A Town's Last Jew
Provides a Legacy of Generosity

by Andrew Muchin

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Julius Rosenbush, a German Jewish immigrant, settled in Demopolis, Ala., in 1894, completing a downtown Jewish merchants' pinochle foursome.
 
That's the family lore according to Julius' grandson, Bert Rosenbush Jr., who would play a different card game if he got together with is Demopolis landsmen: solitaire.
 
Rosenbush Jr., 74 is the last Jew in a town that formed the B'nai Jeshurun congregation in 1887 and reported 107 chosen people in the 1920 "American Jewish Year Book."
 
Rosenbush takes his status seriously, not sadly. " I do feel a big responsibility," he says. " I don't get out and preach the subject, but I', well known as a Jewish person.  I try to conduct my life in a respectful way."
 
Take tzedakah, Rosenbush and his wife, Mary Louise, have given Demopolis the 20,000-square-foot building that was the family's down-town furniture store, and the 10,000-square-foot building that was the warehouse.
 
"We closed our store in 2002 after 109 years," Rosenbush says. At the time, Rosenbush's store was Alabama's oldest family-owned business. The building listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings and appraised at more than $5000,000, "had no serious buyers, "Rosenbush explains. "The mayor asked my wife and me to donate it to the city."
 
To arrive at the decision, the couple needed "just about time enough to read my letter and make the phone call, "says Mayor Austin Caldwell.
 
The city will name the main structure the Rosenbush Building and use it to house the Chamber of Commerce, the City Schools Foundation offices, a business incubator program and "a small museum depicting the heritage of Demopolis from the Indians, the early settlers and on up to the Rosenbush's and so forth," the mayor says.
 
A plaque will be at the entrance and paintings of the three generations of Rosenbush's who operated the store will be displayed in the building.  "We wanted to leave a legacy to the Rosenbush family.  I'm glad the city can use it, " Rosenbush says.
 
The renovated building is set to reopen during the coming year, according to the mayor.
 
The family legacy assured Rosenbush is zeroing in on to tow nagging situations that he says diminish
 The Jewish community's legacy.
 
First is the condition of the B'nai Jeshurun building, which Rosenbush says was sold by other congregates with no input from his family to the Episcopal congregation "across the street."
 
During a resent visit to his former synagogue, Rosenbush was horrified to find a lawnmower stored inside. "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, " he frets.
 
B'nai Jeshurun's Torah was lent to a Tennessee congregation, Rosenbush says, but : the menorah, eternal light, prayer book and pulpit as far as I know are in the temple.  I wish the temple could be deconsecrated."
 
The retired merchant has no complaints about the care of B'nai Jeshurun Cemetery, overseen by the Robertson Banking Co. Of Demopolis.
 
Rosenbush's second complaint is the mural depicting the heritage of Demopolis that the Robertson Bank commissioned in 1995. "Every denomination is depicted on the mural except the Jewish temple, and that's not right,"he says. He complained to Hugh Lloyd, who was CEO of the bank at the time.
 
Rosenbush says that Lloyd requested a picture of the synagogue to show to the Bank's current CEO to see if the mural could be changed. Contacted in his Demopolis law office, Lloyd says he passed Rosenbush's "original inquiry along to my successor, the CEO there. Whether there's any way of inserting the temple in the limited space and the whole parameter of the mural as it is now, is outside of my sense of the esthetic." He adds that " there is no final conclusion how to deal with it."
 
Lloyd contends that Demopolis' Jews are represented on the mural by the figures of little foxes. That's a reference to Lillian Hellman's play " The Little Foxes, ' which some say was based on a Demopolis Jewish family.
 
Rosenbush isn't convinced. " Just to have some foxes at the bottom of the mural is an insult to the Jewish people," he argues. " Lillian Hellman wrote ' The Little Foxes', but nobody in the world would bring up that connection.  " Besides, Hellman, a Jew herself, portrays the Jewish family as greedy.
 
Lloyd says he has " a very sympathetic feeling toward this. Bert is right special to me.  His parents were clients of mine. He's been a client of mine. His wife has served on a mental health board that I was attorney of.  If I can be helpful in that direction, I've tried to do it."
 
Being the last Jew of Demopolis isn't all truris.  Rosenbush and his wife, who isn't Jewish, prepare a Holocaust display at the public library for Yom Hasaoh (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and attend services at Temple Emanu_El in Tuscaloosa.
 
At home, he has his grandmother's old Union Prayer Book, formerly the standard Reform Liturgy. " I read from that every week on Friday night, " he says.
 
When he was running his store, he brought matzah to share with his friends.  Now he and Mary Louise are sharing the Rosenbush family's years of good fortune with the community. As Rosenbush explains it, " I want to leave a good name for the Jewish people in Demopolis." horizontal rule

Atlanta Jewish Times
October 2004