photography courtesy of the Texas/Dallas History and Archives Division, Dallas Public Library
|IF YOU BUILD IT: Alex Sanger (above) was the most powerful merchant in Dallas in 1899 (his building is shown below) and an important player in the Jewish community.|
Edward Titche and Max Goettinger spoke to Philip Sanger in a corner. Adolph Harris congratulated Simon and Joseph Linz. Alex Sanger, his face dominated by a bushy, walrus-like moustache, and who was perhaps the most powerful and influential merchant in the city, walked down the center aisle. E.M. Kahn, as always, stood out in the crowd, immaculate in a chocolate-brown suit.
On the roof garden, Victor Hexter—a small, slight man, who, peering through his rimless wire-frame glasses, looked like a small bird—sipped sherry and discussed real estate with attorney David Eldridge and Texas Paper Company president Rudolph Liebman. The three men watched a train pull into the Santa Fe station a block or two away. From that height, the view was thrilling.
The occasion was a realization of the dream German Jews had been striving for since the earliest days of Dallas. And as dusk became night, as the patrons and guests and politicians and celebrities left, as the 19th century became the 20th, all seemed well for the Jews of Dallas, particularly those—the Linzes, the Sangers, the Titches, the Goettingers, the Dreyfusses, the Kahns, the Reinhardts, the Harrises—who had put their names onto stores for all the world to see.
They were special, these Jews who came to America from Germany. In all respects, they were the most cultivated and highly trained race in Europe, and they brought their considerable skills with them. Years later, another wave of Jewish immigration would arrive, only to find that the German Jews had established barriers against them. The later arrivals, streaming in from Eastern Europe and Russia, were the victims of Czarist ghettoes and religious pogroms. They would lack the sophistication and confidence of their German counterparts; for them, the Jewish experience would always be marked by fear. For decades to come, these two distinctly different roots of Judaism in America would grow apart in Dallas.
|JEWISH ICONS: John Rosenfield was the preeminent arts critic in Dallas.|
These were Jews who felt the need to re-form their Judaism, to form it again in an alien land, dropping those traditions and habits and customs that would hinder their ability to adjust to the New World. They found newer and freer definitions of Judaism.
In 1872, 11 men formed the Hebrew Benevolent Association, which later would develop into two organizations, the two most influential in the history of Dallas Jewry: Temple Emanu-El and the Jewish Welfare Federation. The mold was already cast for almost 75 years of undisturbed leadership. These families would exercise the kind of judgment and civic aggressiveness that would earn Dallas Jews prestige and respect from the non-Jewish community. And these same families, in all but a strictly social sense, would assimilate and find themselves swimming in the mainstream of Dallas life.
|H. Rhett James, Rabbi Levi Olan, J.A. Stanfield, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.|
The newer immigrants’ attitude toward the Old World was very different. No Eastern European Jew, living in Boston or New York, would dream of “re-creating” the ghetto from which he or she fled, even to raise charity money. The memory of those ghettoes was far from merry. In fact, the ghettoes were being re-created in that part of the country, as the result of difficult housing and financial conditions. But in Dallas and throughout the South, German Jews were already civic leaders who viewed the established institutions with none of the fear and suspicion felt by Jews who had been persecuted in Russia.
|IN THE MONEY: Fred Florence (center) was a bank president in his 20s and considered a genius.|
Those for whom the nightmares of the Eastern European pogroms were fresh would become the backbone of the Zionist movement in America, that political faction which insisted on the necessity of a Jewish homeland. If Jews away from the Eastern seaboard were inclined to assimilate and minimize the differences between themselves and their neighbors, the Eastern European Jews would emphasize the differences. They would be more radical in politics, more traditional in religion, more insistent upon the uniqueness of their ethnicity.
To the Southern Jew in Texas, life was open. Influence and community involvement were more readily available. Alex Sanger served as president of the State Fair in 1894. Congregation Emanu-El set up the first model for public education in the city. The Jewish sense of charity was strong, and the impact of the Jews far outweighed their numbers. In 1872, some 15 Jewish families lived here. Never more than three percent of Dallas would be Jewish and only a small percentage would assume leadership roles. But those names, at least through the early decades of this century, would be household words. It was a prairie town when they arrived. Within two decades it had been transformed into a bustling city. To a large extent, the Jews were out front, creating the changes, leading the way, establishing themselves as an integral part of the phenomenal growth of Dallas.
