April 2015 has been on my mind for a while. Since last September, to be exact, when I began counting the weeks to estimate a due date for my first child.
For the past several months,I have been reading the books, cleaning the house, painting the room, purchasing the gear, making checklists at work, all in anticipation for this impending April deadline. It wasn’t until last week as I was strolling through the grocery store past the matzah display that I realized I had left something off the to-do list: Passover.
As I cracked open one of those tiny bottles of Kedem grape juice (hey, it’s almost a satisfying treat after a long, dry, 8 months), I thought about our annual seder in Jackson, Mississippi, that I’ve come to love so much.
Every year, my husband and I host thirty-plus people, packed in our small home. It’s a special time of sharing my favorite traditions, enjoying the meal I spent two days preparing using old family recipes, sharing my Jewish culture with my mostly non-Jewish friends.
But this year… could we pull it off?
Three years ago my husband and I decided to forego hosting the event, seeing as it was so close to our wedding, but this year I’m feeling like it needs to be a priority. I’ve been getting a lot of great advice about parenthood, but one thing I can’t seem to swallow is when experienced parents give me that stern warning about how my life will never be the same. I really like the way life has been going so far; do I really have to give it all up? Thinking about Passover, and other Jewish holidays , I’m reminded that they serve as important touchstones throughout the year and how ritual and tradition helps focus and redirect a sometimes challenging or overwhelming time in our lives. They aren’t something having a child will take away – they are something I’ll want to share with the new addition to our family.
And so, seder is a go!
Sure, there’s going to be a third person living in my house soon, but right now it’s time to make the charoset. Sure, I’ve got to finish my spring semester assignments before I go into labor, but this is the time to read the story of Exodus in funny voices with my favorite friends. Sure, I’ve got piles of baby clothes to wash, but this is time to search for the afikomen (bonus if someone finds tiny socks during the process!).
I’ve tried to soften my stubborn habits during this pregnancy and as I entered my third trimester I began accepting my limitations. My body is working on a major project that needs special care and attention. But on the days when my mind starts racing about all the things I can’t do or the things that are about to change, I find comfort in the yearly traditions that won’t change. I don’t have to host the seder, but this year part of me really needs to. The Kedem grape juice doesn’t quite hit the spot as much as its Manischewitz cousin, but in the grocery aisle that day, the sugar provided just enough energy to throw some matzah in my cart and commit to making this a very pregnant Passover to remember, with maybe a few extra helpings of “matzah crack” for the mom to be!
I’ve been thinking about numbers lately. Not in a Jewish, gematria-type way, but in a way that kinda makes me wish I had developed my quantitative reasoning skills. If I had, I’d be a bit better prepared for life moments like this…
When I was at Brandeis, I was required to take a course for “Quantitative Reasoning,” which ended up being something about the history of scientific innovation. In other words, it was a course designed for people like me, who got itchy thinking about integers.
But when the organization you’ve been employed by for the last seven years turns 15 years old, you start to consider a lot of numbers. The number of programs and services delivered, the number of partners in our region, the number of staff over that number of years. In an organization that has grown so much, in a region that is so large.. well, all that number-crunching is what I like to call a “special project.”
So where to start?
Well, where would you start? Think about your own workplace- who’s keeping up with the daily ins and outs of your organization? Who in your family or among your friends is keeping records of important life moments? Do you have someone that holds all the institutional memory?
Most of us rely on digital assistance these days — large archived email lists, folders of uploaded photos. But collecting all this data for work has gotten me thinking about the importance of archives! (Hey, I’m a museum professional, what did you expect?)
Our museum collection is filled with records from Southern congregations. These records are incredible resources for looking back into the everyday lives of Jewish communities. Minutes from sisterhood meetings, confirmation photos with names carefully handwritten on the back, ledgers with all the members and when they paid their dues, newsletters that include gems like the rabbi’s sermons and welcomes given to guests to town. Groups that have a designated secretary often embody record keeping at its finest.
The primary source documents are precious — and the documentation that goes along with preserving everything in an archive is just as important as the items themselves. As a museum registrar, I’ve got filing cabinets filled with records about records, digital files and images on all the objects in our collection. Collections management is essentially that fine balance of not only preserving objects but also creating and maintaining documentation to provide accessibility and accountability to the interested public, and to ensure that their meaning and origin is not lost.
