At the turn of the 20th century, they left behind the anti-Semitism of the Old World for America’s melting pot.
They migrated first to major cities such as Birmingham and then came to smaller towns nearby to peddle their goods to coal miners.
Names such as Engel, May and Newmark are now synonymous with business success and community service in Walker County.
The story of these families as well as their faith is the theme of a new exhibit at the Bankhead House and Heritage Center.
Walker Area Community Foundation president Paul Kennedy said during an opening reception on Monday that the celebration of the area’s Jewish heritage is somewhat similar to the previous exhibit hosted by the Center, Journey Stories.
He referred to a photo in the dining room of some residents of Glazmanka, Latvia — the village from which the May family emigrated in the early 1900s.
“They came to the United States and migrated around through their journey story. Many of them ended up in Walker County and the things they did here helped us build the community that we have today,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy also pointed out that one of the people instrumental in founding the Foundation in 1995 was Jewish business leader George Mitnick.
The “Jewish Families of Walker County” exhibit includes numerous photographs, artifacts and religious symbols.
The Jewish holidays are explained in detail in a display on a wall in the dining room. Nearby a table is set for a Passover Seder, a traditional meal and one of the most widely observed of Jewish customs.
Another portion of the exhibit tells the history of Temple Emanu-El, which was established in Jasper in 1922 and closed in 2005.
The main gallery pays tribute to Walker County’s many Jewish merchants as well as Jewish celebrations from weddings to bar mitzvahs.
Jasper resident Jerry Newmark, whose parents owned a store on 19th Street for many years, could hardly contain his excitement on Monday as he thanked everyone who made the new exhibit possible.
“I can’t tell you how thrilled I am about this wonderful exhibit and how much it means to me and all of the community. If I tell you that we’ve put our heart and soul in this community, then you can believe it,” Newmark said.
The exhibit is open from Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.