Author to present talk on rich history of Jews in Missouri

Feb. 24—A Springfield author is set to give a presentation on Jewish history in Missouri, reflecting on their deep roots in the state and how important it is to tell their story in today's climate.

"These stories of minority groups need to be studied and taught in schools," author Mara Cohen Ioannides said. "I know that's a kind of radical thought these days. But we need to do it, because we need to know how multicultural America has always been."

The presentation is part of the yearlong celebration of Missouri's bicentennial. The Missouri Humanities Council and the United Hebrew Congregation of Joplin will present "How the Jews Helped Create Missouri" at 2 p.m. Sunday at the United Hebrew Congregation, 702 S. Sergeant in Joplin. Admission is free and open to the public. Cohen Ioannides will have books for sale, and a tour of the temple's historic sanctuary will follow the talk.

Cohen Ioannides recently wrote "Jews of Missouri: An Ornament to Israel," published last year. She is a senior instructor in the English department at Missouri State University and president of the Midwest Jewish Studies Association. She's also a member of the Missouri Humanities Council speakers bureau.

After doing research for a magazine article on the history of Jews in Missouri, Cohen Ioannides' interest grew from there. In writing the book, she wanted to put Jewish history in Missouri into the context of American history. She said she couldn't find much background on Jewish Missouri history, so she started to do the research herself. Her recent book is a result of that research.

Jewish roots in Missouri run deep and can be traced back to before the beginning of the state, Cohen Ioannides said. The first American town in what was to become the Missouri territory was New Madrid. In 1796, a man named Ezekiel Block arrived in the town and became the first known resident Jew in Missouri.

The Philipson brothers, some of the first American merchants to open a store in St. Louis, were also Jewish. One of the brothers opened the first brewery, and then the first distillery, west of the Mississippi River, Cohen Ioannides said.

"I think he's important to note. He's a bringer of joy," Cohen Ioannides said.

Jews are an important part of the story of Missouri, Cohen Ioannides said. Most of the early Jewish residents along the Mississippi River were related, she noted. Block himself was part of a large and prosperous family in the region. In fact, the first recognized Jew in Arkansas was a member of the Block family.

This rich history can often be overlooked, Cohen Ioannides said. Some Jews married out, and people might not realize they have a Jewish ancestor. Also, minority cultures often are written out of American history, Cohen Ioannides said. There are times, because of rising anti-Semitism, that Jews might want to be glossed over in history because they don't want the negative attention, she said.

"I take a very different view than some on that," Cohen Ioannides said. "If we allow ourselves to be glossed over, then they do get lost. That only encourages an idea of a homogeneous American history."

With the rise today in anti-Semitism and in white supremacist groups, people need to talk about how multicultural they are in order to combat that hate, Cohen Ioannides said.