On the warm, still night of may 21, 1921, hundreds of Ku Klux Klansmen marched through downtown Dallas, singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” as they passed the Majestic Theatre. They carried signs reading: “100 percent American!” “All Native Born!” “All Pure White!” “White Supremacy!” “Our Little Girls Must Be Protected!”
The next day, the Dallas News reported the incident in a front-page headline: “Klan Marches in Awesome Parade.” The paper said 789 Klansmen participated and that “it was a silent and serious-faced, wondering audience that greeted the weird procession.”
Since 1920, all had not been well within the small Jewish community that had built handsome homes on South Boulevard, on Park Row, and on Forest Avenue. These people, for the most part successful citizens, had led their lives in relative calm and freedom. The closeness in the reform Jewish community had resulted in a good deal of marriage between families. In fact, in the early decades of the 20th century, when a Dallas Jew with German ancestry referred to intermarriage, he or she was alluding to the marriage of a Western European Jew and an Eastern European Jew, or a reform Jew to a conservative or orthodox Jew.
Then the Klan came. Between 1920 and 1925, a Dallas mayor was said to have had Klan sympathies; the police chief was thought to be a Klansman; the district attorney was on the side of the KKK. And on the northwest corner of Main and Akard stood Marvin’s Drugstore, run by a prominent and well-known Klansman, Z.E. Marvin. A high percentage of members of the police and fire departments joined the organization.
In this five-year period, it has been estimated that 13,000 Dallasites wore the robes of the Klan, perhaps the highest per capita figure of any city in America. Hiram Wesley Evans, a Main Street dentist whose clientele was reported to be largely black, was first chosen as Exalted Cyclops and then, in November of 1922, at the Imperial Klanvocation in Atlanta, was anointed Imperial Wizard of the mighty Invisible Empire. That same year, a Klan-supported candidate, Earle B. Mayfield, beat James E. Ferguson for the Texas Senate seat. Earlier in the year, in March, Philip Rothblum, a Jew, had been taken from his home, blindfolded, whipped, and told to leave town. It became a cause célèbre. The Klan admitted no guilt, though there was suspicion that the sheriff and the police commissioner—themselves Klansmen—were covering up. Retail stores owned by Jews were periodically boycotted.
The fever spread, and on October 26, 1923, a headline in the Dallas News reported “Klan Day at the Fair: Great Throngs Participate in Colorful Klan Initiation at Fair Park.” The Klan had implanted itself so deeply in Dallas life—private and public—that the State Fair saw fit to designate a day in its honor. During the ceremony, J.D. Van Winkle, Cyclops of Dallas Klan No. 66, announced that the Klan was investing $80,000 in Hope Cottage, an institution for homeless children. Then Grand Titan Z.E. Marvin formally delivered Hope Cottage to the city. On the platform that day were civic dignitaries, including Mayor Louis Blaylock, Judge Felix D. Robertson (the Klan-supported candidate who finally lost the gubernatorial race in 1924 to Ma Ferguson)—and, of all people, Alex Sanger.
A Jew, the city’s most prominent Jew, sat on the podium with the leaders of an organization bitterly and unequivocally anti-Semitic. Looking back, it’s impossible not to ask if the German Jewish leanings toward assimilation and accommodation had brought men like Sanger to the point of actually aiding and comforting their enemies. No, but Jewish attitudes were complex.
First, many felt that the Klan was basically a foolish and immature organization, a group of buffoons who created a tempest in a teapot. In the early days of the Klan, for example, John Rosenfield, easily identifiable as a Jew, covered Klan picnics for the Dallas News (where he would later become music and culture critic) and was left alone to do his work. Mayor Blaylock who, unlike Mayor Sawnie Aldredge, was associated with the Klan, often visited the homes of prominent Jews. Top Klansman Z.E. Marvin was said to think of banker Fred Florence as his good friend. So there was then, as there is now, much confusion about the very nature of the Klan. Was it a threat or wasn’t it?
In some deep sense, Dallas Jews were afraid. There were simply too many Klansmen around to be ignored. As one gentile who sympathized with Jews during that period explained, the Klan was just the thing for young men on the make in Dallas. “The young bucks,” he said, “couldn’t resist. It was tough-minded, appealing, and there was a certain male aura about the attitude which said, ‘Let’s clean out the misfits and the foreigners.’ I fought it a bit in my mind, but I joined anyway. The Klan was a major force, at least for three or four years.”
