Where did small town Jewish life go?


What has happened to the small cities a few miles off the interstates that once had vibrant Jewish communities, like Mt. Vernon, Benton, Centralia, Chester, Belleville, Granite City, Alton?

Steve Low, head of the Jewish Federation of Southern Illinois, Southeast Missouri and Western Kentucky, said they estimate that there might be 1,000 Jews within the 40,000 to 45,000-square-mile area that makes up the Federation, from as far north as Vandalia and south to Paducah.

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“In the old days, you had a handle on the communities,” Low said. “Everyone affiliated with a synagogue. These days, Jews can and do choose to fade into the woodwork. They must make a conscious decision to publicly identify themselves as Jewish and to affiliate, and many choose not to do so. It is not until there is a need — for a bris, or a funeral or a wedding or for help for a prisoner that they call on us.”

When I was growing up in Belleville in the thirties and forties, all the Jews belonged to the synagogue and were a cohesive community, perhaps because anti-Semitism was rife. All the families were part of the Jewish Federation of Southern Illinois, formed in 1941 when its territories did not extend past southern Illinois. Its major role during World War II was to help refugee families settle in new communities and to raise money for Jewish needs. But what I recall most clearly, and with great pleasure, was the Federation’s organization for the teenagers of the area. Federation meetings were major social events for us from small towns that had few Jews in the high schools, and I confess that at that time, I was more interested in the boys from Granite City than in the new family who had escaped Europe.

Liz Linkon, on the other hand, moved to Centralia, Ill., as an adult when she married Larry Linkon and has only good things to say about her experience.

“I think I’m a better person for having lived in Centralia,” she said. “I learned tolerance, that not knowing the king’s English does not mean a person is dumb and that people come in a variety of sizes and shapes.”

Every year, the Linkons had a sukkah to which they invited Christian children for honey and apples picked from orchards near their home. In turn, Christian children invited the Linkon children to help trim their Christmas trees. Their congregation was small, sometimes served by student rabbis from Cincinnati, with only five or six children in the religious school. Sometimes, nearby communities pooled their resources in one temple. Linkon said they may not have had the best religious education, but they knew what it meant to be Jewish.

But Jewish families continue to move to cities, she said. With only three Jewish families in Centralia, the congregation closed last year, the building sold to a black church. Cairo’s temple has been gone for a long time, and while there are about 50 families in Paducah, almost all are interfaith marriages.

“Small town Jewish life is pretty much dying,” Linkon said. “Families sent their children off to college, life changed in America and so did they.”

Peanut Squares Private

According to my mother, this was a traditional Belleville recipe that my grandmother taught her when she moved to Belleville as a bride in 1922. If you go to an Eckert’s Market, you will see Peanut Squares in the bakeshop as a Belleville specialty. It makes about 48 squares.

The Cake

1 cup milk

1 tablespoon butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

4 eggs

2 cups sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups sifted flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Generously butter a 9×13-inch baking dish. Line with waxed paper and grease the paper. Flour the pan. Set aside.

Bring milk and butter to a boil in a saucepan. Remove from heat and cool slightly. Stir in vanilla. Set aside.

Beat eggs with sugar and salt until thick and lemon colored. Sift flour with baking powder; fold gently into egg mixture. Gently combine egg mixture with milk mixture until smooth.

Pour batter into prepared cake pan. Bake about 20 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean. Cool. Cake can be securely wrapped and frozen.

The Frosting

1 stick butter

1 pound powdered sugar (1 box)

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Milk to make a thin icing

1 1/2 pounds salted Spanish peanuts with skins, finely ground

Cut cake into 48 squares, using a ruler and sharp knife. Ice each square on 5 sides. Roll in ground peanuts.