I smile. The man stares back at me and I look away, embarrassed. I feel my ears growing hot and I know my face is turning red, too. I am from here. I should know better.
DO NOT SMILE AT PEOPLE ON THE SUBWAY!
Before I moved to Jackson, I lived in New York City for four years of college. I was a pro at navigating the subway, walking quickly, avoiding obstacles on the sidewalk, and crossing the street irrespective of the traffic signal. I did not let people cut me in line and was very capable of intercepting those who tried. I mastered the art of hailing a cab and absolutely did not tolerate people who tried to steal my taxi by standing up-street from me.
In short, I was an excellent New Yorker.
When I moved to Jackson a year ago, I immediately started worrying that I was accidentally rude to people. I just was not used to making small talk with strangers, and oftentimes I didn’t realize strangers to speaking to me because, well, who talks to strangers? I had to learn to call people “sir” and “ma’am.” Where I come from (Massachusetts, then New York), women especially are very offended when you call them “ma’am.” It makes them feel old, and seems rude. But in the South, it is a much appreciated sign of respect. I quickly learned to love these habits. I think it is adorable when the students I work with call me “Miss Allison” and it is so sweet to see people holding doors open for one another.
I recently returned to NYC to visit my college friends. I landed at La Guardia airport, hopped over to the Upper West Side to visit campus, and then caught a train to Tribeca to meet up with my friends after work. That’s when things started to go wrong. I accidentally bumped into someone in the rush to get on the express train, so I said excuse me and let him go through the door first. He just looked at me and sort of smirked. How rude!
I was fortunate enough to find a seat and, like a true New Yorker, plugged in my headphones. Looking around at the other passengers, I smiled each time I made eye contact with someone. Once again, I must reiterate, this is the WRONG THING TO DO on the New York subway. People stared back or looked away or rolled their eyes. I could almost hear them thinking “where the heck is she from?”
This is not to say that New Yorkers are mean, or that Southerners are all quaint, sweet people. Most New Yorkers often offer subway seats to people who need them, and some Southerners drive like inconsiderate maniacs. Individually, I think we are more alike than we realize. Dan Ring discussed various theories of the difference between North and South, City and Small Town, in his blog post a few weeks ago, so I will direct your attention to that post for more details. What I will say here is that I think my ideal world is a combination of the two.
Without offending anyone, I would like to say that in my experience, people in the South are definitely overtly friendlier, but perhaps also a little less hurried—which can be a wonderful quality, or a frustrating one. Meanwhile, Northerners (specifically, New Yorkers!) might not be as gregarious to strangers, but are also a little more hurried—which can be a wonderful quality, or a frustrating one.
And what’s funny is, I always identified with the pace and attitude of New Yorkers… but after only a year in the South, when I went back up to the big city, I felt like a country mouse. I had begun displaying some outward signs of Southernness… and I’m okay with that. I love New York, I love the South, and having lived in both places I am now hoping to embody the best of both worlds.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
As I began the long trek down to Mississippi a few weeks ago, I found my mind constantly wandering into the past. And no, I wasn’t thinking back to my prior semester of college or fun times with friends. I was reflecting on exactly fifty years ago: the summer of 1964.
Better known today as “Freedom Summer,” this was a transformative moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Hundreds of volunteers descended on the state of Mississippi to focus national attention on the horrors of segregation; they came to establish “Freedom Schools” and register African Americans to vote. Most of the volunteers were white college students just like myself. And over half of them were Jewish.
Since moving to Jackson and beginning my work as a Museum Intern with the ISJL, I find myself thinking about the many parallels between my own current journey and the experiences of young, white, Jewish students fifty years ago.
Why did they decide to come to Mississippi? How did Southern Jews view them once they got here? What challenges did they face while pursuing their work? While I continue to have more experiences in this state, the enduring legacies of history become more and more real to me. It has been so exciting to retrace the footsteps of many of these Freedom Summer veterans.
One of my most memorable experiences so far has been attending the 50th Commemorative Memorial Service for James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. These three Freedom Summer volunteers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan while registering black voters and investigating the firebombing of Mt. Zion Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the very same place the service was held. Besides the strong sense of place that I already felt that day, I was surrounded by the living history of the summer of 1964.
In addition to many lifelong residents of Neshoba County (many whom attended the Freedom Schools or could recall volunteers coming to their homes in attempt to register their families to vote), prominent civil rights activists such as Congressman John Lewis, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Bob Moses, Rita Schwerner, and Dave Dennis were present. I had goose bumps as I bore witness to how far our nation has come, while still realizing how the struggle continues today, particularly when it comes to voting rights and education. The very faces associated with the movement, profiled in documentaries, touched directly by this fight.
This week, I am continuing this journey at the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50 events. We have been working hard to create supplemental programs for reflection on the legacy of Jewish volunteers during Freedom Summer, and I am so excited to meet Jewish veterans like Heather Booth, Mark Levy, Larry Rubin, and Lew Zuchman. I know that it will be a powerful gathering of younger and older generations; together we will exchange ideas and demonstrate how Jewish activism continues to thrive. I cannot wait to hear their stories and create new ones together.
My husband and I recently journeyed from New Orleans to Israel—a first trip for him, an always-sacred return for me. On our El Al return flight, seated near us was an older gentleman. We briefly noticed him when boarding the plane; he smiled and so did we, thinking little of the encounter beyond the fleeting thought that he could be anyone’s sweet grandfather.
As everyone began to settle in, my husband noticed the numbers tattooed on the older man’s arm, and pointed them out to me.
I should mention now that on this return flight, there were also dozens of Birthright Israel kids, coming home from their trip. One of the Birthright girls was seated next to the old man, and began to ask him some questions. This man opened up to her, and told his story…and as he did we moved closer to hear it firsthand ourselves.
Encounters like this are far and few between now, as the very last of our survivors are elderly. This inspiring man was very proud that at 16 years old, he had worked hard, held on, and was lucky enough to survive Auschwitz. After the war, he lived in Israel for many years and then eventually moved to the States where he settled and raised his family. His story has been recorded by Steven Spielberg and is part of the Yad Vashem exhibit.
During our trip, we had spent a day at Yad Vashem, and I felt so deeply grateful that this place existed to tell this painful part of our history in the first person. I wondered if our next generations would be able to truly understand the sacrifices that our people made, simply for being Jewish. Men and women, like the survivor now seated just a few plane seats away from us.
During the course of that eleven hour journey, word spread that a survivor was on the flight, and my heart swelled as I watched the Birthright kids each take turns to hear this man’s story. He was patient and kind as he told it over and over again, clearly understanding his “obligation,” and I could see in their eyes as they listened attentively that this next generation clearly understood the privilege of hearing his story firsthand as much as I did. I was just as captivated by watching “our” kids as I was hearing his story.
His survival is our own.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.