The parades of Mardi Gras are a communal event. It isn’t unusual for folks to begin gathering in their favorite spot a couple of hours before the parades begin. There are two highly identifiable sides that one stands on: the neutral ground side (otherwise known as the median) and the sidewalk side. Each swells with people as the natural socialization begins and it is a sweet time for everyone.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what color or religion you are, what you drive or what you do for a living, or where you went to school, or any of the normal social barriers that keep us apart. We are all there for the same joyous reason, to celebrate and enjoy.
It is near impossible to talk on a cell phone and hear because of the noise. The internet is painfully slow, with thousands of people in a small, dense area. And anyway, if you look down to text, you are going to miss something. So, miracle of miracles – most of us put it all away and live in that moment, which is a rare privilege these days!
I could say that the “sacred time” notion, away from phones and fully present, is enough of a Jewish moment at Mardi Gras. But there’s so much more. In fact, Mardi Gras makes me think each year of my favorite Torah portion, Nitzavim, and these words in particular:
“ You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer — to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day….”
I imagine each year, that this is the closest that I will get to feeling that kind of diversity, all standing together for a common gift! No, the gift itself isn’t as formally holy as the gift in Nitzavim. Of course not. But what could be more holy than brothers and sisters standing together as equals in peace, love and joy?
By the way, yes, we all know that the roots of Mardi Gras are Catholic, with this celebration emerging as the last hurrah after Lent before the Easter holiday. But culturally, as a New Orleanian, I know well that contemporary Mardi Gras celebrations are truly for everyone to enjoy. Did you know that the first King of Rex (King of Mardi Gras), Louis Soloman, was Jewish? And that there’s a full-blown Jewish Mardi Gras Krewe?
So maybe your Mardi Gras experience could be a bit more Jewish than you think. Mine certainly is, year after year.
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Earlier this week, in Oxford, Mississippi, two unidentified perpetrators placed a noose around the neck of the James Meredith statue at the University of Mississippi. There was also an old Georgia state flag (which incorporated the confederate flag) draped around his shoulders.
James Meredith was the first African American student at the University of Mississippi, or “Ole Miss”
as it is still most commonly called. The campus has had several negative incidents of intolerance in the past few years – riots and racial slurs after President Obama’s re-election, heckling and homophobic remarks during a performance of The Laramie Project.
As a current undergraduate student at another college here in Mississippi, the first question that came to my mind when first hearing of this incident was: Where do we go from here?
I know this is not representative of that entire campus and community, but the fact remains that it happened (as did the heckling at the play, as did the racial slurs after the presidential election). It’s not enough to just not he perpetrators; we cannot just be bystanders. I grew up in the South and am certainly not a stranger to racial tension, but this is something much, much more deeply rooted and severe. It is something from which we cannot look away. I can’t escape it even if I wanted to – purely out of coincidence, I am going to Oxford this weekend to visit an old friend, now a student up there at Ole Miss, who happens to be African-American.
While I still look forward to the company of my friend, I will also feel a certain sense of dread sitting on the bus that will steadily edge closer to Oxford. In a way, this bus will be a time machine, taking me back to a Southern past I had assumed I would never experience firsthand.
Which brings me to my next question: As a white person with many close black friends, what is my own responsibility in improving race relations in our country?
In many ways living in the Deep South mirrors the experiences I had studying conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. In Belfast a peace agreement was signed in 1998, officially putting an end to The Troubles. The key word here is officially. While the violence dramatically decreased, much of the cross community tensions remained and were still present when I traveled there in 2013. However, because there is infrastructure for cross-community dialogue in Belfast this sentiment has been changed in some of these most hard lined members of the conflict.
Perhaps we in the US can take a lesson from the Northern Irish in thinking about our own civil rights movement. Although the campaigning days of Dr. Martin Luther King are gone, agreements have been signed, and laws have been made, we still desperately need cross-community dialogue.
This is, in part, why the work we do in the community engagement department is so important. Engaging the community in dialogue and discussing these horrible incidents of racism when they occur is one of the most important steps toward a better future. It helps this white Southern college student be part of answering that first question: Where do we go from here?
It’s something I’ll be thinking about while riding that bus, just as others did in the past, and I’m glad to continue working with a team to encounter difficult truths and come up with shared solutions.
It’s a Southern Snow Day, y’all! This means a few things. Everyone should be careful on the roads or stay home, of course; safety first.
Here’s what else a Southern Snow Day really means:
1. Everyone is required to post SOMETHING on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram about the fact that there is SNOW ON STUFF. (Seriously, if you don’t have a social media account, you get one. This is why Facebook was invented!)
2. The grocery stores are really, really low on milk, bread, and eggs. As one Southern friend of mine cleverly pointed out: “We will protect ourselves with a layer of French Toast!”
3. Kids get confused, and then delighted. ISJL COO Michele Schipper reports: “My son had -to quote him- a ‘panic attack’ when he woke up late for school, and didn’t understand why I didn’t get him up!” Once the shock wears off, though, most Southern kids love snow days, even if there’s not really enough snow to make an actual snow man. Snow ball fights for your Lego people, anyone?!
4. We get teased a lot by our loved ones up North, scoffing at our big ol’ reaction to one or two inches of snow. And yes, all right, all right. We know it’s worse up North. We know. But seriously, we’re not used to seeing weather app updates like these:
(Of course, take note of the projections for later this week… 70 degrees by Saturday? This is why allergies are bad down here! But hey, if you don’t like the weather, wait a day or two!)
Stay warm and stay safe, whether you’re in the South and this white stuff is a novelty or whether you’re somewhere where this wintry weather and snowy-cold is getting old by this point. Cocoa helps, either way!