My family lives in Greenwood, Mississippi. Nestled in the heart of the Delta, we are proud of our small-but-vibrant shul; even when only a dozen or so folks fill the pews, time spent in our building is meaningful. However, recently we saw our sanctuary overflowing with guests for the first time in years—and we were honored to host an event that led to powerful connections and conversations with our Delta neighbors.
We had two special visitors drawing the crowd in that night: Dr. Amy-Jill Levine (or AJ, as she prefers), and Rabbi Jeremy Simons of the ISJL. Rabbi Simons led a beautiful Shabbat service, warmly welcoming everyone and putting all attendees at ease immediately. I was so proud to have him representing the Jewish faith and standing up there in front of so many, leading everyone in a shared experience of Sabbath peace.
Then, AJ took the stage. AJ is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Department of Religious Studies, and Graduate Department of Religion. She’s a Jewish woman who studies and teaches about Christianity—and thereby she possesses a rare ability to speak the language of both Christians and Jews. She can represent both viewpoints fairly, and help us understand each other. Her opening line was something like: “Faith is more like love than Sudoku. Sudoku only has one correct solution. Love is subjective rather than right or wrong—you can’t control who you love and different people will have different preferences.”
People came from all over to hear her speak; Christians were challenged and enriched by her teachings on Christianity, and Jewish attendees were similarly riveted by her approach to scholarship and religious studies transcending both religions. Though the program took place in a synagogue, AJ knew her audience was primarily Christian. She addressed all equally, and encouraged all to be open to challenge and new notions. As local bookstore employee and program partner Steve Iwanski noted in his wonderful blog following AJ’s presentation: “…she sought to bring light to the parts of Jewish faith that may be unfamiliar to the typical Christian.
The crowd lingered for a long time afterward, and one could pick up smatterings of conversation that sounded exactly like the kind of interpretive dialogue Dr. Levine had implored us to engage in.” Having Rabbi Simons and Dr. Amy-Jill Levine lead and teach from our synagogue’s pulpit to a completely full house was an incredible delight. Everyone there shared in learning, in listening, in strengthening our own individual understanding and also our collective understanding of one another.
As an Ahavath Rayim member, an ISJL board member, a Greenwood resident—I could not have been more proud. It was not just a night of academics, but of spiritual moments. My 86-year-old mother-in-law, Ilse Goldberg, kindled the Shabbat candles and recited the blessings, which was such a moving moment. A lot of planning goes into bringing an event like this together, but moments like this are so precious that all the planning is worth it.
That night, I felt the pride of our ancestors – Ilse in the room, and others no longer with us. If they could have seen the full pews and felt the support and investment of our neighbors, I know how proud the previous generations of the congregation would be. I’m just honored that I could be part of such a wonderful communal experience, and grateful to see our shul stuffed to the gills with long-time supporters and first-time visitors. I hope to see our friends and neighbors joining us in fellowship many more times in the future.
As a recently-engaged twenty-something, I’m learning with each passing day the importance of compromise. I don’t always get my way, and sometimes I have to do things I’d rather not for my partner’s sake. But like everyone else, I have my line in the sand when it comes to what I will and will not do.
For me, that line has always been a dog.
Erik, my fiancé, loves dogs, and left his beloved four-legged friend with his parents when he joined me in Mississippi. Ever since, he’s been longing for a canine companion. “I’m sorry,” I’d tell him, “I cannot have a dog in my house. Volunteer at a shelter if you want to, but don’t bring one home. They smell, they shed, and they’re just not for me. It’s my line in the sand.”
For a long while, Erik (begrudgingly, but generally graciously) accepted this, and volunteered at the local animal shelter to get his fix. I would see the way his face lit up when a stranger let him pet their pup, and the way his demeanor changed whenever he talked about getting one. Could having a dog really affect a person that much? I wondered.
On January 25th, 2015, I learned the answer to my questions. Erik and I took home Wally, a dachshund mix from the Animal Rescue Fund of Mississippi, as a foster dog. It was my own little experiment (could I handle a dog in the house? Would it make a drastic difference in Erik’s quality of life?) and our new compromise. I figured hey, if it works out and we adopt, then fabulous…and if it doesn’t, I would be able to say I’d given it a try, we would have done a good deed, and we wouldn’t have to keep him. No harm, no foul.
