In honor of the anniversary of Tennessee becoming the 16th state of the United States in 1796, Jewish Treats presents a brief history of the Jewish community of Memphis.
American Jewish culture thrives upon the communal memory of New York City’s famous Lower East Side, the neighborhood that was the heart of early twentieth century Jewish America. But New York was not the only city to which Jews immigrated, nor was the Lower East Side the only Jewish city-within-a-city.
In Memphis, Tennessee, the primary location to which the Eastern European Jewish immigrants moved was known as The Pinch. The area, which was one of the earliest sections of Memphis settlement, acquired this name from the near-starving Irish immigrants who had previously dominated the area.
While The Pinch became the primary Jewish area in Memphis in the late 1800s, the Jews who arrived at that time were not the first Jews to settle in Memphis. Jewish settlement began as early as the 1840s. As was the case across the United States, most of the mid-nineteenth century Jewish settlers were merchants and peddlers who had immigrated from Germany. A large portion of the original Jewish community was lost to Memphis, however, after the devastating outbreaks of Yellow Fever in 1873 and 1874. Many died and many fled, and of those who left the city, many did not return.
Jewish life in The Pinch has been compared to Jewish life on the Lower East Side. There were pushcarts and peddlers, kosher bakeries and delis. Community life did not center on one or two large congregations, but on numerous small synagogues catering to specific landsmen (people from the same area of Eastern Europe) grouped in neighborhoods.
It should be noted that The Pinch was also home to the famed Baron Hirsch Synagogue. Established in the 1860s, it remained in The Pinch area until around 1952. The Baron Hirsch Synagogue, which remains a vibrant and active congregation today, was considered the largest Orthodox congregation in the United States in the 1950s.
The Pinch remained an area of vibrant Jewish lifetime until the late 1940s, when the community moved out of the city. The area, with its many Jewish landmarks, went through an era of decay and is now experiencing a period of resurgence.
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