St Louis Jewish Light

"Local Jewish Authors Book Shelf"

Posted with the permission of the author.

January 2, 2014

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

[Link to original article]

The Jewish Light receives many books by local Jewish authors on a variety of topics.   Here's a round-up of  few that landed on our desk in recent weeks.

"The Lead Belt Jewish Oral History Project," as told to Anita Hecht, (Life History Services in collaboration with the Missouri Lead Belt Jewish Historical Society). This fascinating book covers a little-known Jewish community in southern Missouri's Lead Belt, a region which has been in the news in recent decades primarily because of the extremely toxic residues produced by the mining of lead, once one of Missouri's premier industries.  Author Hecht approached Bernard DeHovitz, one of the many Jewish residents of the Lead Belt, suggesting that she be allowed to record the oral histories of the Jewish community of the region.

"I was struck by his vivid recollections and fondness for a world gone by," Hecht writes.  "Fueled by sincere enthusiasm and respect for his history, Bernard had managed to inspire a small group of remaining inhabitants of this era to share their tales."

Over the course of 2011, Hecht conducted interviews with nine members of the region's Jewish community.  "Their stories reflect both a large tale of the Jewish immigrant experience in the rural Midwestern United States, and their particular tales of family journeys, connections, adherence to Jewish tradition and family values, and assimilation to life in the New World," Hecht notes.  With sadness she reports "a number of those who had tales to tell had passed on before the project's inception."

DeHovitz recalls the Beth El synagogue located on West Main Street in Flat River, now called Park Hills.  "It was a place of much enjoyment while we were growing up, especially during the High Holidays, Friday night services, and Sunday School.  It was the central place where we all met, and held our banquets, bar mitzvahs and confirmations."

When Hecht interviewed DeHovitz, she asked him what the lead mined in the area was used for.  "The lead was sent to a town called Herculaneum, which was a few miles towards St. Louis," he recalls.  "They used it for various things . . . pure lead; they used it to make paint; they used it to make batteries.  They even used it for glass because there was a big glass factory in Crystal City."

Of course, more recently, lead mining stopped in Herculaneum due to its highly toxic nature. Even before all of this was known, DeHovitz recalls the dangers of the lead mines of his era.  "It was a hard living.  Sometimes miners would have bad accidents and get badly hurt in the mines.  Rocks would fall on them."

DeHovitz, who inspired Hecht to complete this project, notes that the children of the Jewish families from the area had left years ago, "and no one remained."  He feared that if the stories were not recorded, the history of the Jews of that section of rural Missouri, like sections of rural Poland where Jews had lived, "would vanish like those of our ancestors." Thankfully, this fascinating book ensures that will not be the case.