My last year has been full of change: I got married. My husband got a new job, out of state. These two changes led to a third change, as I became… well, whatever the landlocked version of “bi-coastal” might be: we moved, but I kept my job, and now I’m dividing my time between the Midwest and the South.
We’ve had several posts on this blog about what it’s like to come to the South, and be Jewish (like this great guest post about Jewish life in Jonesboro, Arkansas). But now, I have a fresh perspective on the other side of the coin: what it’s like to move to a much bigger, Northern Jewish community… and watch the reactions when you say you came from the South.
Recently, my husband and I began “Shabbat-Shopping” – i.e. checking out synagogues, chavurah groups, and other alternatives in the big city, to see where we might find the right-fit Jewish community. There’s certainly no shortage of options! On our first outing, we went to a progressive service in the heart of the city. At the end of the service, all newcomers were asked to stand up and say their names and where they were from, if visiting or new in town.
When we stood, we said our names, and shared that we were from Mississippi.
There was audible reaction to this statement from the congregants. Two, in particular, stood out.
An older woman, seated in front of us, turned around and said: “Mississippi? Really? Ugh. I’m sorry. I mean, I’m glad for you that you’re not there anymore. I’m sorry you had to live there. I can’t even imagine.”
Meanwhile, a younger woman from the back of the room called out: “I’m from Louisiana! Find me later!”
Both of these folks did indeed find us after the service.
The first woman had her husband in tow. He, too, felt it must be miserable to live in Mississippi: “How’d you wind up there in the first place?” He asked, making a face. “Are you, y’know, real Jews?”
My husband stared at me, clearly wondering—as anyone should—what the heck “real Jews” even meant in that context. (Or, um— ever.)
“Actually,” I said, completely ignoring the ‘real Jews’ part of the question, “I work for a Jewish nonprofit in Jackson. And we love Mississippi.”
“We left because I got a job here,” my husband explained. “But we still have a lot of friends and family there.”
“Oh,” said the woman. “I’m sorry if what we said was rude. We didn’t mean to offend you.”
“No harm done,” I said, smiling. “Have you ever been to Mississippi?”
“No,” she admitted.
“It has its issues. We don’t love it for the politics,” I joked. (Hey, know your audience.) “But there’s a lot to love about it. And the Jewish communities there are great. I’m glad I still get to spend a lot of time there—I miss it when I’m not in Mississippi. It’s home. And it definitely has better winters!”
“That’s true,” the woman’s husband chuckled. We made small talk with them for a few more minutes. Then the young woman from Louisiana found us.
“You’re from Mississippi?” She asked, grinning. “I left Louisiana after high school. Like, more than a decade ago. But I still miss it. I dream about Louisiana a lot of nights. Don’t you just love it?”
My husband (a Louisiana native) and I nodded, and began talking with her about what she loved about life here, and life there. I love the instant kinship you often feel with those who have also lived in the South.
As we left the service, it hit me: how funny it is that when you’re Jewish in the small-town South, you’re explaining Judaism—and when you come from the South to the big-city Jewish world, you’re explaining the South.
William Faulkner said that to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi. Knowing, loving, and wrestling with Mississippi continues to help me understand the world, and also to understand myself. I’m still sometimes taken aback by the visceral reactions people have to the South, and particularly Mississippi, even if they’ve never been – but I’m happy to respond to those reactions. It’s part of the tax we pay, we who call Mississippi home; I’m always happy to share the good stories, acknowledge the difficulties, and maybe even change a few minds… and inspire a few visits.
It’s one of our favorite Southern-and-Jewish recipes, and now that Passover is over, we can’t WAIT to bake this one again! So we thought we would share it with y’all, as well…
1 package (7g) yeast
2/3 c. warm water
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsps. ground cardamom
3¾ c. unbleached white flour (substitute up to 1¾ c. whole wheat flour)
1/3 c. sugar
½ c. mashed sweet potato
¼ c. canola oil
2 eggs (1 is for glaze)
1½ tsps. salt
½ tbsp. honey
Sprinkle yeast into small bowl and pour in warm water.Let stand for 10 min; stir to dissolve.
Mix flour, ½ tsp. cinnamon, & cardamom in large bowl.
Make a well in the center, pour in yeast/water mixture.
In a separate bowl, whisk together sugar, sweet potato, oil, egg, & salt. Add to the flour mixture. Combine thoroughly.
Turn dough out on lightly floured surface. Knead for 5- 10 minutes until dough is pliable. Let dough rest 2-3 minutes; lightly oil bowl, place dough in bowl, cover with towel.
Let dough rise until it has tripled in size (2- 3 hours).
Punch down dough, knead; cut into 2 equal pieces. Cut the 2 pieces into 3 equal pieces (6 total); braid two even loaves. Line baking sheets with foil or parchment paper.
In a small cup, mix 1/2 an egg with ½ tsp cinnamon and honey to make the glaze. Coat challot with the glaze.
Place loaves on sheets, cover, and let rise until doubled in size; remove cover and bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees.
Find more great Southern & Jewish recipes like this one in Taste of Torah: A Little Nosh of D’rash!
Right now, Rabbi Matt Dreffin and Rabbi Marshal Klaven are in the midst of the Passover Pilgrimage, journeying to communities throughout the South to lead seders and Passover programming.
Here is one of Rabbi Klaven’s first updates from the road: “Question: What do you get when 10 Jews and 50 non-Jews get together? Answer: An unforgettable 1st Seder on the ISJL Passover Pilgrimage. This evening in Natchez reminded us all: to go great distances, we cannot go at it alone; but –as the Bible says– we must go as “a mix multitude!” Thank you, Congregation B’nai Israel and all our wonderful friends there!”
The Passover Pilgrimage continues through April 20, with stops in more than half a dozen Southern states:
Seders along the way take place at congregations (including churches), and additional pastoral visits and events are planned. As ambassadors for this festival of freedom, the rabbis are excited to share their thoughts along the way and post-pilgrimage. In the meantime, we wish them safe travels and will continue sharing periodic updates on the ISJL Facebook page, as well.