Tent: The South was an immersive learning experience.18 strangers got on a bus and trusted me to show them the Jewish South. Everything that we had worked so hard to put together was experienced, appreciated, and enjoyed by an enthusiastic group of adventurers.
I thought rather than tell you about our adventure – I’d show you the people and places, and describe a few of the surprises and lessons that we explored along the way.
Delta Chinese Reunion: During our afternoon at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, we received a comprehensive and entertaining overview and tour of the Delta region. We discussed the cultural diversity for the region and the influential Chinese population. After stopping for the necessary Fighting Okra memorabilia (surprise- everyone needed a t-shirt!), we made our way to the hotel, where it turned out the the Delta Chinese American Reunion was taking place, in conjunction with the opening of a new exhibition on Delta Chinese heritage. What luck! Everything we had discussed about Jewish communities in the region aligned with the history of Chinese immigrants and communities, and seeing it firsthand further strengthened our understanding of how Jews fit into the story of immigrant communities living and working in the South.
David Feldman: David Feldman wasn’t someone we met, but someone we made a surprise visit to go see. Our Lead Scholar Eric Goldstein alerted me that he had a relative, David Feldman, buried in the Greenwood cemetery. Eric asked if we had time to visit. Based on the schedule, we didn’t. But this trip was turning out to be less about the schedule and more about following the interests of the group so off we went! We found the stone pretty quickly (it’s a small cemetery) and I watched as ISJL Board Member Gail Goldberg took a photo of Eric with the stone. Eric mentioned that he’s not sure anyone from his family has ever visited this grave and Gail said she was honored to be a part of the reunion. I think we all had a moment like that on this trip, some small connection or moment that related us to the larger Southern Jewish story.
This trip was filled with people and places that I’m lucky to work with and visit frequently. But one of the main takeaways expressed during our last night together was how fortunate the participants felt to be able to visit these special Southern places, particularly the congregations that may not be as accessible in the next few years. I never like to use the words “dying” or “diminishing” when referring to these congregations, but rather the phrases of the congregants themselves who describe their “small” or “older” groups. We learned so much this week about the strength and warmth of a small congregation and the dedication it takes to continue Jewish life in rural areas.
Another participant mentioned that she was moved during our Shabbat experience in Tupelo when during the Mi Sheberach the congregants each gave reports on the well being of each of the people on the list. She felt a closer connection to the community and how important each individual member is to the life of a congregation. Of all the congregations we visited, we also got a sense that being a member here is almost like a second time job, whether it’s lay leading services or buying the toilet paper, everyone has a role and pitches in. Participants left the South with a charge to find ways to become more engaged in their own communities.
My own personal takeaway? I couldn’t help be feel that being on a bus with non-Southerners solidified by own Southern Jewish Identity. I may not have been born here, but I’m now a happily committed resident and realized during our discussions I more often support, identify with, and sometimes defend the Southern Jewish way of life. Whether I’m talking to a non-Jewish population about Judaism or a non-Southern population about the South, as an educator, sharing is a vital component of how I communicate.
And one last note that resonated with me came from participant who is currently living in Brunswick, Georgia. She said the trip made her realize that she is the next generation for that historic congregation. Many of our discussions spoke about the future of the Jewish South, and she so eloquently described the weight and honor she felt, continuing Jewish life in her community.
This is already a long post, but there’s so much more to share! I invited participants to share their own experiences so you’ll hear from them but you can also see some of this through their eyes on our Tagboard page. Maybe you’ll be inspired to come down for your own Southern Jewish journey!
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I’m prepping for the trip: 20 young Jews from across the country are going to meet in New Orleans
on October 19th and travel together through Mississippi and up to Memphis for a week of learning and adventure. During that time, I’ll be posting updates of our progress on Twitter and Facebook pages.
But until the TENT participants get here, I’m working hard, getting ready for their arrival – lining up speakers, prepping material, and of course, planning out where we’ll eat.
Dr. Eric Goldstein, American Jewish History professor at Emory University, will be our lead scholar, teaching two hour seminars on Southern Jewish history each day. He’s working to compile a list of academic readings for each session (I’m happy to share that list with anyone interested!) but to orient the group, many of whom have never traveled South, I’m also gathering some of my own favorite materials—films, books, websites—that explore Southern history and culture.
Curious? I thought you may be. Below are five from the list.
