Last week, I was on the road with TENT, a week-long traveling seminar on culture, history, and social justice for a group of Jewish twenty-somethings. The group started in New Orleans and finished in Memphis, spending several days in Mississippi along the way.
I accompanied the group from New Orleans to Jackson, and it was a privilege to spend time with such an intelligent, enthusiastic group of young adults. All but one of them hailed from the North, so it was interesting to watch them experience Southern culture and learn about Southern Jewry from trip leader Rachel Myers and their scholar-on-the-road, Professor Eric Goldstein of Emory University.
Some in the group had been to New Orleans, but none of them had been to Natchez, Mississippi, the second stop on our tour.
Natchez, a river port town in Adams County, sits on high bluffs towering over the mighty Mississippi River. Commonly referred to as “The Bluff City,” Natchez is one of the oldest and most important European settlements in the lower Mississippi River Valley. Its economy, firmly rooted in the cotton trade, prospered during the 19th century and attracted people from around the world seeking to profit from the trade. Goods came to the area from ports in New Orleans, St. Louis, Boston, New York, and even Great Britain. As a result of this great success, in 1860 Natchez had more millionaires than anywhere else in the United States.
Though past its economic prime, Natchez continues to attract visitors with its many historic homes and festivals that celebrate life in the Old South. Here, in the so-called “most Southern place on earth,” the group quickly learned that Jews flourished in The Bluff City for over two centuries.
Natchez has thirteen National Historic Landmarks and over 1,000 structures on the National Register of Historic Places. A number of historic churches are scattered throughout the city, including Temple B’nai Israel. The original temple was built in 1870, but burned to the ground due to faulty wiring. B’nai Israel’s new building was dedicated on March 25, 1905, with over 600 people in attendance.
A number of esteemed guests come to B’nai Israel to talk to us about the history of the Natchez Jewish community. Mayor Larry Lynn “Butch” Brown [named for two other Natchez Jews of blessed memory, Larry and Lynn Abrams] spoke about the many contributions Jews made over the years, and invited us to return to the city’s tri-centennial celebration in 2016. Mimi Miller, Executive Director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, shared that the synagogue looks much as it looked in 1905. The bima, lighting fixtures, and chairs are the same. Temple member Beau Baumgardner informed us that lay-lead services are held monthly, despite the fact that the median age of temple members is 74. The congregation is fortunate to have David Goldblatt, a music professor at Alcorn State University, serve as cantorial soloist. To the group’s surprise, Beau also told us that often, more gentiles than Jews are in attendance at Shabbat services.
After visiting the temple, we met Natchez resident Jerry Krouse and toured his historic home. His adorable granddaughters helped lead the tour. Jerry has an exquisite collection of mid-eighteenth-century Rococo furniture and antiques.
Though small in numbers now, the Natchez Jewish community continues to shine in this historic gem of a city. In 1991, Temple B’nai Israel went into partnership with the ISJL (then called the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience) to ensure their temple’s preservation down the road. B’nai Israel is now listed as a Mississippi historical site. In fact, the Historic Natchez Foundation has a riddle on their architectural scavenger hunt: “I alone am surmounted by a dome, but I have few members who call me home.”
The TENT participants visiting Natchez almost all came from towns with large, thriving Jewish communities. We were all impressed by the determination of the Natchez Jewish community to keep their Jewish traditions alive for as long as possible. It was a wonderful way to begin a journey through the Jewish South, and a good lesson: a community can be small, and still be thriving.
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In the summer of 2013, I left a wonderful congregation in North Carolina to pursue an exciting opportunity on the staff of Gann Academy in Massachusetts. Many of the rabbis I work with at Gann Academy take on added responsibilities during the High Holy Days, helping out at Hillels, chavurot, and synagogues in the Boston area. As we swapped sermon ideas and commiserated over cantillation, my colleagues were surprised to learn that I’d be spending the holidays with Temple Emanu-El of Longview, Texas as part of the ISJL’s “Rabbis on the Road” program.
Though I am familiar with the South, even I wasn’t sure what to expect from a community that would fly in a rabbi from 1,700 miles away, sight unseen, to lead their High Holy Day services. As I left the airport, speeding down Route 20 from Dallas, Kol Nidre playing on the rental car stereo, I realized that, for the first time, I was leading the entire High Holy Day service, and I had no idea what the minhag ha-makom [local custom] was in East Texas.
As soon as I arrived in Longview, however, I found everything I could have hoped for in a community: open and supportive, warm and welcoming. And in addition to the southern hospitality I’d been missing in Boston, I discovered one of the most dedicated collections of lay leaders I have ever encountered.
Though the Jewish population of Longview has dwindled over the years, a small cadre of dedicated families has maintained their synagogue both physically and spiritually. The temple building is not only immaculately kept, but also frequently put to use. While rabbinical leadership has diminished from full-time to biweekly to occasional visits from the ISJL, Temple Emanu-El continues to hold lay-led Shabbat services and dinners nearly every week.
Temple Emanu-El doesn’t just serve the longstanding members of the Longview community. As the only synagogue in a 40-mile radius, Jews – and the many, many local friends of the Jewish community – came in from the surrounding communities of Marshall and Kilgore. On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I noticed young couples, new to town and far from home, joining the community for the first time.
Many families had a tradition of inviting their children and grandchildren to spend one of the holidays with them, and more than one family had three generations present at our Yom Kippur service. Practically every synagogue I’ve been to offers separate programming for children, so I was curious as to what the young people would get out of the service. Would they be bored? How would they respond to a worship experience that was not designed for them?
There were some naps, and yes, there were some meltdowns. But there were also helpers at Havdallah, Judaic crayon art created during the sermons, and exuberant demonstrations of cheer routines during the break-fast. Instead of feeling like the rabbi of a very small congregation, I started to feel like a member of a very large family.
My favorite moment of my visit was when, at the end of the Kol Nidre service, at nearly ten o’clock in the evening and following a lengthy, aimed-at-adults sermon, two young sisters shyly approached the bimah, nudging each other and whispering.
“You tell her!”
“No, you tell her.”
Finally, one of them said, “In part of your sermon, you were talking about Jonah, but you said Noah.”
So, they were paying attention…
Celebrating the holidays with Temple Emanu-El certainly kept me on my toes. It also showcased the dedication, commitment, and attention to detail of a community I might not otherwise have had a chance to meet. I headed home feeling that the Jewish future is in good hands. And that’s a great way to start the New Year.
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“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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