewish Cemetery.