As with many situations of this sort, ironies abounded. Louis Tobian tells the story of how the Dallas Dispatch wanted to reveal the names of people attending a Klan rally and did so by taking the license plate numbers of the cars seen at the meeting and tracing them to their owners. Tobian, a Jew, had sold his car the week before, and apparently the new owner was at the rally. The paper reported that Tobian was in attendance. The next day he wrote a letter to the editor in which he claimed that the only clan to which he belonged was Dr. David Lefkowitz’s, the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El.
In another incident, the Klan paid a visit to Edward Titche, the congenial head of Titche-Goettinger. They told Titche about the organization, what it stood for, and why it was so important. Then they asked the department store executive to join. Amazed, Titche carefully explained to his guests that he appreciated their time and interest, but membership would be quite impossible. He was Jewish. The Klansmen grabbed their hats and made for the door. “Too bad,” retorted one of the Klansmen over his shoulder, “you would have made a wonderful Kleagle.”
Still, the Klan was no laughing matter. Its growth here was unprecedented and, in the view of some, cancerous. While the Jewish merchants were silent, the reform community, represented by Dr. David Lefkowitz, was not. Together with George Bannerman Dealey, publisher of the News, and men like M.M. Crane, a local attorney, he took a strong and public position deploring the illegality and basic anti-Americanism of the Klan.
In November 1923, Lefkowitz wrote a friend in Tyler: “I can’t answer your question concerning brother Alex Sanger sitting on the platform at the Hope Cottage dedication. You will have to come over and ask him; but don’t get too blue about it, and don’t let the Klan situation worry you too much. It is bad enough, to be sure, but we mustn’t let it reduce our own power by worrying us and making us sick. We need the best we have to fight it to a finish.”
So Lefkowitz, together with Dealey, took on the Klan. The Dealey family had intermarried with Catholics and might have felt some kinship with the Jews. But more importantly, Dealey had deep convictions that the Klan was a lawless and pernicious outfit and had to be run out of town. His unpopular stand cost the News circulation. (The Times Herald remained neutral.) In fact, in September 1921, after the News carried an exposé of the Klan written by the New York World, sales dropped dramatically. (Circulation by the end of 1922 had fallen off by 3,000.) Even worse, ad sales were hit hard. Some contend the News’ sale of the Galveston News to W.L. Moody Jr. in 1923 was a direct result of its anti-Klan crusade. Certainly when the Galveston sale was made public, Klansmen rejoiced; they thought they had a chance of destroying Dealey’s fledgling newspaper empire.
But the combined opposition from Dealey and Lefkowitz was a blow from which the Klan could not recover. By the time Ma Ferguson beat Judge Felix Robertson, the Klan candidate from Dallas, for the governorship in 1924, the Klan was on its way out.
The KKK experience had a basic message for Dallas Jewry and particularly for the Dallas Jewish leadership that worshipped at Temple Emanu-El: by demonstrating the fact that he and the most powerful publisher in town had worked together, Lefkowitz had reinforced the conviction that assimilation was the key to survival. The rascals had been chased from town, and it was a Jew fighting alongside a non-Jew that got the job done. Simple cooperation, patience, and the democratic way had won the day. Business could go on as usual. Jews could continue to participate in all aspects of Dallas.
It was 1929, a precarious year in American history. W.O. Connor—former treasurer of Sanger Brothers, member of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, and an influential Dallas businessman—took a long look across the expansive ground floor lobby of his bank. He was president of Republic National Bank, a major institution in the region. Less than a decade earlier, before the bank was nationalized, it had been called the Day and Night Guaranty Bank. It literally stayed open night and day to service and court business. It was an aggressive, hustling little bank that hoped one day to stand toe to toe with the larger, more established First National. But that day would be for someone else; Connor knew he had to step down.
