“a journey to a place associated with someone or something well known or respected”
(The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English)
Over the summer, every ISJL Education Fellow visits each of “our communities” – the 6-7 congregations we each serve, throughout the region. The summer visits are brief, and may take the form of an evening program, or just an hour to meet with the religious school director or synagogue president. Though the meetings are short, they’re often far away – and that means we are in the car quite a bit.
On those long drives, it’s important to take a break now and then. As a history buff, I try to make sure that those breaks include visits to historical sites. On a recent trip, my companions and I (we often travel in groups for summer visits) decided to eat lunch in Selma, Alabama. I didn’t know it then, but the brief stop would turn into my own unexpected, unplanned pilgrimage.
Entering Selma, we drove over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I knew the bridge was famous, so we pulled over to take a picture. I remembered that it had something to do with a march during the Civil Rights Movement, but I wasn’t clear on the specifics. Reading the signs, I learned that the bridge was the scene of the Selma to Montgomery march and “Bloody Sunday.” It dawned on me that Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and Abraham Joshua Heschel had all marched over this bridge in their attempt to create a just and free society in America. It was this bridge Heschel spoke of when he described acts of social justice as “praying with our feet.” I thought about it a little bit, but feeling touristy, I just walked over the bridge, took some photos and moved on.
Over lunch I had the idea to investigate the Selma synagogue. I knew it was there, and, after looking it up, realized it was less than a mile from where we were eating.
After a bit of searching, we spied a circular window with a large Jewish star smack dab in the middle. We parked in the grassy driveway and got out to look around. Once again, we took some pictures, walked around, and got back in the car and left.
Mulling it over later, I realized that visiting these two very different locations made up an unofficial, unplanned pilgrimage. Together, the two sites reflect the spirit of humanity, the power of dedicated people to come together and accomplish big things.
Sure, the synagogue is a beautiful old building constructed in 1899. But it symbolizes something bigger: the power of Jewish community to sustain itself and thrive anywhere. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like for a European Jewish immigrant to arrive and settle in Selma in the 1890s – but I am confident that it must not have been an easy transition. It took courage, chutzpah, dedication, and community, to build and sustain a synagogue like this, especially in the Deep South, far away from much of the Jewish world.
Likewise, it took courage, chutzpah, dedication, and community, for those civil rights activists and ordinary people in the 1960s to march across the bridge, facing armed Alabama lawmen determined to stop them from creating change. Their efforts helped to develop the society we live in today.
Pilgrimages are supposed to inspire us, to help us become better people and to give us goals to strive for. My unexpected pilgrimage did just that. I hope that, perhaps, in my next two years as an ISJL Education Fellow, I can emulate the courage, chutzpah, and dedication of these amazing individuals as I help to maintain and support our Southern Jewish community.
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!).
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.
I had been out of town for a few days. When I returned to the ISJL office in Jackson, I was greeted by a co-worker who jokingly said, “Oh, you returned just in time for Itzik (an endearing nickname often used in reference to someone with the name Isaac)!”
Now that I, along with many others in the Deep South, have been visited by Hurricane Isaac, I thought I’d look at the name of this devastating storm.
The story of the birth of Isaac, which is also seasonally appropriate thanks to its Rosh Hashanah connection, is detailed in Genesis. The root of the word Isaac means laughter. Sara, Isaac’s mother, named her son Isaac and explained “God has given me laughter. All who hear will laugh with me.” Sara predicted that when anyone heard about her giving birth at the age of 90, the response would be laughter.
A child’s name inspired by laughter is one thing. A hurricane, though, is no laughing matter. But the laughter that Sara anticipated was associated with wonder. Hurricanes truly provoke wonder.
The Biblical Isaac, however, winds up representing more than laughter and wonder. Isaac represents a test of faith, in the story of the Akedah, or “binding of Isaac,” the ultimate test of Abraham’s faith in God. Kierkegaard, a 19th century philosopher, wrote “Fear and Trembling,” which focuses on this story. As he presents various approaches to God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice his son, Kierkegaard makes a distinction between resignation and faith. A resigned Abraham would acknowledge that killing his son is unethical. However, he prepares to sacrifice his son, because God’s command supersedes ethical obligations. That demonstrates faith, Kierkegaard argues: trusting God to avoid committing an unethical act. A faithful Abraham is confident that the telos (end purpose/final goal) of God’s command is ethical. He has faith in God’s ethics, and is confident that the outcome will be ethical. With that faith, he prepares to kill his son.
For centuries, the story of the Akedah has served as the primary illustration of faith in God. However, it can also serve as a basis upon which we can explore our faith in humanity. Kierkegaard’s analysis of the story of Isaac forces us to consider the end goal of the Akedah. A similar analysis can apply to service. There are times when we engage in service because we feel resigned to an obligation namely, to do good in our world. Sometimes, the end goal of our service, however, is not met. Service can have unintended consequences. We may provide a food pantry with loads of canned foods, only to find out that they don’t have a can opener.
A food pantry without a can opener is a simplified but not far-flung example of service that fails to meet the end goal. If we do not first assess needs, our end goal is less likely to be met. “Feeding the hungry” is a noble goal – but if we give someone a can of food without any way to access the food, he or she will remain hungry. Service that is motivated by resignation to a sense of obligation is most likely to come short of our final goals.
However, there is a second approach to service that shares the characteristics of faith. This approach is built upon a relationship of trust. In that relationship, Abraham trusts God to lead him to the end goal of an ethical outcome. Similarly, we can approach service with an end goal that is front and center to our work. We can also build relationships with the people we seek to assist so that together we can learn how to best go about actualizing that goal. With this approach, the assumption is that the people who we seek to assist are experts in how we can reach the desired outcome. We need help to provide help. At a minimum, we ought to ask for input, but there are times when it may not be a bad idea to follow the people we seek to help and who have the deepest understsanding of their needs and have spent hours of their time contemplating and working toward the end goals.
Itzik the storm was an unwelcome guest, however, his impact provides an opportunity to reflect on the relationships we have with others, particularly individuals who are experiencing hard times. Hurricane Isaac destroyed homes, flooded cities, threw peoples’ lives into chaos, and has created an opportunity for us to step in and offer comfort and assistance. In addressing this disaster and disasters of all kind associated with the human experience, let’s reflect on our end goals and the relationships we seek to honor and respect.
How have you been helping people impacted by Hurricane Isaac? Feel free to check out the work of Nechama-Jewish Response to Disaster.