Dr. Mara Cohen Ioannides and “Jews of Springfield in the Ozarks,” a book she coauthored. (Courtesy of Dr. Mara Cohen Ioannides)
In Preserving the Ozarks posts, Ozarks Alive visits with local people who are doing things to save parts of our region. Whether environmental, historical or cultural, their efforts are documenting and sustaining elements of this region for generations to come.
Dr. Mara Cohen Ioannides isn’t an Ozarks native, but it’s likely she knows more about the area’s comprehensive Jewish heritage than anyone else ever has.
Originally from New Jersey, Cohen Ioannides moved to Springfield more than 25 years ago and began teaching for then Southwest Missouri State University’s English department. She soon became interested in studying, preserving and sharing the history of Jews in the Ozarks, a community to which she belongs.
Over the past quarter century, she has given considerable time to the cause: One of the first widely shared efforts was in 1999, when she was a guest editor of OzarksWatch magazine, which was the only published compilation of Jewish history in the Ozarks to date.
In the 20 years since, she has co-authored “Jews of Springfield in the Ozarks,” a pictorial history, and has two other manuscripts under review about the history and lives of Jews in Missouri. Additionally, she has been published in numerous academic journals, including “Elder Mountain,” about the Jewish experience in Springfield and the Ozarks.
She is president of the Midwest Jewish Studies Association, president of the Ozarks Studies Association and vice-president of the Greene County Historical Society. Periodically and on-demand, Cohen Ioannides also gives walking tours of Springfield’s Jewish history.
She is also still on the faculty of the English department at Missouri State University, where she teaches writing and Jewish literature.
Keep reading to learn more about her research and about the area’s Jewish heritage. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Was Springfield the primary hub of the Jewish community in southwest Missouri, or were there other outlying communities?
This is an interesting question because we tend to think of Springfield as the hub of the Ozarks, but it wasn’t until the 1870s. Until the turn of last century, Joplin had a larger Jewish community.
I also have to ask what do you mean by “community”? Do you mean a bunch of people or an organized house of worship? The synagogues in the Missouri Ozarks were in Jeff City, Joplin and Springfield, but there were people in Jasper County, Neosho, Webb City, goodness, just about every town. Not so true today, but definitely until the First World War.
In this question, I was thinking of ethnic communities like Rader, Lockwood, Pulaskifield, etc., in rural parts of the region. Obviously those are based on home country and not religion, but I wasn’t sure if there were outlying towns or settlements where there were significant numbers of Jewish residents. It sounds like they were simply part of other communities as you mention?
The only exclusively Jewish community in the Ozarks was the Am Olam Agricultural Commune outside of Newport, Arkansas. It lasted only about nine months in 1882-1883. No town was founded to be exclusively Jewish. Jews didn’t migrate that way. They rarely migrated in large groups. It was usual to send a few men ahead to work and save money to bring their parents, wives, children, siblings over.
What did everyday life look like for these families?
That’s a huge question. During which time period? I think the best answer is: However anybody’s life looked like at that time period.
The first generation of Jews were almost — and I’ll tell you about the few I know about — exclusively merchants. It doesn’t matter what town in the Ozarks, you can find a Jewish merchant selling something. This applies very much to the German immigrants. They were merchants and clerks in the German states and brought their skills, including language and reading and writing, with them.
The exception is William Lowenstein of Jasper County who was a Civil War veteran and settled in the county. He owned a farm in the county after the war until his suicide in 1898. Moses Baum of Fayetteville, who also arrived after the Civil War and opened Baum & Bros., a department store. He loved the idea of farming and grew corn and raised cattle, but that was not what supported his family.
The Russian Jews who came between 1880 and 1911 were also merchants, but also worked in factories. The children of the German and Russian Jews often did not continue in the family business. Now, we know of people like the Rubensteins who for three generations kept the family business (dry goods) going, but that is not true for most families. The children went away to school and either came back as lawyers, doctors, etc. or married and moved elsewhere.
