I am a lover of stories and often find myself drifting into worlds outside my reality. My young mind fought to protect Gotham City, sailed aboard the Pequod with Captain Ahab, traveled time with Billy Pilgrim, mourned the loss of Professor Snape, and fought beside Odysseus so he could return to his beloved Penelope.
Outside of the realm of literature, I am also a wanderer, collecting stories of those I have the pleasure to meet. Upon graduating college in New York in May 2012, I engaged in a major adventure – moving from Westborough, Massachusetts to Jackson, Mississippi – as part of the ISJL Education Fellowship.
The only thing I had to rely on were the stories I had read of the Mississippi – Aibileen bravely advocating for her fellow maids, the stream of consciousness surrounding the passing of Addie Bundren, and the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (on the Mississippi River and not in the state, a subtle geographical distinction I initially failed to grasp). I knew Mississippi in books.
Upon arrival, I expected to be an outsider. I dreamed of absorbing the idyllic South as if I was reading it in a book, surveying the lives of the Magnolia State residents, seeing their narrative as separate from my own. What I found could not have been further from my hypothesis.
The last two years, my story has become our story, the Fellowship chapter. This is the story of five people from different walks charting undiscovered and rediscovered worlds together. The story of sharing, spreading, and discovering Jewish wisdom and knowledge throughout the South, sometimes in the most unexpected places. That of leading song sessions and musical experiences, or Geocaching to explore Passover. We deduced that there are over a hundred different ways to eat grits and that flight times are negotiable. We found love and support in our communities – and strength and family in our relationship with each other.
And now, our stories diverge, as my fellow Fellows and I all prepare to begin our next chapters.
Sam will travel to Baltimore, MD to begin her studies at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
Adam’s next chapter takes him Memphis, to begin his training to work in Development for the Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity.
Dan’s story will have him teaching high school history in a public school in the DC area, bringing along the skills and ideas he learned in the fellowship.
Elaine, too, will continue teaching, and she’s going to be doing it in an exciting new Jewish setting up in Boulder, Colorado, working as the Adventure Educator with the Adventure Rabbi program.
And my story takes me back up North, to the Big Apple, where I will begin my graduate work in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.
Who knows where our stories will take us? Wherever they do, I’m glad to have spent this chapter in the Southern Jewish world.
When I see the word “Palestine,” a number of images come to mind: questions regarding borders, refugees, the city of Jerusalem, and more Middle Eastern musings. But from now on, when I read or hear the word “Palestine,” I’ll think of something else as well. I’ll think of a small town – Palestine, Texas – and a man named Sam who owns a diner there.
This Friday, I was on my way to Waco, Texas to visit Congregation Agudath Jacob. Around 1:00 or so, my fellow Education Fellow Allison Poirier and I saw the official “Welcome to Palestine” sign on the side of the road! Needless to say, we were quite pleased with the name of this town. We made a few other nerdy Jewish Educator jokes related to the town’s name, but we soon realized that we were quite hungry. We decided to stop at the Dogwood Diner for lunch.
After ordering, a man walked over to our table. As occasionally happens for me, since I wear a kippah every day, he exclaimed: “That’s a Yarmulke, right?”
I replied that indeed it was! I always enjoy interactions like this, where I get to briefly explain why it is meaningful for me to wear this funny-looking Jewish hat, but I was in for a surprise this time around…
This man was Sam, owner of the diner. He explained that his ex-wife was Jewish. Years ago, Sam sent his children to a Jewish school in Dallas. Sam knew all about the Jewish community of Palestine, TX. He told us about a Jewish cemetery located right down the road, explained that there had been a congregation nearby until about a decade ago, and had a number of other interesting stories to share with us.
But Sam left us with more than just stories. He provided us an important insight as well. After a few minutes of conversation, Sam said to us, “Ya know, I grew up Muslim, reading the Qur’an. Then I married a Jew and learned about the Torah. And recently I’ve learned more about Christianity, and I’ve read the Bible. They’re really not so different.”
I did not realize that, upon walking into the Dogwood Diner, I would hear such important words of wisdom. We get bogged down in the differences between some of our religious traditions sometimes. And let’s be clear – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and every other world religion really are unique, and to say simply “they’re all basically the same” would be misguided. But we do share quite a bit in common. Monotheism is a common tenet, and Moshe (or Moses, or Musa) is viewed as a prophet by all three.
It is easy to lose track of our similarities sometimes, as we focus on what separates Jews from other religions – and even what separates one particular group of Jews from another. But we really do possess a number of common characteristics with other world religions. Sometimes we just need someone to remind us of that. Thankfully, I had Sam.
We find wisdom in unexpected places. Of course, somebody had inspired me with their thoughts about religion while I was in Palestine, Texas. With a town-name like that, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.
In this final match-up, the game really came down to something simple: straight-up skills. So who was the ultimate player – underdog Devorah? Or long-time champ Moses? Let’s see how they measured up on the proverbial court:
Basket (ball): Moses has the one locked up. He started his life in a basket, y’all. That’s commitment. This one’s a slam dunk for Big M.
Flair: You have to bring some flair to the game, as any Harlem Globetrotter or Biblical Baller will tell you. In a battle of musical prowess, setting the tunes against each other, Devorah is particularly well-known for her victory song, sung after the Israelites defeated the Canaanites. This song is famously beautiful and is acknowledged as one of the oldest and most original sections of Tanakh. Although, Song of the Sea does put up a good fight… still, this one goes to Devorah!
Drive: Having skills takes you only so far. Taking your game to the next level requires massive confidence, the belief in yourself that you can go out on the floor and dominate, each and every game.The name Devorah is Hebrew for Bee. That’s probably why Devorah’s tenacity is similar to a swarm of attacking bees. As she summoned Barak to battle against an army of invaders, she is also putting a stinger into the idea that women do not deserve places of significance in Jewish liturgy. Score one more for Dark Horse– er, Bee– Devorah!
Posting Up: During half time, Moses was thirsty and struck his water bottle, and Devorah immediately got 15 points. Devorah stands out as one of the strongest female characters in the books of Judges. She was one of the many judges chosen by God, and led the nation of Israel at a time when they were struggling to conquer the land. Additionally, they were experiencing great spiritual uncertainty. She’s one of the only biblical females spoken about on her own merits. For example, Sarah is always referred to as Abraham’s wife or Miriam is qualified as Moses’s sister. She was patient in how she would sit beneath the palm tree where the Israelites could come and seek her advice. But Moses always comes back after adversity, so this one’s a draw.
Spontaneity: Lots of players over-think the game. Moses is quick to act in many ways. When he finds his people struggling beneath the oppression of Egyptian task masters, he is horrified. Witnessing one beating an Israelite slave, Moses strikes back and kills the Egyptian. When Moses sees that there was no one else to address the challenges of his generation, he rises to the occasion and does what is necessary, realizing that it would have far reaching implications for his life.
Final Scoring: Mensch means “a person of honor” and for us, the winner has got to be Moses, the ultimate team captain. As it says in Deuteronomy 34:10 – “Since that time no prophet has supported Israel like Moses, who Adonai knew face to face.” Devorah played well, came far, and her jersey will surely be retired, but in the end, there can be only one winner of Mensch Madness.
MAZEL TOV… MOSES, THE MENSCH MADNESS CHAMPION!
Thank you for playing along! How did your bracket match up with ours?