Valdosta Daily Times

Features

October 9, 2013

Book explores Jewish heritage of Valdosta

VALDOSTA — In his latest book, “Chant of Ages; Cry of Cotton,” Louis Schmier shares a story that is both telling and funny, and an encounter that has happened more than once.

In the book’s encounter, a Northern Hebrew couple stops at Valdosta’s Temple Israel, amazed to discover a Jewish congregation in the South. Schmier was closing the temple as this couple arrived. To him, they repeatedly said how can a small number of Jewish people live “down here, among them, alone.”

Through “Chant of Ages; Cry of Cotton: The Biography of a South Georgia Jewish Community’s Beginnings 1865-1908,” Schmier explains how Hebrew congregations made the South their homes many years earlier than the period when large numbers of Jewish people arrived from Europe to live in the northern metropolises of the United States.

A book signing event for Schmier’s “Chant of Ages” is scheduled Thursday evening at the Annette Howell Turner Center for the Arts.

Specifically, Schmier speaks to how the Jewish congregation has been a part of the Valdosta and South Georgia region far longer than many expected.

Especially, those northern Jewish folks whom Schmier has encountered here as well as in numerous other parts of the U.S. They wonder how a small number of Jews can exist so far away, amidst so many Gentiles, in an assumed stereotype of the South. Is the Southern Hebrew community safe?

Such encounters instigate Schmier’s sense of wry humor, but he also understands the uncertainty and concern. He’s from New York City. He left to study at a Southern university then arrived in South Georgia in the late 1960s to teach at Valdosta State. He and his wife, Susie, thought they would stay in Valdosta a short period of time until returning north to a larger city.

Of course, the Schmiers stayed in Valdosta. They had children, raised a family here. Louis Schmier taught Valdosta State University history classes until his retirement about a year ago; he’s written and published other books. In what would have likely stunned the young Louis Schmier, the older Louis Schmier likes living in Valdosta. Not that he hasn’t missed NYC.

“My ideal, my heaven, would be to have Valdosta, untouched and uninfluenced, 30 miles from New York City,” Schmier says.

In Valdosta, to his surprise, though he didn’t attend synagogue then, the young Schmier discovered a small, strong Jewish community. He eventually attended temple, but it was the congregation’s reaching out to him that led to his latest book.

A few decades ago, he was tapped to share the Jewish community’s history in Valdosta. Then, the Jewish community believed its Valdosta history extended back only to the early 1900s. Though he took the assignment reluctantly, Schmier glommed onto a line from a Lowndes County history book that suggested the Hebrew community was even older. Through research, Schmier confirmed that the Hebrew community’s roots were nearly as old as Valdosta, dating back to the mid-1800s. He also discovered that Jewish people had been living in the South as part of numerous communities for centuries.

“Chant of Ages; Cry of Cotton” spends a third of its pages sharing a mix of these revelations and Schmier’s personal journey into making his discovery. The second two-thirds explore the results of Schmier’s research with the history of the pioneers of Valdosta’s Jewish community. The book is written in an almost conversational style — the same amusing, insightful, humorous and enlightening style that Schmier brought to generations of VSU history classes. It is a book for anyone interested in good storytelling and the region’s history, Jew or Gentile.

Schmier returned to this research and book following his retirement. It is published through the Valdosta-based Snake Nation Press. His next writing project is expected to explore one of his last class projects where he had non-Jewish students wear the Star of David everywhere for a semester to better understand the Holocaust. A project designed to increase understanding of the Jewish community “down here, among them” in the larger community.

Louis Schmier will sign his book, “Chant of Ages; Cry of Cotton,” 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10, Annette Howell Turner Center of the Arts, 527 N. Patterson St. More information or to purchase the book online, visit www.carefullteaching.com.

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