Mississippi Jews: A Photographic Essay

Adam Shemper returns to Mississippi to photograph his Southern landslayt.

"The story of Jews in the South," writes Eli Evans in his classic study, The Provincials, "is the story of fathers who built businesses to give their sons who didn't want them." Photographer Adam Shemper is one of those sons. After leaving his native Mississippi to go to college in New England, Shemper returned to document the heritage he left behind: both his father's scrap metal business in Hattiesburg and the quiet life of Southern Jews.

Below, a slideshow of images from Shemper's photographic essay, the cover story of Pakn Treger #27, Winter 1998. Further below, the article as it was printed in Pakn Treger.

Cover of Pakn Treger with young man and woman in pool

The notorious cover, picturing the photographer's brother David Shemper at home with his girlfriend, Jackie Scanlon, Hattiesburg. It has earned Pakn Treger #27 a fond nickname around the Yiddish Book Center offices—"our swimsuit issue"—and prompted a flurry of heated responses from Pakn Treger devotees upon its release. As the magazine reported in the following issue, "The cover photograph of Pakn Treger #27 ('Mississippi Jews') was too steamy for some readers, who thought that the picture of a young couple in swimsuits was in bad taste. 'Shame on you!' wrote Beverly Katzman of New York City, who felt the cover 'had no redeeming qualities.' Joseph Masliansky of Brooklyn, New York, expressed his disappointment by writing that 'if [that picture] is all you can find on the Mississippi Jews, then the future looks bleak, as far as I am concerned.' 'Perhaps if the young couple had smiled,' wrote Hannah Lippert of Los Angeles, 'it might have detracted from the nudity. This picture is a shande and belongs on the cover of a tabloid and not on the highly respected Pakn Treger.'"

But the publication held its ground: "Part of Pakn Treger's mission is to portray Jewish life as it is, in all its complexity, rather than as we wish it would be. It was in that spirit that we chose the cover photo. Many of the readers who wrote in to criticize the cover point to precisely those elements that make it a fascinating photograph: With its suggestion of decadence, emptiness, and—yes—sexuality, it offers an unexpected and provocative glimpse of Jewish life."

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Robert Hirsberg and Marvin Joe Sawyer in Hirsberg's drugstore, Friar's Point, surrounded by merchandise

Robert Hirsberg and Marvin Joe Sawyer in Hirsberg's drugstore, Friar's Point

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Floyd Shankerman in Shankermans, Inc., Clarksdale, in front of a wall of shoes

Floyd Shankerman in Shankermans, Inc., Clarksdale

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Joshua Shemper unloading a scrap customer at Ben Shemper and Sons, Inc., Hattiesburg

Joshua Shemper unloading a scrap customer at Ben Shemper and Sons, Inc., Hattiesburg

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Aaron Kline in front of The Whale Store, Alligator. High-waisted pants-wearing elderly gent in front of a brick-facade store

Aaron Kline in front of The Whale Store, Alligator

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Rabbi Moses Landau and Melissa Chiz in front of the Adath Israel Temple, Cleveland, Mississippi. Elderly gentleman in suit, girl in dress, brick-facade synagogue.

Rabbi Moses Landau and Melissa Chiz in front of the Adath Israel Temple, Cleveland

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Elderly women playing mahjongg in a room. Juliet Kossman playing mahjongg at her home, Cleveland.

Juliet Kossman playing mahjongg at her home, Cleveland

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Melvin and Maureen Lipnick in Weinberg's, a children's store, Indianola. Elderly couple in front of a counter.

Melvin and Maureen Lipnick in Weinberg's, a children's store, Indianola

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