His heir apparent was a young man from Alto, Texas. Fred Florence began in Rusk, Texas, by sweeping the floors of the local bank. In his 20s, he became the bank’s president, and, by the time he reached 30, he had agreed to come to Dallas to become first vice president of the Day and Night Guaranty. Connor had wanted Florence from the outset. In banking circles, whenever Florence’s name was mentioned, someone was sure to drop the word “genius.” At an astonishingly young age, he had developed a method for determining speculative loans on oil wells. He pushed the concept of car installment loans and construction loans. He was forever figuring out ways to lend money in order to get more money back. And he was a tremendously willing and energetic salesman. His life, his identity, his sense of destiny was tied up in banking.
Connor was convinced of the right move: Fred Florence would become president of Republic National Bank. Fred Florence, who had worked there for less than 10 years. Fred Florence, who literally began with nothing. Fred Florence, who was a member in good standing of Temple Emanu-El. No one typified the emerging American banker or the established Jewish leader more than Florence.
A Jew of Russian origin (his name had been changed), he had no problem entering the old-line Columbian Club social circle (see accompanying story on page 70), just as he had no problem breaking into the Christian banking community. Barriers were falling, and Florence was not to be denied. He taught himself what he needed to know, and when the city’s financial interest turned from agriculture to oil, Florence was waiting. He understood the times in which he lived. And he understood the obligations he had as a Jewish leader.
He married the rabbi’s daughter and became active at the temple. He believed the growth of his bank would be directly tied to the growth of his city. He was never mayor, but he didn’t need to be. With the engaging founder of Mercantile National, Bob Thornton, as a close friend, he was deeply involved in leadership decisions in the pre-war period that would shape Dallas into a major city. Thornton and Florence would begin each business morning with a long, intimate phone conversation with one another—solving credit problems for emerging new businesses, keeping tabs on the flow of funds, checking the progress of civic causes, and advising one another on appointments to key civic and political posts. In 1936, they brought the Centennial to Dallas. That worked so well that Thornton later came to Florence with a radical idea for formalizing civic leadership into the Dallas Citizen’s Council. Florence gave his approval, and the famous Dallas oligarchy was established. For the years that it reigned unchallenged over an increasingly prosperous city, their names were side by side at the apex of Dallas leadership.
Florence was an aloof man, conscious of his title and role and the need to maintain absolute dignity. He was said to have had a manicure and moustache trim every working morning of his life. He was orderly, persistent, determined to build the biggest bank in town. And he made it—invited to the White House by FDR, elected president of the American Bankers Association, friend of Jesse Jones of Houston and William Lewis Moody Jr. of Galveston. Later, W.A. Criswell of the First Baptist Church of Dallas would speak of Florence as an intimate and cherished companion. Herbert Marcus Sr., Arthur Kramer Sr., Henry Miller Sr., Charles Sanger, Julius Pearlstone, Henri Bromberg Sr., Lawrence Pollock Sr., Louis Tobian, Herbert Mallinson—these were the leaders in the ’30s and ’40s, the continuation of the tradition of the reform Jew as model citizen. Of course, members of other Dallas Jewish congregations, conservative and orthodox, the more traditional groups, also would produce leaders. But the giants were all more or less from that single constituency that had its roots deep in the tradition of Texas.
One of the great rivalries of this period was between Herbert Marcus and Arthur Kramer to see who could first persuade the Metropolitan Opera Company to plan yearly trips to Dallas. Allied with area leaders such as Edmund Polk of Corsicana, Kramer won; Marcus succeeded in coaxing the Chicago Civic Opera into visiting. Kramer, as head of A. Harris, and Marcus, who had left a salesman’s job at Sanger Brothers to establish Neiman-Marcus, were of course interested in selling merchandise to an increasingly sophisticated city, a city concerned with dressing up for the finer things in life—such as opera. But they were also directly involved in the cultural life of Dallas. In the history of music here, the fine arts, the museums, the theater, the names of these families recur constantly.
The 5:30 social curfew would continue. After work a very fine but nonetheless apparent curtain separated Jew from gentile. The social distinctions and separations were definite. Most people remember only one Jew who has been a member of the Petroleum Club, and that was Fred Florence. But in the area of culture, non-Jewish Dallas knew well that it needed the support of Dallas Jewry, not only financial support, but the time commitment and taste required to build the arts here. For more than 40 years, it was John Rosenfield, the nephew of Arthur Kramer and the son of M.J. Rosenfield (who had been secretary treasurer of Sanger Brothers) who ruled this region as cultural czar. His taste was unquestioned; he became the symbol of critical sophistication in the arts as the leading theater, ballet, opera, symphony, and movie critic for the Dallas News.
|THE WILL ROGERS OF DALLAS: Julius |
Schepps speaks at the groundbreaking for the community center to be named in his honor.