All that to say, because the ISJL provides such a wide range of services to a variety of audiences, each department has been maintaining data in their own unique way. To commemorate our 15th year, I’m starting on a project to develop a common institutional memory, a system where we can access when we had programs in Montgomery, Alabama over the last 15 years, whose weddings were officiated by ISJL rabbis, and how many people have attended Jewish Cinema South Film festivals. I’ll be looking through old CIRCA magazines, trip reports, conference rosters, digital folders on our common drive… and figuring out the best ways to quantify our impact on this region.
So invite you to join me in this journey into numbers and impact. Take a minute and reflect on what you’ve got archived from the last 15 years of your life. What would your numbers be? How would you quantify the impact of your life? And how do you quantify your personal Jewish impact? Number of d’vrei torah given, number of matzoh balls made, or number of blog posts written? Looks like I’m already working on my own numbers, and not just my colleagues’ collective contributions!
We use the phrase “transplants” often down here—referring to the “Yankees” who for one reason or another found themselves down South. (Transplants like… me.)
In the Southern Jewish communities with which I interact, the transplants are often people who, though lacking “deep Southern roots,” have stepped up as local leaders. They step up alongside those with the deep Southern roots, the ones who have been leaders in their communities for multiple generations. Both the transplants and the long-term residents share an appreciation of and dedication to Jewish communal life—but for the transplants, this passion is often newfound. Even if they weren’t as active “Up North,” they end up serving as leaders in their Southern congregation, and ambassadors in their communities.
When I traveled as an Education Fellow, I would hear from moms and dads in small Southern towns who “never in a million years” thought they would be teaching religious school. In New York, New Jersey, California, places with large Jewish populations, there were plenty of people to do all the things that maintain a healthy and thriving congregation. In smaller communities, it’s more do-it-yourself.
So, what was I doing in Tarpon Springs? It began with a phone call from Joel May, a transplant to Tarpon Springs. But he wasn’t the typical “snowbird” retiree most of us picture when we imagine transplant Jews moving to Florida. Joel is originally from Jasper, Alabama. And while he has lived in many places since, he was a born and bred Southern Jew. He contacted me about a loan of an eternal light for their sanctuary, a process we affectionately call “re-planting”. Being from the region, Joel knew of our museum. He made the connection, and I worked with him and his committee to re-plant a beautiful ner tamid from Gemiluth Chassed, a congregation that had closed in Port Gibson, Mississippi, to his congregation in Florida.
For me, the experience of replanting a Southern Jewish artifact rich in value and history (the ner tamid was originally donated to Gemiluth Chassed, the oldest synagogue in Mississippi, built in 1892) was already incredible. Making it even more meaningful was the Southern Jewish congregant, Joel from Jasper, helping to bring this artifact to his new community. His new a community is one full of transplants, from many places outside the South, but all are now connected to the Southern Jewish experience. It is a remarkable testament to the contribution and quality of the small population of Southern Jewish communities.
My time in Tarpon Springs was lovely. Years ago, I was lucky to drop into communities every other weekend, but I had forgotten what a joyful feeling it is to be warmly welcomed into a new group of people. Food, music, gossip, what could be better! What I soon learned is that while the community was made up of transplants, they weren’t the typical New York Jews I was expecting. All the jokes I had written into my talk about Brooklyn were going to fall flat with the people I was meeting from Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota. (Apparently the west coast of Florida attracts Midwesterners—who knew?!) I admit I felt foolish for coming with preconceived assumptions, when most of what I do each day is try to break down stereotypes of Southern communities.
But I was pleasantly surprised that many of the people in the congregation would find it easier to connect to small town congregational life like Port Gibson. I heard from people telling me about their families immigrating to the Midwest, opening stores or becoming fur traders, very similar narratives of the Southern story that I was planning to share. I listened and learned about the natural connections between Midwest and Southern congregations that I hadn’t previously considered before my visit. This made this replanting all the more special.
The night of the dedication, I met a few people who had come because they did have Southern roots. A woman from Atlanta, a family from Brookhaven, Mississippi, a couple from New Orleans. I liked seeing them seated in the congregation, nodding along with my new Midwestern-ex-pat friends as I talked about the connection between the long and rich history of Jewish communities in the Deep South to the larger national Jewish population. Dedicating a piece of the Gemiluth Chassed sanctuary built a special connection through time and space between these two small congregations, a connection that is important for continuing to support the legacy of Jewish communities in the region.
This eternal light, the ner tamid, will be given the opportunity to shine again and serve a congregation, ensuring the ancestors of small town Jewish communities like Port Gibson will not be forgotten… well, I get goosebumps just thinking about it! I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful celebration.