“Um, Rabbi? Don’t you feel a little bit weird with a cross on the back of your car?”
I fielded this question recently on a jaunt down to New Orleans for a weekend of football and food. The inquiry came when my passenger, an Atlanta Falcons fan, noticed my Mississippi license plate, with its Saints loyalty on proud display. No doubt, my companion was puzzled that a Jew (kal v’chomer a rabbi!) would choose to put something that looks like a cross on his license plate.
But it’s not a cross. It’s a fleur de lis. And while this flower has had some interaction with the cross, that’s not what it represents to me. As I began to explain this, it got me thinking, oh, this is gonna turn into a blog post. And here it is.
The fleur de lis (sometimes spelled fleur de lys) is French in origin. The little symbol decorates flags, yards, jewelry, and crowns. The earliest fleur de lis are thought to be representative of the iris flower. Long adopted by royalty, it’s no surprise that many may associate the fleur de lis with Christianity, because the vast majority of kings and queens who used the symbol on their crests and in their commissioned paintings were of the Christian persuasion. It became Christianized as well when drawn so specifically with the trinity of three leaves, with various interpretations as to what those three things meant symbolically. In addition to the trinity, some ascribe it to the Song of Songs (“lily among thorns?”), while others have associated it with Mary, with the flower representing virginity.
New Orleans, along with many other cities/regions that were under heavy French influence in the New World, adopted this symbol. And when, in 1967 they received their first NFL franchise, they named their team the New Orleans Saints, and adorned them with a fleur de lis where other helmets had lions or stars.
So not only does the fleur de lis have some religious connotation in its past, the name of the football team that now claims the flower is the Saints – yeah, a bit of religion embedded there, too. Their moniker is no doubt an allusion to November 1st, AKA All Saints Day. Also, the jazz hit “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In” came to represent the city. Catholic influence can be seen throughout Louisiana, a state still made up not of counties but of PARISHES.
Hence, my favorite football team is surrounded by symbols with Christian connotations. But, as with any symbol, meaning and interpretation can change. So, too, can our connection to them.
I spent some time in the Superdome under the futile leadership of Aaron Brooks, but it was after Hurricane Katrina that all of a sudden I found myself purchasing shirts, flags, and hats adorned with the fleur de lis symbol. For the longest time, perhaps because they were the Ain’ts, it seemed as if there were more LSU decals than Saints floating around the city. But, as we began to resurge, as the team began to be a symbol for the entire city, the fleur de lis lost its old connotation.
Like the flower it is, the fleur de lis began to unfurl again and show us that spring had sprung. New Orleans would be in full bloom again. The fleur de lis gave hope to all, regardless of their religious affiliation.
After years of trying to figure out how to watch my team play while I was elsewhere, living in this city or that country, I’m proud to have finally returned to the region that I call home. It’s exciting for me to look around and see that I can connect with my neighbors over a symbol and a team, that our faiths and unique backgrounds can come together and be united. We can cheer for touchdowns, or be despondent over the most recent free agent departures. All this is only evident when we display our symbol—on our shirts, on festive game day cookies, and yes, on this rabbi’s license plate.
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Last week was my first adventure on the road as an Education Fellow. I went to Montgomery and Auburn, Alabama, and then continued on to Columbus, Georgia. My road trip buddy for this adventure was Lex Rofes, a second year Education Fellow. We met a lot of new people and had some great experiences. But the best part of our four-day excursion happened at the end—and involved the military.
Early Sunday morning, Lex and I joined some dedicated volunteers from Temple Israel in their weekly pilgrimage to provide the soldiers at Fort Benning with a morning service followed by a food-filled oneg. “Oneg” literally means delight, and usually involves tasty treats and socializing. These soldiers have come to enjoy this delight—and so there were around 600 soldiers who came to enjoy the services and oneg on the Sunday Lex and I were there.
We were invited to participate in services, lay-led by Neil Block, a congregant of Temple Israel who is extremely passionate about this operation. Neil was in the U.S. Navy, and he has made it his responsibility to ensure that the soldiers of Fort Benning have access to Judaism. To him, it does not matter that the majority of the soldiers in attendance are not Jewish. The Jewish soldiers appreciate this weekly gift, but so too do the other men and women in uniform.
Lex observed that this might well be the largest Sunday morning Jewish service in the country. The soldiers come for some quiet time to reflect and of course, for the oneg. Local businesses donate cookies, cakes, bagels, and cream cheese for the weekly oneg. Even with over 600 soldiers in attendance, there was enough for everyone to have a sweet and a bagel. The soldiers were all extremely polite and efficient. In no time at all, everyone was fed and we were out of food!
(I also learned that soldiers in basic training are on a high-protein-low carb diet, so this oneg was a special treat.)
The congregants we volunteered with echoed the sentiment that it did not matter if the soldiers in attendance were Jewish or not; what matters is a positive Jewish presence, and just giving back to the soldiers who serve our country. The 600 soldiers who showed up included people from all faiths. Some ask Neil and the volunteers about Judaism after the service, but most want to hear news from the outside world; they appreciate the sense of connection and community.
Many of the families at Temple Israel have ties to the military, and they are thereby dedicated to serving those who serve our country. It was an amazing experience for me and I cannot wait to go again the next time I am in Columbus. It’s a uniquely Southern and Jewish tribute to our troops, quietly carried out each week with food and fellowship, and I was proud to be a part of it.
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!