If you’ve never lived in the South, you might not be familiar with King Cakes. The brightly colored yellow-green-and-purple treats start popping up in the weeks before Mardi Gras. Though most prevalent in New Orleans, they are popular throughout the South. They’re delicious, they’re often shared at offices and parties– and yes, it’s Catholic in origin.
The name “King Cake” refers to the three kings, or three wise men. It emerged as a treat associated with pre-Lent celebrations, connected closely to Easter. Sometimes, there’s even a little plastic baby hidden somewhere in the cake – representing that same baby the wise men went to visit.
So it’s understandable that a friend recently asked me: “Um… is it weird for Jewish people to buy King Cakes?”
When asked this question, I resisted the urge to laugh it off and instead did a little reflecting (while munching on a delicious cinnamon-swirl piece of this tasty treat). Does the symbolism behind a food mean it’s proprietary to a certain group? Putting aside logistics that would obviously factor in for some observant folks, such as the laws of kashrut or halal – should foods be avoided simply because they’re associated with someone else’s tradition?
I recalled a few years ago, when a local bakery in Jackson, Mississippi, began promoting their all-new seasonal specialty: Purim baked goods. Yes! Fresh-baked, made-to-order sweet hamentaschen in multiple flavors — and savory bourekas, too. I was beyond excited that my favorite local bakery was offering Jewish treats, and so were my Jewish friends… and so were my non-Jewish friends. We all went out and bought those Purim treats in droves. (And thank goodness – if only the small Jewish community of Jackson had shown up to buy the baked goods, that wouldn’t have been very marketable.)
But one person did ask me: “Um, is it okay for a non-Jewish person to eat those triangle Purim-cookies?”
I assured them, without hesitation, that they were welcome to a cookie.
The question is not ludicrous. Eating is sometimes related to a statement of faith, whether it’s by following rules as to what we do and do not eat, or accepting a communion wafer at a Catholic mass.
But there is a difference between foods with ritual meaning and foods with cultural symbolism. Eating hamentaschen doesn’t make you Jewish, but it does give you an opportunity to learn a delicious tidbit about Purim and the story of Esther. Sharing a King Cake with co-workers is a delicious opportunity to enjoy Mardi Gras and share in a communal celebration. It’s a sharing of cuisine that has become a low-barrier sharing of culture.
In fact, I think the story of Esther itself makes the case for sharing in the culture around us. Esther was a nice Jewish girl who managed to save her entire Jewish community, not by avoiding the culture around her– but by fully immersing in it. She married the king, held on to her identity, and stopped Haman. Let’s remember she also did this over an extended dinner party, and now we recall Haman’s defeat by eating cookies shaped like his hat and named for his ears. (Creepy.)
Lots of special-foods have stories unique to one culture or another. Learning about them is fascinating, and feasting on them is even better.
In other words, let all of us eat (king) cake. And yes, I promise, in a few more weeks… I’ll share my triangle Purim-cookies.
At my congregation in New Orleans, I teach an adult beginner Hebrew class. There are many different types of students in the class: Jews who want to be able to better follow the prayers in Hebrew during services; Christians who want to be able to read passages from the Bible in the original language; Jews preparing for an adult bar/bat mitzvah; and those in the process of conversion to Judaism.
Last week I fielded a question from a woman in that last group. Her question was not about Hebrew, but about Judaism: “I am coming to the Rabbi’s classes, I have learned the history and holidays and all pertinent information, I am learning how to read Hebrew… but I still don’t think I understand what it feels like to be a Jew. What should it ‘feel’ like?”
I invited her to attend Shabbat services with me that Friday night and sit with me so I could show her in live action what being Jewish feels like to me – how praying, hoping, and coming together with other Jews moves me, personally. She was hesitant at first; wasn’t there an easier answer? Could she “Google it on her own,” or figure out some other way to get this question answered, on her own time frame and by herself?
Quite simply… no.
Judaism is a communal experience. Yes, we can learn information on our own, but when we attend a class or have a study buddy, that’s when there is debate and discussion— and that is the Jewish way to learn. Yes, we can pray on our own, but when we attend a Shabbat service, meet and greet others, and pray together, we share a bond with our community like no other—and that is the Jewish way to pray. Judaism is, above all, a shared experience. No matter how big or small our Jewish community, the fact that we come together is meaningful.That sense of connection—that is the way to “feel Jewish.”
I don’t know if there is a way to teach someone a feeling, but when you show them how you feel things and where you feel things and why, they begin to understand and maybe can feel it for themselves. My student did come to services last Friday night, and sat beside me. After being nervous about the initial peer pressure to get up and greet someone that you don’t know, she participated. After experiencing the connections, right from the beginning of the worship experience, she said to me: “This really is a communal experience.”
Quite simply… yes.
I recently came across this list of the “most and least Jewish states.” The list is derived from a study by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB). Wyoming was denoted as the least Jewish state, measuring 23 Jewish individuals per 100,000 people. New York, of course, was the “most Jewish state,” with a whopping 4,046 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people.
My current state, Mississippi (ranked once again as the most religious state in a recent Gallop poll), boasts 43 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. That places it at #46 on the list.
People tend to have a lot of negative assumptions about being Jewish in Mississippi. In all honesty, despite being a native Texan, I was a little hesitant about moving to the Magnolia State from New York City. I had lived in the “most Jewish state” for five years; my alma mater, NYU, had a thriving Hillel and large Jewish community, and it didn’t take much effort for me to be involved in Jewish life. Down here in the heart of Dixie, the scene is different—but it’s really quite lovely. Several trips to the Delta as this winter began reminded me why that is so true.
Here’s the thing: Jews in Mississippi have historically had to work pretty hard to maintain their Jewish identity. For instance, the ISJL’s founder and president, Macy B. Hart, would ride 80 miles with his family from Winona, Mississippi, to Temple Adath Israel in Cleveland, Mississippi to attend services and go to religious school. In the early 1960s, Cleveland had one of the largest temple youth groups in the state, with its membership including Jewish youth from many small surrounding Delta towns. Devoted Jews from smaller towns across the state made those long drives to participate in Jewish life in places across the state like Cleveland, Greenville, and Greenwood.
Though few in number these days, all three of those towns still hold services, thanks to dedicated community members that put in a lot of effort to maintain Jewish religious practice. I got to see this firsthand on my recent visits to the Delta — place like Greenwood, Mississippi, where ISJL Board Member Gail Goldberg and her family work tirelessly to keep her congregation, Ahavath Rayim, going strong. Her family’s commitment there is downright inspirational.
I also attended services at Adath Israel in Cleveland led by Rabbi Harry Danziger, retired now after a long career in Memphis. The service was intimate, and the congregation was most welcoming. They typically hold a potluck following services—the week I was there, they served fried chicken and latkes. What could be better?
The Chanukah party at Hebrew Union in Greenville, Mississippi, was joyful. Every year, Alan and Leanne Silverblatt prepare 30 pounds of brisket for the part, and everyone helps out making latkes. I got in on the latke-making action, too. (This was my first time making them. I don’t cook, but they weren’t too bad!) Another delightful Delta visit.
Mississippi may not have a lot of Jews, but the ones that call the state home have, in my experience, been steadfast, loyal, and most of all, kind. It seems to me there’s more than one way to calculate “most Jewish”—it’s not just the number of people, it’s the amount of enthusiastic Jewish life. We have plenty of it here. If you haven’t already been, y’all come on down and visit us in the Magnolia State!