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.
It’s been a busy few months here in Jackson. We’ve welcomed Jewish visitors from all over the country, arranging experiences for them to discover this place I call home. This fall, I’m looking forward to a new type of tour experience that, through a partnership with The Yiddish Book Center, will bring the Southern Jewish Experience to a new group of explorers.
The TENT program is an incredible idea: a series of week-long seminars that immerse 21-30 year old Jews in full-impact experiences of culture, cuisine and community. The best thing about TENT? In addition to being fun and often profound, these programs are free to the participants.
The ISJL will host Tent: The South from October 19-26, 2014. This dynamic program will be a week-on-wheels, traveling from New Orleans to Memphis, and spending several days in Mississippi along the way. Tent: The South will explore the Jewish experience in one of this nation’s most distinctive, complicated, and fascinating regions, discovering the best that the South has to offer. Music, art, food, and visits to Jewish communities large and small will make this a week participants will never forget. (You may even start saying “Shalom, y’all.”)
It’s special for me to be involved with a project like this because as a Northern transplant to this region, I take my responsibility as a Southern advocate and promoter very seriously. (Just check out my particularly joyful expression in at :40 of this video. If that doesn’t make you want to come join me us on bus for week, I’m not sure what will.) Tent: The South is such a great opportunity to gather people here with adventurous spirits, who are curious to experience the South.
I’ve put together itineraries for many groups, but this trip is especially fun because it’s built to engage my own demographic! We will get to stop (and eat!) in some of my favorite places. Po Boys in New Orleans before visiting historic congregations. Fried chicken in Natchez before touring Antebellum mansions. Sweet tea while stopping between Civil Rights sites in Jackson. Local beers on the porch of the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale. We’ll also be experiencing Southern arts culture. Listening to the blues while traveling between small towns like Indianola, Clarksdale, and Greenwood in the Mississippi Delta and touring the homes of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty.
For those interested in social justice work, the South is a place with a great legacy of Jewish activism. I’ve had the fortune of inviting the best scholars and experts to lead sessions– our presenters will be from amazing organizations like the William Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation at Ole Miss in Oxford, the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University in Cleveland, and the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis. There will be learning. There will be eating.
And dancing. There will certainly be dancing.
Sold? Great! Participants must apply to Tent: The South by August 1st, 2014. Only twenty applicants will be selected for each session. Again, Tent is offered free to accepted applicants– that means program costs, lodging, most meals, tickets, and more! Participants are responsible only for the cost of transportation, from wherever they live to New Orleans and back home again from Memphis. Space is limited, so apply now!
If you are interested and have any questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 601-362-2357.
(Not eligible yourself, but know someone who is? Forward this post, share the website, spread the word!)
See you in The South!
From my adopted hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, I’ve been thinking about Freedom Summer.
Now that we are a month away from the fiftieth anniversary of that historic summer, many people are recalling and taking action, planning and preparing. Many of today’s Jewish activists are writing articles, developing programs and setting action goals in honor of the large Jewish volunteer contingent that traveled from Northern cities to spend their summer fighting for civil rights in Mississippi 50 years ago.
I’ve been working on plans for the commemoration here in Jackson and am enamored by the vast collection of archival material available. Those involved with the movement that summer risked their lives to promote civil rights and they volunteered knowing they were going to make history.
Luckily for people like me, they were great collectors. And even luckier, dedicated archivists have put countless hours into digitizing the collections. The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), and perhaps more surprisingly the Wisconsin Historical Society, both have enormous and well organized (easily searchable!) collections available online. Here are a few of my favorite photos and documents from the USM collection, which all feature Hattiesburg volunteers.
There is a sense of community and camaraderie among the diverse volunteers in these scenes.
Volunteers learned to rely on each other and worked hard to build community in their temporary camps throughout the state. I see familiar joyful, pensive and exhausted looks that are common among the faces of today’s social activists. The work is not finished and similar efforts are still occurring in church basements and community centers in Mississippi, right here, right now.
We are happy people are commemorating the important work of local and national volunteers, shining a spotlight on the power of working together for change. But we also know what many people still think about Mississippi today. So this summer we’ve got a different idea.
Instead of reading about the work of Jewish volunteers 50 years ago, we want you to come here and create your own stories. We believe learning from Civil Rights veterans and contemporary social justice activists here in Mississippi and from throughout the nation, against the backdrop of this complicated, challenging, and important state, is a great opportunity to highlight what Mississippi has to offer.
Interested? Awesome, you’re my kind of blog reader. Fill our this interest form on our website here and we’ll be in touch about how to get you here! See you at the Freedom Summer 50th anniversary, when once again, Jewish activists will join hands with our neighbors to make things better.