I saw a post on my Facebook feed yesterday that confused me. The post was from a friend who happens to be a Jewish educator, and this is what she shared:
“Dear JC Penney, I am sorry the rest of the world is so bananas! I think your new kettle looks lovely and it NEVER crossed my mind that it looked like Hitler!!! Seriously people!!!!!”
Clearly, I hadn’t spent enough time on social media this week, since I had no idea what she was talking about. So I Googled “JC Penney Hitler kettle.” I found lots of articles, and the image in question – and I have to say, I agree with my educator friend.
The billboard has been taken down, but Twitter and Reddit and Facebook are all still full of people boiling over, whistling about how offensive this is; Jeffry Cooper, the Mayor of Culver City, CA, where the billboard appeared, issued the following statement: ”As a Jew, I am offended, [and] as an elected official, I am mad that the city I represent is linked to this.”
Really? As a Jew, I’m not offended, and as someone who used to work in advertising, I’m picturing the poor creative director out there somewhere who signed off on the billboard. She’s surely shaking her head and saying “Oy! I never saw Hitler when I looked at it.”
I’m sure she (or he) didn’t – because quite obviously, there was no malice intended here. I seriously doubt there was some subliminal pro-Nazi message embedded in this ad. If anything, for a big ol’ corporation, JC Penney has taken lots of surprisingly inclusive stances. So why are they being put through the ringer for this?
Growing up in the rural Midwest, and living for more than a decade now in the Deep South, I’ve been someone’s “first Jewish friend” on more than one occasion. I’ve come to appreciate but also be wary of over-sensitivity. When people go out of their way to make sure that I’m not offended or excluded, it’s incredibly sweet. What I worry about is when we (in this case, Jews and our protective friends) swing that pendulum a little too far, and get up in arms over something that’s actually harmless. While it is everyone’s job to be as kind and sensitive as possible, it’s also our job to sometimes say “No, no – in this case, it’s really okay! I get it – no offense intended, and no offense taken!!”
Don’t get me wrong; cultural sensitivity is incredibly important. But if we make a mountain out of every mole hill, how will we be taken seriously when we’re trying to fight for what really matters?
What is seen can’t be “un-seen,” as they say, so at this point it’s best that JC Penney took the billboard down. What else could they do? Once the dictator was pointed out and a furor over the alleged resemblance to the Führer went viral, JCP wisely responded by saying buh-bye to the kettle – but you never know when something might backfire: the billboard is down, the item is no longer selling on JC Penney’s website… but the now-infamous “Hitler Kettle” is currently going for $199 on ebay. Oops, y’all.
Do you agree, or disagree? Was this billboard culturally insensitive – or a silly mistake? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Every few years, national reporters rediscover the phenomenon of the “disappearing southern
Jew.” This week, Seth Berkman of the Forward newspaper published a thoughtful, well-written article headlined “Southern Jews a Dying Breed as Small-Town Communities Dwindle Fast.”
I am quoted in it, and Berkman seems to have also used the ISJL’s online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities as the source for much of his historical background information. We were happy to help him, and appreciate any attention given to the plight of small Jewish communities, especially from the nation’s leading Jewish newspaper.
Synagogue building in Meridian, MS, sold in the 1990s; an ISJL visit in Dothan, AL, 2013
Despite the accuracy and quality of the article, it has admittedly ruffled a few feathers down here. While the decline of the Jewish community in places like Selma and Demopolis, Alabama, and in Lexington and Natchez, Mississippi is undeniable, the state of the Jewish South today is far more complicated than just closing synagogues in small towns coupled with tremendous growth in big cities like Atlanta.
I was just in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the Jewish community has grown by a factor of ten in the past fifty years. Boone, North Carolina recently saw the dedication of its first synagogue. The Jewish community in Dothan, Alabama has created an innovative program that has attracted several new Jewish families to the town, resulting in growth in the local congregation and religious school. Jewish life remains vibrant in medium-sized cities like Jackson, Mississippi; Huntsville, Alabama; Roanoke, Virginia; Macon, Georgia; and many others. The ISJL was founded in 2000 to serve the needs of southern Jewish communities, be they small, medium, large, or nearing extinction. I think it’s fair to say that our efforts have had a significant impact on Jewish life in the region.
