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.
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!