One day in August 1940, with the heat and the events in Europe on his mind, Schepps left his Canton Street office where he had been busy with the details of his wholesale liquor business. He meandered toward Main Street, past City Hall, to the fire station. Faces lit up as he entered. Think of him as the Will Rogers of Dallas—as lovable as he was homely and awkward. He was tall and ungraceful in his movements. His face was craggy and thin, punctuated by enormous features, huge ears, kind eyes, and a prominent nose.
He took off his coat, hung it on the back of an old-fashioned wooden clerk’s chair, swiveled the chair around so that his long legs dangled from either side, rolled up his white shirtsleeves, and spins this yarn:
“Y’all know, of course, that I ain’t the best golfer in the state, but then again, I ain’t the worst,” he began. “And, well, so many of my good friends belong to that high class Dallas Country Club out there in Highland Park. They’re always asking me to go out and play with ’em. So last week I went on out and spent the whole afternoon chasing that little white ball from here to hell and back. Don’t want to tell you what I shot, but I’m not sure whether the final score had two digits in it or three. Anyways, we’re sitting around the clubhouse, and someone says to me, ‘Julius, how come you don’t join the club?’ ‘Fine idea there, pal,’ I reply. ‘Why don’t you run upstairs to the office and fetch me a membership application?’ ‘Be happy to, Julius,’ my golfing buddy says. So he scoots out of the clubhouse and goes to get me that application. And that, dear friends and neighbors, is one gent I haven’t heard from since. To this day, I’m still waiting for him to come back with the application.”
Julius Schepps was a folk hero who played a key conciliatory role in the ’40s and ’50s, as Jews in Dallas began to see and feel enormous cracks in the foundation of their established leadership. Schepps was probably the last of the great Jewish leaders who could be all things to all people. His wife was not Jewish, but he belonged to every Jewish congregation in town, something that was not uncommon for prominent Jews here, though unheard of in other cities. Perhaps Schepps’ happiest hour had been when he led a fund-raising ceremony at Hope Cottage. He had reminded the audience that if they were to rip up the carpet, they would find the insignia of the Ku Klux Klan underneath, embedded in the floor. Those days are over, Schepps declared proudly. He saw himself as living proof of the fact.
But Schepps and millions of Jews like him across the nation had a new problem. It began in the ’30s with rumblings in Germany. Jews were forced to escape and had nowhere to go; America had not opened its doors. For the first time, the Jewish Welfare Federation had to focus on the problem of displaced persons, brothers and sisters in foreign lands who were homeless. Where were they to go?
To Palestine, the Zionists replied. To Israel. The wave of Zionism gained enormous strength as European Jews found themselves fleeing their native lands under the threat of extinction. The rhetoric was hot. Zionists felt that all Jews outside of Israel, living in what was called the Diaspora, must eventually come home. Of course many Jews, especially those of German origin, balked at the idea. The national Zionist movement did not find Dallas to be fertile territory. The Jewish leaders here were Texans, had been Texans and Southerners for more than a century. They were part of the land, part of the tradition. Their loyalty was to the country and city that had enabled them to prosper. Israel was a remote idea, a foreign adventure.
Many from the reform community joined anti-Zionist organizations in the beginning. Support for Israel in the late ’30s and early ’40s came from the more tradition-minded Jewish community, those with Eastern European backgrounds whose anxiety about anti-Semitism was reawakened. In 1939 and 1940, they saw the pogroms all over again. Jews would never be safe, they felt, until they had a national state of their own.
The fact of Israel would, once and for all, change the singular nature of Jewish leadership in Dallas. And yet Dallas would never undergo the trauma of other Southern communities—Houston, for example—where the Zionists and anti-Zionists never came to terms with one another. At some point, the old guard leadership (represented, perhaps, by Lawrence Pollock) would embrace the new leadership (represented, perhaps, by Jacob Feldman). Not that things would be the same; they would not. The German Jewish community would never involve themselves in Israel’s problems in the way, say, Feldman would. Feldman’s father was a deeply religious Jew, a traditional Jew, who had great conviction about the necessity of a homeland. Even when he made large sums of money in the international scrap iron business, Jake could never devote his entire life to his business. He had inherited his father’s visceral concern for Israel and would dedicate a large portion of his waking hours in the next 35 or 40 years to Israel’s cause.
The Feldmans, like the Pollocks, were a well-established and highly respected Dallas family. It was not possible for the old leadership to scorn the Feldmans for their interest in Israel. These were not East Coasters. They were not immigrants, over-anxious in their fears about anti-Semitism. The Feldmans, and their opposite numbers—Leslie Jacobs, who worked with Lawrence Pollock as executive vice president of the paper company, Reba Wadel, who was a member of Temple Emanu-El—kept the community from bitterly dividing over the issue. Even Lefkowitz, who had initially joined an anti-Zionist group, could never set his heart against Israel. He wrote to a man in Cleburne in 1938 who apparently had written a letter to the News slighting Jewish settlers:
“Remember [the Jews] did enter into the Promised Land, Palestine, and make it a land flowing with milk and honey some 3,000 years ago. And remember again, that when they were permitted … to return to a neglected and utterly ruined Palestine, they drained the marshes, built the roads, plowed, planted, and milked cows, and again brought back fertility to the Holy Land. If that isn’t pioneering in the most arduous form, I would not know what is.”
History would not leave the Jews alone. And it would not leave the Dallas Jews alone. All too quickly what was happening in Germany became an inescapable fact: Hitler was attempting genocide. Millions had already been slaughtered. Millions more were scattered across Europe, fleeing, searching for a home, a refuge, a place to escape death. How bitterly anti-Zionist could anyone be at this point?
Meanwhile, in Dallas, Leland Dupree, who served as Fred Florence’s right-hand man at Republic, received an invitation to a fancy luncheon hosted by Tom Gooch, publisher of the Herald, and Ted Dealey, publisher of the News. A few minutes before the event was to begin, Dupree wandered into the boss’s office to see if Florence wanted to walk over to the hotel with him. Dupree, who was not Jewish, was shocked to learn that the bank’s president had not been invited. How was it possible? A big affair, at noon in downtown Dallas, sponsored by the two leading publishers in town, that does not include the city’s biggest banker? Dismayed, Dupree walked over to the Baker Hotel and found not a single Jew at the luncheon. Later, he learned why: Gooch and Dealey, remembering Jewish contributions to civic causes, had decided to throw a luncheon for gentiles to raise money for strictly Jewish causes.
But if Hitler served to make those Jews who survived more Jewish, that transformation was most difficult for the Jews of the South, who, at least in one sense, had as much in common with their gentile neighbors as with their brothers and sisters in Russia and Eastern Europe. Yet by 1948, the year Israel had become an official state, this heightened consciousness of their Jewishness had already been developed. Jews in the South, Jews in Texas, Jews in Dallas were having to come to terms with themselves not as provincial Jews, but as universal Jews. And that represented an enormous change.
The final score was Rice 27, North Carolina 13, and as two men gathered their coats and hats to leave the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day 1950, the newcomer of the two looked around and wondered what his life will be like in Dallas. Levi Olan was a reform rabbi who had just left Worcester, Massachusetts, to take over the pulpit at Temple Emanu-El. Just as David Lefkowitz had been recruited by Arthur Kramer and Herbert Marcus from Dayton, Ohio, in 1920, Olan had been signed up by representatives of that same line of Temple leadership—Louis Tobian, Irving Goldberg, Fred Florence, Lawrence Pollock, and the man who had brought him to the football game, Eugene Solow. Olan wondered what a liberal like him would be able to accomplish in a conservative city like Dallas. He was an intellectual and a scholar who has been brought up in the East and whose background was Eastern European. The language in his home was Yiddish. When he asked Rabbi Lefkowitz during an earlier visit where he could find good bagels in Dallas, the Rabbi had replied, “What’s a bagel?” So here he was, at a college football game in the middle of the Texas prairie, a stranger recruited to be a leader.
When Rabbi Olan took charge at Emanu-El, the congregation was by far the largest in town. In many ways, Rabbi Olan’s period would be a glorious one for the Temple. As beloved and kind a pastor as Lefkowitz was, he did not have Olan’s ability to inspire the congregation—and, for that matter, inspire the city. Like a black gospel preacher, Olan could shout with the best of them. At once, he elevated, impressed, intimidated, shamed, scolded, forgave, and motivated. He was a testifier, a witness, whose carefully written sermons—some of them took 20 hours to write—could shake the most complacent listener. His was a voice that could evoke the memory of thunder from ancient mountains.
