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Former Congregation Bikur Cholim
1872
Donaldsonville, Louisiana


Courtesy of Historic Donaldsonville Museum

 

photo by Sherry Zander

Along the Bayou LaFourche, nestled in the swamps, sugar cane fields, and Cajun settlements sits Donaldsonville, Louisiana, (population 9,000). It feels as if one has entered a different country and time, a place where the French/German culture is still most pervasive. Donaldsonville, at one time the capitol of Louisiana, began as a trading post in 1750. It was then called LaFourche des Chetimaches. In 1806-07 William Donaldson hired Bartholomew Lafon to draw a street plan for a town he wished to build; hence the name Donaldsonville.

Acadian settlers (also known as Cajuns) had arrived in southern Louisiana in the early 1700’s upon the expulsion from their home in French Canada by the British. Bringing with them their culture and language they came to French-owned Louisiana. Unfettered by Anglo settlement they recreated their lives and French culture, the indigenous Indians as their neighbors. By the early 1800’s more European settlers continued to come to this area from Alsace-Lorraine, and later from France, Germany, and Prussia. The primarily French and German languages and culture here offered a comfortable environment, not unlike the homes they came from in Europe.

In 1836 a peddler originally from Alsace, Jacob Lemann, was one of the first Jews to permanently settle in Donaldsonville. He started his mercantile business that year, later expanding into agricultural supply. In the 1840’s and 50’s Lemann started buying land and more land. Jay Lemann, his great, great, great grandson who lives in Donaldsonville today comments that there was a saying that you couldn’t go anywhere around Donaldsonville without crossing the property of Jacob Lemann. The Lemanns raised the local crop, sugar cane, on their multiple plantations (which they still do to this day).

Jewish migration to Donaldsonville was gradual but increased with the coming of the railroad in 1871. The mostly Alsatian, French and Prussian new arrivals came because of the opportunity and the familiar languages spoken here. By 1856 enough Jews lived in Donaldsonville to necessitate creating the Bikur Cholim Cemetery. Congregation Bikur Cholim was established in the late1860’s and the synagogue was built in 1872. The building, a commodious, very tall wooden structure was of simple design, with delicate Victorian style bric-a-brac trimming its entire roofline, and a double archway over the entrance. Other than a rosette window it was devoid of decoration.

There were no other synagogues down the Bayou LaFourche, so Jewish people of Napoleonville, Klotzville (named for a Jew) and other nearby places worshipped at Bikur Cholim in Donaldsonville and were buried there too. Early on the Jews were observant. The Donaldson Chief, in an article from the 1870’s reported at length on the celebration of the bar mitzvah of a son of Bernhard Lemann. The synagogue was in use from 1872 until the 1940’s when the observant Jewish community had dwindled to just a few families.

What is notable in Donaldsonville is that the demise was more a product of intermarriage, or not marrying at all, as opposed to younger generations moving away. Ben Kaplan remarked in his 1957 book about southern Louisiana Jewish communities, The Eternal Stranger, “there is much intermarriage, particularly with Catholics (in which case the offspring will necessarily be Catholic).” There are several Jewish names in Donaldsonville today, including Lemann and Hirsch. With one exception, they are all
Christians.

When Congregation Bikur Cholim disbanded, the synagogue remained empty for many years. It was finally sold and today it has a commercial façade built onto the area where the synagogue’s entryway once was. This historic building lives on as an Ace Hardware store.

The congregation, which at its height had about 70 families, employed a full-time rabbi, Rabbi Marx Klein. He is buried in Bikur Cholim Cemetery; his headstone reads “Rabbi Marx Klein, rabbi of the Jewish Temple in Donaldsonville, died 15 May 1908”. Also, in an isolated corner of the cemetery is the pre-Civil War grave of Ike Don. The story is that he was a Jewish vagabond who allegedly received his final blessing (as there was no rabbi then) from a Catholic priest.

The graves in Bikur Cholim Cemetery also feature something I’ve not seen elsewhere in the US – the headstones are engraved in a mixture of several languages. While some are in Hebrew and English many are in various combinations of French, German, Hebrew, and English. A few of the oldest graves have no English at all, reflecting the spoken languages of the region. Jay Lemann says that in the 1870’s the Jewish merchants spoke Hebrew to each other, German to customers of German descent, French to the Cajuns, and French or English was spoken to the blacks, depending on who their master had been.

Today there are only two Jews living in Donaldsonville. One of them, Irving Birnbaum, who moved there in recent years, is in charge of the upkeep of the cemetery. He took over the responsibility from (now deceased )Gaston Hirsch, a French immigrant and former POW who moved to Donaldsonville after WWII because he already had family there.

Fortunately Bikur Cholim Cemetery, and the B. Lemann & Bro. Store building (1877) are both on the National Register of Historic Places. The store, which closed after more than 150 years in business, now houses the Historic Donaldsonville Museum. Inside is a fascinating look at the past, particularly the reproduction of the entryway to the town’s synagogue, and the accompanying local Jewish artifacts and papers. It is worth the one hour-plus drive from New Orleans to see this remarkable patchwork quilt of overlapping cultures.

Sources for this article include: The Historic Donaldsonville Museum; American Jewish Landmarks by Postal and Koppman; Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience;
The Donaldsonville Chief; The Eternal Stranger by Ben Kaplan, Ph.D; the International Jewish Cemetery Project; telephone interview with Jay Lemann.


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