The Last Jew
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
“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
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
“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
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