Jews get lumped together a lot. Polls refer to “the Jewish vote.” We hear about the “Jewish response.” Labels of Jewish are smacked across everything from “Jewish humor” to “Jewish tradition” with little acknowledgment that Sarah Silverman’s fans aren’t necessarily Mel Brooks enthusiasts, and the traditions found in one Jewish household may vary wildly from the traditions found in a household one state over… or just down the block.
When representing a “Southern Jewish” organization, I’ve been asked frequently what makes “Southern Jews” different from “Northern Jews.” My response keeps evolving, but I do think there’s a difference.
There’s a difference because we are all products of our environment. With the exception of communities that choose to be expressly insular, we are all shaped by multiple forces. The Southern Jewish experience, particularly the small-town Southern Jewish experience, is one shaped by having fewer massive Jewish organizational infrastructure, and more overtly Christian neighbors. It is shaped by the music and the culture of the place, as is any other ethnic or religious group living here. In many ways, Southern Jewry has its own flavor, metaphorically and literally. It is connected to the larger Jewish experience, while being unique.
There’s a difference. But there’s also something more. There’s connection– and there’s conflict.
Ever since Jews started living in different places, we have always had things that have distinguished us. But now, more than ever, we seem to have an increasing number of things that not only distinguish us but also divide us. While the larger world might continue to lump us together, it is harder for many of us individual Jews to do so.
From egalitarianism to the equality movement, interfaith families to Israel, we are a polarized people. And in an era where we out our positions on Facebook, contend with new issues daily, our differences are surfaced quite quickly and clearly. When Jews are united on… well, probably nothing… how do we connect?
How do we remain “a people,” whatever that means?
I don’t know. But I do know this: somehow, we do. Somehow, there is still a Team Jewish affiliation that transcends Just-Southern-Jews or Just-Progressive-Jews or Just-Conservative-Jews. The team spirit doesn’t stop simply at our politics, be they progressive or conservative, or at our address, be it in the American South or South America.
It’s hard to define, this invisible thread. It’s a gut feeling. It’s our hearts twisting when the Holocaust is mentioned, and getting riled when it is invoked unjustly (even if our definitions of “unjust use” vary). It’s our ears perking up when there’s a mention of Something Jewish in the news. It’s feeling deep pride (maybe over different things) and feeling deep guilt (definitely over different things) and it’s wrestling, and wrestling, and wrestling.
Somehow, there still is a Team Jewish. But we sure are passing/throwing/swatting/
We feel it, but we don’t always show it. Or we show it in different ways. And we disagree, more and more heatedly. And there are seismic shifts and growing rifts in what that tricky “Jewish vote” looks like to the rest of the world, too.
What does that mean for the Jewish future?
Well. I don’t know that, either. But I’m pretty sure there will be a Jewish future. So that’s something.
At various times in my life, my own observance, stances, and struggles have varied. So too have the commitments and connections that kept me playing for Team Jewish. This has been one of those years where it’s challenging to define what exactly those “ties that bind” me might be, as the world continually unravels.
But I keep going to the mat.
Or the stadium. Or whatever.
What are your thoughts? From the cultural to the religious and the inane to the innate… what makes or breaks Jewish identity? How much is it shaped by where you live and what you experience?
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“Look… a Jewish home!”
As a small child, I found mezuzah spotting to be a very exciting game. We were the only Jewish family where I grew up, and anytime I spotted a mezuzah on a door frame (on the door frame of another resident’s apartment at my Bubbe’s retirement building over in Toledo, Ohio, for example) I was thrilled. It was like a little clue, a code for those in the know.
Spot a mezuzah, find a family like yours.
Especially when families “like yours” are few and far between, there’s something special about finding each other. From a very young age, I understood that Jewish families could look very different, but that there were still certain things we shared—and for me, the mezuzah was one of the most tangible of ritual items, alerting us to one another.
I haven’t lived in a truly rural area since I was 17 years old. But as an adult, I’ve still mostly lived in smaller cities where houses with mezzuzot were still few and far between. When I traveled as an Education Fellow, or went to a friend’s home in Mississippi for a Shabbat dinner, I always paused to smile and sometimes even kiss that little marker on the door that signified I was at another Jewish home. In a small town, it matters even more.
There’s something powerful and welcoming for me about the mezuzah, something that serves as a physical reminder of some of the most important elements of our culture. The tilting-inward, inviting guests into your space; the words within, “the watchwords of the faith,” from the beginning of the Shema. While many aspects of my personal Jewish life and observance have shifted, I have always had this symbol upon my door.
Recently, my husband and I moved to a new place. As we began unpacking and getting set up, my husband—who was not raised in a Jewish home, incidentally—said: “Hey, where’s the mezuzah?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “One of these boxes. We’ll find it eventually.”
“We have to find it now!” He insisted. “Otherwise people won’t know it’s a Jewish home!”
In the sea of boxes surrounding us, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. But we found the mezuzah, and mounted it. He was right—the other boxes could wait; we needed to get that little guy in place. Because now, anyone else who might be mezuzah spotting could see our door frame, and perhaps feel that same flutter of excitement and connection.
Spot a mezuzah, find a family like yours.
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All this week, we’re deeply engaged in the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50 events taking place in Jackson, Mississippi.
This morning, a piece about this week’s events and the past fifty years’ interfaith collaboration in the civil rights struggle, was published in Zeek Magazine. Called “Interfaith, In Good Faith,” it chronicles the beauty, challenge, and importance of coming together to make the world better, in 1964 and today. Read this piece, let us know what you think, and be a part of the conversation all week long!