Hopkinsville Museum Shares Ornate Torah Cover, Latest "Snapshots in Time" Featured Artifact
In the next installment of the Museums of Historic Hopkinsville-Christian County and the Hoptown Chronicle's collaborative column "Snapshots in Time," the museum's executive director Alissa Keller shares an elaborately embroidered Torah cover that was donated by a relative of the Bohn family, a prominent Jewish family in the western Kentucky area in the early 20th century. Austin Carter and Keller discuss the artifact and its ties to the once-thriving Jewish population of West Kentucky.
The Torah cover featured in this month's Hoptown article is a rusty purple velvet textile with ornate silk appliqués, gold fringe, and crystal embellishment. "It would b something the Torah wears in a Jewish temple or synagogue," Keller explains. "It was used in the synagogue in Hopkinsville. I used that to talk about the Jewish community that was here in Hoptown for about 100 years from the 1870s to about the 1970s."
"When I was going up in Hopkinsville in the '80s and '90s, for the most part, the local Jewish community that had established itself and really grew its roots in the late 19th century was gone. Now, looking back, I didn't think anything about it, but there are names of Jewish merchants all over our town. Old buildings bear these names — not exclusively, but overwhelmingly, most of the Jewish families that moved here did work in the merchant business. They built a number of our buildings downtown, and their names are on them. That was a very visual, physical, and living reminder of some of those people and their stores."
Keller described going through U.S. Census records to find Hopkinsville immigrants with birthplaces in Germany, Poland, Russia, and other countries where Keller thought a Jewish connection would be likely. Through her research, she found the first Jewish settlers in the area arrived around 1848. A Jewish cemetery was established in 1860, which served as a resting place for those of the Jewish faith until about 1947.
"In the 1920s, [Hopkinsville] had a synagogue that was constructed and was active, it seems, through the '60s. By the 1970s, the population had gotten so small that they used the synagogue mainly for holiday services. In 1977, the roof caved in, and it was never rebuilt. Lucky for the museum, we were established two years before that, and a number of things from the synagogue came to us." Keller says that the Torah cover is a relatively new item in their collection of Jewish artifacts, but the textile's beauty made it an attractive featured artifact for the column.
"There's a crown at the top," Keller says, describing the cover. "There are two lions facing in on what would be stone tablets that have Hebrew on them to represent the ten commandments. Then there's embroidery on the bottom that has a vase with vines and flowers coming out. The embroidery is all done with metallic golden thread. There are two words in Hebrew, and I believe they say Torah and crown."
"It came to us in a frame," Keller continues. "It was a gentleman who donated it. He's actually of the same family that was responsible for the initial financial investment to get the synagogue here in 1925 — the Bohn family. He sent it to us framed, and, unfortunately, the frame was damaged in shipping. So, right now, we're working on getting it in a good state where we can show it."