The key to understanding the Jewish South today is a central trend: the movement of Jews out of the retail industry into corporate America and the professions. A new Jewish community recently sprouted in Bentonville, Arkansas because it is the corporate headquarters of Wal-Mart. Much of the growth in the Jewish communities of places like Charlottesville, or Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is due to the increasing number of Jewish faculty and administrators associated with the large universities there. Jackson has become the largest Jewish community in Mississippi in recent decades because it is the medical and legal center for the state. The Jewish dry goods merchants who once populated these southern communities have been replaced by executives, doctors, lawyers, and professors.
The dying out of southern Jewish communities is not a new phenomenon. I’ve written the histories of many southern congregations that closed over a century ago. It’s a trend that is neither uniquely southern, nor uniquely Jewish. Small town Jewish communities across the country have declined for similar reasons to the ones described in the Forward article. I recall reading a New York Times article several years ago about Lutheran churches in North Dakota that closed because their membership had dwindled.
Throughout its history, America has never stood still. Towns and regions have boomed and crashed. Jewish communities have been established and died out, usually tied to national trends. As ISJL president Macy B. Hart is fond of saying, “change is neither good nor bad, change is change.” My job as the historian of the ISJL is to ensure that despite these changes, these communities are not forgotten, that their part in the tapestry of American Jewish life is preserved for all to see and appreciate. We are grateful that the Forward has recognized their significance, and helped us in this endeavor.
Last week, the Alabama House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill setting up a procedure to pardon the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women on a train over eighty years ago. The bill, which had unanimously passed the Senate, now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley, who has said he will sign it.
For seven years, The Scottsboro Boys endured a series of trials they could not win. All but the youngest member of the group, whose ages ranged from 13 to 19, were sent to death row after false accusations from the women and convictions by all-white juries.The case became synonymous with racial injustice and set important legal precedents, including a Supreme Court decision that outlawed the practice of systematically excluding African Americans from juries.
According to the LA Times, “Advocates believe the bill is a chance to correct some of the injustices of a bleak period in the nation’s racial history as well as a chance to show that things are different in the modern South.”
This gesture by a community of legislators in 2013 is an important step for reconciliation, but I’d like to also bring attention to a community leader who showed bravery at the time of the trial: Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein of Beth Or in Montgomery, Alabama, who stood apart from the crowd and stood up for his beliefs about the mistreatment of the boys.
He was the only white clergyman to visit the so-called “Scottsboro Boys” in prison and was instrumental in connecting them to a team of lawyers from International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the American Communist Party, for the appeal trial. Upon seeing the northern Jewish lawyers, the prosecuting attorney exclaimed: “Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.” On Yom Kippur in 1932, Goldstein defied intimidation and defended the Scottsboro boys in his sermon.
Words like those spoken by the prosecuting attorney and Goldstein’s persistence deeply troubled Beth Or’s board of trustees. Montgomery Mayor W. A. Gunter informed board members that if Goldstein did any more to assist in the Scottsboro trials, the Ku Klux Klan would organize a boycott of Jewish businesses in the city. Without permission, Rabbi Goldstein spoke publicly at a rally for the Scottsboro Boys. In April of 1933, Beth Or’s president Ernest Mayer informed Goldstein that he either had to quit his political activities or leave. Though two board members defended Goldstein, he presented his letter of resignation to the board the following day. Some confessed anonymously to the Montgomery Advertiser that they secretly sided with Goldstein. Nevertheless, Beth Or’s board published a press release declaring the congregation’s commitment to segregation.
The Scottsboro Boys’ legal team fought hard for many years to free the innocent men, but in the end could not overcome the systemic racism of the courts or the pervasive bigotry of the culture.
Rabbi Goldstein’s leadership, even his inevitable defeat, should remind us not to accept the status quo in our communities. These pardons, eighty years in the making, come too late for the lives of the Scottsboro Boys, and injustices persist in our judicial and penal systems to this day. May the actions of Rabbi Goldstein and all of those who fight for justice inspire us to struggle for equality and freedom, both for others and for ourselves.
Had you heard of the Scottsboro Boys? Did you know about Rabbi Goldstein’s outspoken defense of them?