Southern & Jewish: Pride, or Prejudice?

There’s an article that’s been going around a lot this past week, about being Jewish in the South.

Naturally, the article (originally written by Chattanooga-based journalist Holly Leber) caught my eye. But what stood out to me even more than the content of the piece was the headline – which varied, depending on where you found the article.

The best was the reprint in The Forward, where the article was simply called “Jewish in the Bible Belt,” with the positive, almost triumphant sub-headline Tiny Communities Manage To Thrive in Christian Heartland.

But the original publisher of the piece, JTA, chose something quite different: “Jews in the Bible Belt’s small towns face curiosity, ignorance.” Similar headlines ran when the piece was reprinted in Ha’aretz, the Jerusalem Post, and elsewhere.

It’s the same article. But in the headline alone, it tells a very different story.

If you Google the article, most of the other news outlets that have picked up the story went with the headline language including “curiosity and ignorance.” Why? Because it’s more accurate – or because it’s more sensational? Because, just maybe, it appeals to a confirmation bias about being Jewish in the South?

Let me tell you my own little story.

I was ten years old, volunteering one rainy weekday at my local public library. Community service was always emphasized in my house. As my mom liked to say: “You know the saying ‘it’s the thought that counts’? Well, that’s not a Jewish saying! We believe it’s the action that counts!” Thus, we raised Leader Dog puppies, volunteered at nursing homes and soup kitchens, and yes, spent many afternoons shelving books at the local public library.

So there I am, ten years old and shelving some cheap paperback romance novels, making an effort not to stare at the Harlequin covers because OMG that long-haired man is almost naked, when suddenly I felt a hand on my head.

Startled, I turned around, and saw a middle aged woman. The raincoat she was wearing was still damp from her walk from the car to the warm library foyer. Her expression was hard to read, and her hand was still on my noggin. She was sort of rubbing my head, and seemed confused – although I’m willing to bet I was even more confused than she was.

“Can I … help you?” I asked. (Meanwhile, I tried to make sense of the situation: Maybe she doesn’t realize she’s grabbing my head. She looks like the type who might read these romances. Maybe she had bad eye sight and was trying to grab for a book. Maybe she’s just lost crazy confusing me for her long-lost niece.)

“No, I just – ” She hesitated. “One of the librarians told me you were Jewish, so I wanted to see if your horns had come in yet.”

I stared at her. I was ten. I had never even heard that there was some crazy old false rumor about Jews having horns. I thought for sure I must have heard her wrong. I finally managed to stutter: “I – we – Jews don’t have horns.”

“Oh,” she said, probably unconvinced, and walked away.

A typical Southern Jewish experience?

Not exactly. Because my family was living in Michigan at the time.

That’s right: that charming little childhood memory comes from when I was living not in the Bible Belt, but rather in a tiny town in the rural Midwest. Having spent most of my childhood living in rural Midwestern towns and most of my adult life living in the buckle of the Bible Belt, I have a lot of opinions around things like the “curiosity and ignorance” that surrounds you when you’re the only Jewish family or one of a small handful of Jewish citizens.

Yes, there is a pervasive Christianity in the Deep South; it’s called the Bible Belt for a reason. I’m not disputing that. In fact, when I first moved down here, I was told that there were two dominant religions in the South: Christianity, and Football.

But the truth is, I find it no harder to be Jewish here than to be Jewish in any small town. Yes, it would be difficult to live a traditionally observant life in Mississippi, where there are not any kosher butchers, and no community eruv. (And I freely admit that ‘traditional’ is rarely a word used to describe my own practice.) But there are actually plenty of relatively small Jewish communities where traditional observance is completely supported – Memphis, New Orleans, the list goes on.

Beyond that, being any minority, anywhere, can be pretty tough. There are assumptions made by the majority, accommodations made for the majority, curiosity, and yes, even ignorance that members of the majority might have when it comes to their friendly local minorities. But that’s not a phenomenon reserved only for those of us living South of the Mason-Dixon.

So, is the original headline true? Do “Jews in the Bible Belt’s small towns face curiosity, ignorance”?

Absolutely – but it’s not uniquely true.

Anywhere that you’re a minority, you’re going to encounter people who don’t know much about you. You will be The First and/or The Only Jewish (or Insert Your Minority Here) Person Someone Knows. You will have plenty of what my educator friends would call “teachable moments.” That’s what it’s like to be a minority, anywhere – not just in the South.

That’s why I prefer the modified headline – the one without the word ‘ignorance’ featured so prominently. Because it opens up the conversation (what’s it like to be Jewish in the Bible Belt?) without imposing a verdict (if you’re Jewish in the Bible Belt, prepare for prejudice unlike anywhere else!).

Matzoh Ball Gumbo. Image from www.chosenfood.org

There are plenty of things, good and bad, that are uniquely Southern and Jewish – and I’m not just talking about matzoh ball gumbo! If you made it past the headline, some of those realities were indeed reflected in this week’s article. The challenge of being “the only”, but also the pride of being active in your local community. The passion that comes with preserving a particular legacy in a particular place. The close-knit, higher-attendance-rates at Southern congregations, and the interesting conversation around whether affiliation is more important to Southern Jews, as with Southern Christians, because of the importance of religion to the region as a whole.

Those are the stories we try to share. They’re the actual experiences that those of us living here experience firsthand. It’s very true that since moving to Mississippi in 2003, I’ve had to answer a lot of questions about being Jewish – but for the record?

No one down here has ever tried to check my head for horns.

 

Posted on September 7, 2012

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