Almost a month later, Wally is officially our puppy, and I couldn’t imagine life without him. Erik’s happiness has increased…and so has mine. How did I get to this point, you might ask? Well, it was a surprisingly Jewish journey, involving a plethora of Jewish values that I still work hard to embody every day.
When I look at Wally, lounging on his fluffy dog bed, I am first reminded of tza-ar ba-alei chayim, the law against the unnecessary suffering of animals. I am proud that we were able to relieve his suffering by rescuing a shelter dog and giving him a forever home.
When Wally gets excited to see me when I get home, and jumps a little too much or licks a little too fervently, I aim to be erech apayim, slow to anger. When I get territorial about sharing my bedroom with a dog bed or my kitchen with dog food bowls, I channel my nevidut, generosity. And in my small moments of doubt, when I look at the huge responsibility Erik and I have taken on, I channel my inner ometz lev, courage.
The few short weeks we have had Wally have contributed significantly to our shalom bayit, peace in the home. Caring for him has made me think about aspects of my Judaism in a new way. In Pirkei Avot we are told that one mitzvah leads to another…but in this case, as our friend Danny put it: one “mutt-zvah” led to another – from volunteering, to fostering, to adoption.
As a Jewish educator, I often challenge my students to find Judaism in everything, and because of my new Southern rescue pup, I had an amazing opportunity to do just that! Thanks, Wally, and welcome to our family.
My family flew to Los Angeles two weeks ago to attend the funeral of my father-in-law, z’’l. We had been with him for a visit in December, and we are grateful for these good and recent memories. He was truly a wonderful man. Throughout this journey to Los Angeles, many emotions flowed through us. We were relieved that he’s no longer suffering, sad that he won’t be here for so many lifecycle events and moments with the grandchildren. I was expecting to feel those emotions. I was unprepared for some of the others that came up while we were there.
My husband grew up in the L.A. area, and his parents and his brother and extended family still live there. We are the ones who don’t – the “family that lives in Mississippi.” At the shiva house, as people chatted after the service, I received an odd comment, from a woman I did not know. The woman said: “I noticed your children seemed to be able to really participate in the service with the Hebrew… and you’re from Mississippi? That’s wonderful.”
In that moment, I think I was in shock, so being the “polite woman from Mississippi” I simply responded by saying thank you and moved on to the next person. However, two weeks later, it’s still bothering me – it’s that itch that’s in the middle of your shoulder blade that you just can’t reach so it just keeps irritating.
I’m sure this woman felt like she was complimenting my children, but the implication that they would be Jewish illiterates because we live in Mississippi is infuriating and ridiculous! Yes, it’s wonderful that my children are from Mississippi and have learned Hebrew, attend religious school, participate in youth group, and so on. But it shouldn’t be shocking, and I imagine there are others who share this woman’s sentiment.
Raising Jewish children anywhere can be a challenge. You have to work at participating in the Jewish community. It’s very easy to sit at home and not get involved. We have been active in our synagogue and involved in Jewish organizations. We go to Shabbat services, religious school, holiday celebrations and programs at the synagogue. We have a Shabbat meal together, and our children are enriched by going to Jewish summer camp. Two of our children have gone on a NFTY-in-Israel program, and our third will go once he turns sixteen.
We enjoy a fulfilling Jewish life here in Jackson, Mississippi. We don’t enjoy it “in spite of where we live”—we enjoy it because we seek it out. We participate. We make the effort. You can live in Los Angeles and do nothing Jewish beyond going to a good deli and eating fresh lox. And you can live in Mississippi and do something Jewish every day. It’s not about where you live—wherever you live, it’s about the choices you make.
The legacy that my husband’s parents gave him, raising him in Los Angeles, and the legacy my parents gave me, raising me in Mississippi, is a shared one: we are committed to being active participants in the Jewish community. It is a legacy that I hope our children take with them – wherever they may choose to live as adults.
And to that I proudly say, “shalom, y’all”— from Jackson, Mississippi.