I know that there were a variety of well-known businesses that were founded and owned by Jewish families in Springfield. What are some examples that people would recognize?
Many of the businesses on the Square beginning in the 1880s were owned by Jews, the list is quite long, but names people would recognize: Marx Clothing, Netter-Ullman, Levy-Wolf, Busy Bee, Boston Shoe Company, Rosenbaum’s Jewelry.
It is a tragic fact that many at many times in history, those of Jewish faith have suffered forms of discrimination. From your research, have Springfield and southwest Missouri always been welcoming, or were there challenges for them living here as well?
Sadly, times have gotten worse. When the first Jews arrived they were German, as were many of the immigrants locally and throughout the Midwest. Germans didn’t care what their fellow Germans’ faith was (Lutheran, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish), they cared more that they were fellow Germans.
During the rise of fascism around the world in the 1930s is when things became more difficult. Though, we must pause and laugh that two Jews were asked to join the KKK in the 1930s (in Springfield). Their friends didn’t realize that the KKK was antisemitic; they thought it was a white man’s club. Those two men declined, of course.
During the 1960s the synagogue was desecrated a number of times because of the support the Jews had for the Civil Rights Movement. Then in the 1990s there was a bomb scare and the desecration of the cemetery.
Over the last 20 years the hate speech by students in the public schools has become more frequent, and the fear in the local Jewish community concerning bombings at synagogues around the country has become very real.
I have read that there was a swell of Jewish people in Springfield because of O’Reilly General Army Hospital during World War II. Were there also refugees who ended up here and stayed in an effort to escape the Axis regime?
I haven’t heard that or seen that. There may have been soldiers around because of the hospital, but they didn’t stay in town. There were refugees who came. The Lotven family is the most famous of them. The wives, Regina and Gytel, didn’t pick Springfield.
Regina came because she married Chiam Lotven, who lived here. She then brought her family. However, the Jacobs did move here. Springfield sponsored two rabbis who had to flee Germany; Rabbi Jacobs was the second and he stayed until he retired.
Given the fact that you are not from here originally, how did you become especially interested in researching local Jewish history?
So in 1997 or so, Dr. Don Holliday (aka Doc Holliday) asked me to do a special edition of OzarksWatch Magazine on the Jews of the Ozarks.
It took him a few months to convince me, but he did, and that began my research on Jews of the Ozarks. That edition was the most republished edition until it went online. It is also the only published history of the Jews of the Ozarks to date. I did that history, and as a member of the synagogue, it really tied me to this community I was new to.
What are some surprising things that you have learned through your research?
Oh wow! How long Jews have been here (since 1861) is one factoid. How many people grew up with Jews as friends and are still ignorant about Jewish culture, belief and practice is perhaps the most bizarre fact. For example, there are people who regularly ask if Jews still sacrifice animals — no, that practice stopped with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
If you could help people here know only one thing about the Ozarks’ Jewish heritage, what would you want that to be? And do you think there are elements that are often misunderstood or forgotten today?
Jews have been in Springfield since 1861. We’ve helped create this city just as much as the Christians have. We are not different. We eat most of the same foods, dress the same way, attend the same schools. Our holidays are different, but so what?
Jews do not ask for privileges, only the same rights as everyone else. Jews care about the entire community, and you cannot tell a Jew from anyone else in the street.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve lectured all over the Ozarks about Jewish history and culture to ensure that we break the cycle of hate, and I’m happy to speak where ever I’m invited, so invite me. I also do walking tours of downtown Jewish Springfield — call The History Museum on the Square and schedule a time.
My husband’s family is Ozark through and through. I did his genealogy and he is related to the Robbersons and Rollins who founded Rollins, Arkansas. That really has changed my feelings about belonging here.
Want to learn more?
Dr. Cohen Ioannides may be reached at MaraIoannides@MissouriState.edu.
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