Lefkowitz, for whom the new rabbi had warm and grateful feelings, had been on the radio for years. Olan immediately stepped into the role, first on KRLD and soon afterward on WFAA-TV. By 1951, he was already a media star; Christians driving to church on Sunday morning would listen to Rabbi Olan preach at them through the car radio. He was an instant hit. His learning was appreciated. Dallas had never been audience to a clergyman with Olan’s combined talent for intellectual and rhetorical showmanship. He pointed a sharp finger at what was morally wrong with the city, but he did so in an acceptable way. He spoke for God, and, given that, who could argue? A typical Olan statement, for example, is in a letter he wrote to a woman in Massachusetts in 1959 about segregation. She wanted to know his position. Olan wrote:
“The moral issue from my point of view is a clear one. Segregation is a vestige of slavery, and is highly immoral. No one who believes in one God can believe in discrimination amongst His children. This is the position which any religious person must take.”
1950 was a time of great change. Jews from the Eastern seaboard had been stationed here during the war, and many had stayed. Some temple members were worried about the influx. They were concerned about the emphasis on ethnicity or on Israel, and during a Jewish holiday, one member of the congregation complained that children in Sunday school were being taught to wrap presents in colors of blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag. “We’re being taken over by another wave of immigration,” he exclaimed, meaning those immigrant Jews who had passed through Ellis Island from Eastern Europe in the early part of the century.
Olan, however, like Lefkowitz before him, relaxed those tensions. Being ethnic, being Eastern, being able to joke in Yiddish—something which he claimed almost no one else in his congregation could do—hardly made any difference. He was respected as a philosopher and rabbi, both by his own members and his thousands of radio and television followers. Even if some found him cold as a person, and not the pastor Lefkowitz had been, his intellectual prowess more than compensated for it. Besides, Olan liked the oligarchy that ran the temple. He found Fred Florence, Lawrence Pollock, Irving Goldberg, Jerome Crossman, and Louis Tobian to be men with whom he was temperamentally compatible. This was one of his many paradoxes: at heart, the rabbi was a democratic socialist who found notions such as the profit motive unacceptable in his ethical structure. Still, he had tremendous admiration for these entrepreneurs, these capitalists who had sought him out. He would lunch with one or two of them at the Dallas Club, and he would find them agreeable to hiring a highly creative music director or an innovative religious school director. They understood that the rabbi was building an institution and was interested, as they had been in their own businesses, in reaching the entire town. It was a superb meeting of the minds and, in this paradoxical way, Levi Olan—old-time liberal from New York, Eastern intellectual, and academic scholar—got along splendidly with those gentlemen who were such staunch defenders of the free enterprise system.
Olan was able to restore older traditions to what had been a leading reform congregation. During his time, the bar mitzvah was emphasized as it had not been in the past. More Hebrew was read during services. Christians would be encouraged to attend lectures in order to know the source of their religion. And on social matters, his civil rights stance, his involvement with problems of poverty and housing were so obviously sincere and so rooted in his sense of morality, that even in one of Dallas’ most conservative periods, his reputation continued to grow as his name spread to every part of the city.
On a night in 1956, a group of Jews met in a large den of a North Dallas home to discuss a contentious issue: building a new Jewish Community Center. In the past, the Jewish Welfare Federation leaders had more or less paralleled the temple leaders, the same people who spoke for and to the Jewish community. Now there was a difference. Jews from the conservative and orthodox congregations were stepping forward and taking an aggressive lead in Jewish matters in Dallas. They were openly concerned about Israel. And now, in this late-night meeting with a cross-section of leaders—rabbis, congregation presidents, professional fundraisers—it seemed as though an agreement couldn’t be reached as to whether the JCC should be built.
Some old-guard Jews felt as though the long-standing tradition in Dallas of an open community, in which Jew and Christian played and worked and lived together, as being threatened by the establishment of a strictly Jewish center. “Is there any such thing as Jewish basketball?” someone shouted. People in the conservative camp were convinced that Jewish kids needed a place to congregate and learn after school. A woman asked, “Are you ashamed of being Jewish? Why shouldn’t we have a place of our own?” “It’s ghettoization,” a young man replied. “It’s the kind of segregation we’ve been arguing against as applied to blacks. Why impose it on ourselves?”
