The heat has been stubborn this year. Already by October, the sticky Texas summer was sticking around like an unwanted house guest. Instead of cooling down, the mercury kept on climbing. Inside the Temple Beth-El synagogue in Corsicana, Texas, it was suffocating.
But then again, the synagogue, built well over a century ago for the city’s then thriving Jewish community, only has service once a month, and there’s no need to keep the place cool for an impromptu visitor like me.
I heard about the synagogue, one of the oldest in the state, while driving down from Dallas. I found a number for a rabbi in Irving, Texas, who connected me with a longtime Corsicana resident, and octogenarian, Babbette Samuels.
Babbette can’t drive anymore, but she said she’d find a ride and meet me at this temple, famous for its onion-domed wood frame, so that she could show me around.
Babbette Samuels is also one of the last Jewish residents in this East Texas town.
Age may have slowed her, but it hadn’t stopped Babbette as she gave me a walking tour of the temple. The décor hasn’t changed in decades. A set of hand-carved chairs, originally from Waco, Texas, still flank the Ark, or Aron Kodesh. That’s the space in the wall where the Hebrew scrolls (containing Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) were stored. Above the Ark, in vibrant color, the synagogue’s ornate stained glass windows brighten with noonday light.
“They are original,” she says. “I believe they are Tiffany.”
Texas may be part of the bible belt, but this is a state where God is still taken seriously. Even Tex-Mex can be kosher. During its heyday in post-Civil War Texas, there were up to 400 Jewish believers in Corsicana. So many Jewish people flocked here when railroads were connecting Texas’ oil fields and cotton farms to markets abroad that they built this Moorish-style synagogue. Temple Beth-El still remains one of the oldest standing synagogues in the state.
But the congregation fell on hard times after most of the Jewish families struck out for greener fields in Dallas or Houston. In 1980, Temple Beth-El closed its doors.
The city took over the temple a decade later. But thanks largely to the efforts of locals like Babbette to preserve this rare Moorish Revival synagogue, Temple Beth-El was able to secure a National Historic Marker.
The original oil lamp, now wired for electric lighting, still hangs from the ceiling. In the choir loft, I stumbled on a dust-covered organ and vintage microphone, both hearkening back to a time when music filled this sacred space.
Perhaps more importantly for the few remaining nearby residents like Babbette, Temple Beth-El opens its doors once a month for service.
“There’s still a few of us here,” Babbette explained.
But Babbette is probably the last holdout within city limits.
Port Arthur, Texas-born Babbette first came to Corsicana in 1949. She was studying at the University of Texas but came to visit the city with a then-roommate. Corsicana became her home after a blind date with a local resident, Irvin Samuels, eventually led to marriage in 1951.
Now in her eighth decade of life, Babbette is a walking tome of local history.
After touring the synagogue, we headed over to the well-maintained Corsican Hebrew Cemetery, originally founded in 1877. Babbette took over the graveyard’s restoration project to document and maintain the cemetery after her husband passed away in 2013.
“A lot of Jewish people (originally) came here as peddlers. They stayed and became merchants. Just like Fiddler on The Roof,” she says.
As we walked among the tombstones, she recounted some of the more notable stories of those still awaiting resurrection in this hot Texas land. A few of the tombs are ornate while some simply and plaintively state the loss of a newborn child. There are even a couple of Jewish Civil War veterans buried here, including a famous one-legged rope-walker.
Walking through this resting place, I couldn’t help but think about how Hebraic Corsicana has all but disappeared. And after Babbette passes on, I wonder who will carry the torch.
But before I had the chance to articulate the question, she turned to me with a wry smile.
“I’m the last of the original left,” she says.
And all I can think is I hope more come.
For more of Tom’s “micro bios,” follow his adventures on our Change Seven Instagram account here.
Tom Darin Liskey spent nearly a decade working as a journalist in Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction and non fiction have appeared in theCrime Factory, Driftwood Press, Mount Island, The Burnside Writers Collective, Sassafras Literary Magazine, and Biostories, among others. His photographs have been published in Hobo Camp Review, Roadside Fiction, Blue Hour Magazine, Synesthesia Literary Journal,andMidwestern Gothic. He lives in Texas where he tells his children that he has done worse things for less money.
More work by this artist: