Prairie Landsmen Project
In addition to exhibiting Jewish ceremonial art and ritual objects from the permanent collection, offering temporary exhibitions on Jewish history/culture, and collecting fine art of Jewish interest, the Miller Museum also serves as the repository for the Oklahoma Jewish Archives. In that sense, the Miller is the Oklahoma Jewish Historical Society. The Museum has presented several exhibitions relating to Oklahoma Jewish history, such as “Done by Law: Kosher Cooking” and “Seems Like Old Times: Memories of Jewish Tulsa.” The “Prairie Landsmen” project is the most ambitious of these efforts.
During 1996, the Museum initiated a documentary effort entitled, “Prairie Landsmen: The Jews of Oklahoma.” This effort is the outgrowth of a project entitled, “Oklahoma: The Land and the People.” Sponsored by the Oklahoma Museums Association, with funding assistance from the National Foundation for the Humanities, the “Land and the People” project was a consortium of eight small museums: the (then) Fenster Museum of Jewish Art and the Greenwood Afro-American Cultural Center in Tulsa, the Pioneer Woman Museum (Ponca City), the Pawnee Bill Ranch (Pawnee), the Sac and Fox Library (Stroud), the Cherokee Strip Museum (Perry), the Chickasaw Council House (Tishomingo) and the Seminole Museum (Wewoka). Each of these institutions created an exhibition on the history of their own ethnic group. “Prairie Landsmen” is this institution’s segment of this project.
The “Prairie Landsmen: The Jews of Oklahoma” exhibition consists of photographs of Jewish people and places in Oklahoma, photographs that tell the story of the State’s Jewish community. The artist, acclaimed American photographer David Halpern, concentrated on capturing the Jewish presence, in some cases the remains of a Jewish presence, in smalltown Oklahoma.
Diverse in origins and occupations, the Jews of Oklahoma still share a common bond. Each is a Landsman (a Yiddish expression meaning, “one of ours.”) Landsmen — pronounced LONTS-mon — is an Americanization of the German Landsmann, (pl. Landsleit) which literally describes one who comes from the same home town. Jews arriving in Oklahoma in the 1880s often came from the same areas of Eastern Europe. At first, they did not make their exodus as part of an ancient nation. Like non-Jews, they left the political and economic repression of Old Europe for the tantalizing prospects of the frontier.
According to David Halpern, “In these photographs, I have chosen to examine some of the families and individuals in the smaller cities and towns. They may be the last bastions of a shrinking non-urban population. Unlike the European communities from which their ancestors fled to escape bigotry, the forces that influence their futures are likely to be the same as those that affect their neighbors.”
Oklahoma towns represented in the Prairie Landsmen project include Ardmore, Velma, Muskogee, Fort Gibson, Chandler, Ponca City, Tonkawa, Claremore, Caddo, Enid, Nelagoney, Pawhuska, Chickasha, Hobart, Seminole, Collinsville, Hartshorne, Lawton, Erick, Bartlesville, Talequah and Purcell.
You may examine more images from the Prairie Landsmen project here