The argument raged on: open community vs. closed community. Total assimilation vs. a center to maintain identity. Some saw the center as an attack on the legitimate functions of the synagogues and the temple. The more conservative rabbis wanted the center built, but closed all day Saturday to honor the Sabbath. Some rabbis didn’t want the place built at all. Some in-between reluctantly agreed to a center, but one that would be available to the entire community. Finally, a compromise was struck by Jack Kravitz, the professional who ran the Jewish Welfare Federation: a center would be built, but it would not be “Jewish”; it would be named after a man who was present at the meeting, Julius Schepps. Fifteen percent of the membership would be reserved for non-Jews.
The participants were half-asleep and happy to go home at nearly 3 am. As they walked to their cars, though, each had to wonder privately how deeply this division ran, what consequences it held for Jews living in Dallas. Something very new was under way.
The ’50s was a troublesome period for Dallas Jews. During those years, the McCarthy years, Jews felt particularly vulnerable. And at SMU, a university that had benefited from local Jewish generosity for decades, there erupted a nasty little incident known as the Beaty Affair.
Dr. John O. Beaty, professor of English at SMU and at one time department chairman, had written a viciously anti-Semitic book called Iron Curtain Over America. A tenured professor, Beaty never was fired by the university, and many Jews argued that he should not have been. After all, it was a matter of academic freedom. But his blatant anti-Jewishness became such an established fact that often Jews would go far out of their way to avoid his courses.
While Jews were uncertain what the overall community thought of them and what they thought of themselves, the reform Jews built a dignified new sanctuary in the heart of North Dallas. Temple Emanu-El moved to the corner of Hillcrest and Northwest Highway, to an expansive and impressive edifice that symbolized the strength and dignity of the reform community. But as that move was underway, in fact on the very day the ground for the sanctuary was broken—June 5, 1955—Dr. David Lefkowitz died. The world for Dallas Jews was turning at a faster rate than ever before. Weekly now, Olan was preaching against the immorality of segregation, of wealthy people who live in fancy high-rises and ignore the needs of the poor. Meanwhile, tensions were mounting at Hillcrest High School, where the standard joke had become: “All gentiles will meet at 3 pm—in the first-floor phone booth.” Some Jews were nervous about a sense of too singular, too strident an identification; others were nervous about too weak, too diluted an identification.
In the process of raising money for Israel, it became obvious that an economic shift had taken place. Conservative Jews, Jews of Eastern European origins, had begun to make fortunes of their own. And in many cases, the money made in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s far exceeded estates built by the earlier generation of reform Jews. Businesses with international connections were growing here. And though the heads of those firms might be active members of Temple Emanu-El, as was the case with some of the Zales, or the Levys of National Chemsearch, their sentiments were strongly pro-Israel. They gave money in amounts the old guard would have never thought possible. And there was also a dramatic increase in travel to Israel. Dallas Jews, returning from those trips, often felt great inspiration and further dedication to the cause.
Members of the old guard still had a visceral fear of closing the community and breaking ties with the Christian leadership. Why put our wagons in a circle and enclose ourselves, they wondered. While the Schepps Center floundered because reform Jews refused to embrace it, the new guard had its foot in the door. The tide of Jewish ethnicity was on the rise. It would take another 20 years—until 1975 rolled around—to get the center off the ground, change its name from Schepps (which would become a wing in the new complex) to the Jewish Community Center.
The Main Streeters by now were gone, in fact have been gone for decades. The stores they built had sold out—Sanger’s and Neiman’s, Kahn’s and Dreyfuss and Linz. With them, many of the downtown merchants who had a vested stake in the city and its future were gone. Rotating managers, sent from New York or Chicago, move in and out of town like customers walking through revolving doors. A different kind of downtown leadership emerged, and no longer did anyone know or care whose origins were Eastern or Western European.
A longer version of this story first ran in D Magazine in November 1975. It goes on to look at the enormous impact that the Six Day War had on Dallas’ Jewish community, and the author pays a last visit to Rabbi Levi Olan, who died in 1984.