January 16, 2003
The Last Jew
Bert Rosenbush Jr. tries to keep some parts of his religious legacy alive in a small Alabama town.
According to family legend, Julius Rosenbush was a new immigrant living in Alabama when, in the late 1890s, he boarded a train for the countryside, looking for mineral water that he thought would cure his asthma.
The train stopped at a country town, and the conductor asked if Rosenbush was Jewish. Hearing that he was, the conductor told Rosenbush that nearby Demopolis was home to several Jewish businessmen.
Rosenbush made the brief detour and found three Yiddish-speaking merchants who invited him to join their pinochle game. The businessmen convinced their long-awaited fourth-at-cards to stay.
The newcomer opened Rosenbush's, a furniture store that today is Alabama's oldest family-owned business, according to Bert Rosenbush Jr., owner of the store and Julius Rosenbush's grandson.
Some things have changed, though.
If the soft-spoken Rosenbush, 73, wanted to replicate his grandfather's pinochle game today, he'd have to search for three other Jews: Rosenbush is the last Jew in Demopolis.
"We had a temple here and a Jewish community," Rosenbush explained. He remembers 20 to 25 people attending services from the late 1930s until the 1950s.
"Then, in about 1990, we just had a few of us left. Some of the members took it upon themselves to railroad a deal through to form a corporation to take over the assets of the temple," he explained.
The synagogue was sold to an Episcopal church across the street.
"The last time I went to the temple they had a lawn mower in there," he said. "It's just a disgraceful thing the way the temple is used. It was built to be a holy place. I wouldn't say it's holy now. I'd say it's abused now."
Empty land that bordered the Jewish cemetery was sold to a scrap yard. Junked cars now loom across the fence and the sounds of auto salvaging fill the air.
Walking through the cemetery, Rosenbush surveyed the dozens of graves.
"I knew 'em," he said. He points to the grave of Napoleon Bonaparte Fields, who was mayor of the town. Fields' daughter, Joan, was Bert's high school sweetheart, but she died in a car crash in 1947.
A Demopolis native, Rosenbush attended religious school and was confirmed at the local synagogue.
"There was no rabbi. There was no one to teach Hebrew," he said.
Though he is the only Jew in town, Rosenbush remains active.
"Every year for the past four or five years, during the Days of Remembrance, I fix a nice display at the library to teach people about the Holocaust," he said. He also is a charter member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
"Around Passover, I buy a few extra boxes of matzah for my buddies to eat when they come in," he added.
Rosenbush attends synagogue in nearby Tuscaloosa, Ala., with his wife, who isn't Jewish. He still uses his grandmother's old Union Prayer Book at home.
"I read from that every week on Friday night. I just read the evening service for the Sabbath," he said. "And then sometimes I'm here at the store. I sometimes read from the prayer book here. It's just a wealth of information, you might say." Â