I recently solved a history mystery, and it started with a tiny pencil.
I was looking through a box of old minutes from Congregation Beth Israel in Meridian, Mississippi, when the smallest, most dainty pencil, attached to a small ribbon, fell from a folder. It looked like something that would be found with an old fashioned dance card, or some an extravagant wedding idea found on Pinterest.
It was attached to a program from the 1927 convention of the Mississippi Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, which had been held in Meridian that year. But then, moving my attention past the dainty pencil, I noticed that the pencil had been used to scratch out the April date and replace it with November. Clearly, the women in Meridian had spent a lot of time and money on putting together such a large gathering. I was curious as to why they postponed the conference till later in the year. After all, they had already printed programs! Why the date change?
It was a mystery!
Luckily, we have all the minutes from the Meridian sisterhood in our collection, so I was able to find the notes from 1927 to try to see what had transpired. It didn’t take long for all the light bulbs to go off in my head. You’ll notice in the page from the meeting on May 2nd that Miss Sarah Marks, President of the State Federation, announced that “the Executive board rules to postpone the State Convention until fall due to the disastrous flood conditions.”
The Flood! Of course!
The flood of 1927, which I have written about before on this very blog, had stuck again. In another letter, Miss Marks continues: “Due to the flood condition that prevented a large number of delegates and visitors from attending the convention and out of sympathy and respect due those vitally interested in Sisterhood work, we deemed it wise to postpone our convention until the fall.”
For those of you who have been involved with conference planning, you only imagine the expletives that didn’t make it into these minutes. But you’ll be happy to know that a few pages into the future, on the meeting of December 7th, 1927, the committee reported that the conference was a major success and that everyone was pleased with Meridian’s beautiful hospitality.
The only Jewish person I knew of growing up was Jesus, and to be honest I had never thought much about this aspect of his identity until college when a professor described Jesus as a rabbi during a lecture.
I had developed an affinity for Jewish culture as a teenager, much the same way a teenager develops a curious interest in anything their parents haven’t told them much about. When I told my mother of my newfound interest, she bought me a small menorah, sent me a Rosh Hashanah e-card at the appropriate time of year, and told me that it was at least moderately likely that my grandmother’s German ancestors had been Jewish, but left that part of their culture behind when moving to the wild, lawless trapper’s country of South Louisiana.
(It seems that my ancestry is diverse enough to accommodate any passing cultural fancy I’ve had growing up. When I went abroad for a semester in Northern Ireland, my grandfather informed me that his grandfather had been Irish. I found it odd that this had never been mentioned before I brought up the subject.)
The point of these perhaps too-indulgent anecdotes is that any knowledge I’ve had of Jewish culture prior to interning here at the Institute for Southern Jewish Life has been superficial at best. The menorah my mother gave me is tucked away, forgotten in a drawer somewhere (and it uses candles that look suspiciously similar to those found on birthday cakes). I was nineteen years old before I really met and had a conversation with a Jewish person, at least to my knowledge.
At last week’s staff meeting, my first at the ISJL, we had a program on inclusion in honor of MLK Day. It was discussed that the ISJL is in the unique position of being the first Jewish organization that many people in the area will come in contact with. It certainly has been that for me. I couldn’t be more grateful to everyone for how welcoming they’ve been and am so appreciative of everyone’s willingness to explain any term or aspect of Jewish culture that I don’t understand.
My uncle has always said of New Orleans, a place he lived for 11 years, that you “never stop peeling back the onion.” My past week at the institute has taught me the same of the South in general. I’ve lived in the South my entire life and have yet to be involved, or even be in conversation with, the Jewish community here. A community that thrives, perhaps shamefully forgotten by those not a part of it, right in our midst.
I could not be more grateful for the opportunity to peel back and better understand this particular layer of my home.
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Today, as we reflect on the life and death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., some of his greatest lessons are also front and center, and very evident in settings near and far: the power of place, and the even greater power of community.
We are here in Mississippi, the controversial heart-center of Freedom Summer, the end point for the freedom rides. Mississippi, whose work-cut-out-for-us reality was spelled out in Dr. King’s most famous of speeches, “I Have a Dream”:
From the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, let freedom ring. From the mighty mountains of New York, let freedom ring. From the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, let freedom ring. But not only that: Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
A few weeks ago, from our desks here in Mississippi, several ISJL staff members joined a great video conference hosted by Jewish Women’s Archive, to go over their fantastic Freedom Summer curriculum resources. A few days ago, the staff here all gathered to discuss a film about inequality and discuss how we, as individuals and as an institution, can be a part of positive change. We partner with a diverse group of organizations, working to that end – Jewish and Christian and those of many other faiths, Southern and Northern and international.
Today, we also wanted to share an excerpt from our friends at Jewish& in which African American Jews share their thoughts on Dr. King’s legacy. Here’s a brief excerpt, and we strongly encourage you to read the entire piece:
“I grew up in a pretty typical black family in the 1980’s. We had a picture of King on our wall and my parents had records of a few of his speeches. My parents were not activists. They grew up poor, as sharecroppers in the South, but they instilled in me a black pride that one could hear in the song from James Brown’s “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.” King helped my parents see a better future, not just for me and my brother but for themselves as well. As a rabbinical student, and a child of southern sharecroppers, I see King as one of the most prophetic voices ever and he reminds me of why I want to be a rabbi which is to help to make the world a better place for all.”
Wherever we are and whatever our background, we can play a role in, as Sandra Lawson says, making the world “a better place for all.” All people, in all places. Let freedom ring from every mountain and molehill of Mississippi!