5. Delta Jews and Shalom Y’all
Two documentaries that we will be showing on the bus, Delta Jews and Shalom Y’all. Mike DeWitt’s “Delta Jews” focuses on small, rural communities in Mississippi Delta towns. Brian Bain’s “Shalom Y’all” covers the diversity of Jewish experience throughout the American South.
4. The Bitter Southerner
The Bitter Southerner is a beautiful website publishing original, insightful stories about the South once a week. This one about Southerners taking photos in front of azaleas is my favorite. And fair warning, this one about the Southern Foodways Alliance will make you hungry.
3. Eyes on the Prize (Part 5)
I had never seen Eyes on the Prize until I moved to Mississippi and started to study the events of the Civil Rights Movement. In Eyes on the Prize Part 5: Mississippi: Is this is America? 1962-1964, what blows me away is the amount of video footage that was captured during monumental events in the struggle for civil rights. I recommend going through the 14 hour documentary, but this hour in particular covers the events of the Freedom Summer in Mississippi 1964.
2. The Provincials
The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South, by Eli Evans, is the book that I read before beginning my own Southern Jewish experience with an internship at the ISJL seven (7!) years ago. I now recommend it to my own summer interns for a great, personal look at growing up Jewish in the South.
1. The Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Well, this one is obvious… but that doesn’t make it any less amazing! The ISJL’s own
Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities is the best resource for learning about the Southern Jewish experience. Our new historian, Dr. Janet Bordelon, has been hard at work updating our Mississippi entries and sharing some 21st century stories about Southern Jews.
These were my top five, but you should also check out Matzoh Ball Gumbo, ReThink Missisippi, the Southern Foodways Alliance, Garden and Gun Magazine. Clearly this is not an exhaustive lists of all the good stuff coming out of the South these days. If you have a favorite, please share! I’ve still got a few weeks to add to the list!
I recently spent two weeks in Philadelphia participating in a two week seminar as part of my Museum Studies masters program at Johns Hopkins University. While there, we met with museum professionals at sites across the city, but one museum in particular reminded me of a truth we know well in the South: sometimes, you find Jewish life in unexpected places.
My most memorable Jewish moment on this trip didn’t happen while at a Jewish museum or site, but while touring the historic Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in 1829 as the most famous and expensive prison in the world, it was known for its grand architecture and strict discipline. Our guide, the assistant director, led us through the enormous campus. We stared into cells, imagining the types of conditions that men and women lived in until it closed in 1971.
As we got to the end of Cell Block 2, our guide led us outside, down a tight alleyway and into a room they had just restored. It was a synagogue, with a full fledged ark, ner tamid, menorahs, benches, just the way it had looked after its renovation in the 1950s. They believe it is the only solely dedicated “Jewish” worship space in a prison. I knew I would enjoy learning about the complicated interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary, but I couldn’t have planned for my feelings about walking into a restored prison synagogue. My little Jewish museum professional heart was racing!
The curators took on the challenge of deciding how to interpret the history of the space to visitors. While they didn’t shy away from telling the stories of the prisoners, the exhibit focused more on the outside Jewish community volunteers who helped to build the synagogue and facilitate Jewish life in the penitentiary.
This example of finding Jewish life isn’t like the surprising anecdotes about Jewish cotton farmers or mayors of small Southern towns. This is finding Jewish life in a more complicated space. For me, whenever a Jewish person or topic comes up in museums or conversations, I usually have the same reaction- a small feeling of familiarity, understanding and most often pride. This feeling happened in the sanctuary space, but it wasn’t until we moved to a different room that they had renovated for a full exhibit on Jewish life in the prison that I realized how out of place that feeling was- to feel familiar and connected to a population of people who had committed heinous crimes. That uncomfortable, “Bad News Jews” feeling.
Often in our work and through this blog, we here at the ISJL try to illuminate the unique characteristics of Southern Jewish Life, while also sharing commonalities among the larger Jewish population. This exhibit at Eastern State worked to do the same thing, explain the unique needs of their Jewish population while successfully creating a space for visitors to make connections to their own lives and practice. It’s an interesting place to consider the importance of communities of faith in different settings, and the diversity of Jewish life and practice. If you are ever in Philadelphia I highly recommend making the visit to Eastern State Penitentiary to see this hidden scared space– and wrestle with it yourself.