I’m a historian, and a native Texan, and Jewish; I love food and especially food history. So when those interests intersect, I get excited.
That’s why I love writers like Marcie Cohen Ferris, who wrote such great works as Matzo Ball Gumbo and The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region. This week, I have a new little treasure bringing together my interests—this amazing food feature, which chronicles Jewish food and memories of Jewish life in Texas.
I am proud to hail from the Lone Star state. I think the following John Steinbeck quote rings true, “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation, in every sense of the word. And there’s an opening convey of generalities. A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner.” To be sure, Texas is unique, and everything IS really big there; but, this native Texan would like to contest it is still downright Southern. From the chicken fried steak to the homecoming mums worn by girls with hearts as big as their hair, the state is a bastion of both hospitality and more importantly, terrific food.
What was particularly striking to me about the article is that in addition to food, its focus is on growing up Jewish in Texarkana—my mother’s hometown! As a child, I visited Texarkana many times, but I never knew that the town boasted a rich Jewish history.
Reading this article, and re-visiting the Texarkana entries in the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities (a massive historic resource I am now tasked with growing and maintaining), it warmed my heart to know that the town of my mother’s birthplace was home to Jews like clothing merchant Sam Heilbron, bankers Joseph Marx and Leon Rosenberg, café owner Martin Levy, and Joseph Deutschmann, who helped the development of water and gas companies in Texarkana, owned a stake in the city’s first street-cars, and worked in real estate, developing housing in the growing town at the turn of the 19th century.
In Texarkana, Jews were actually present since shortly after the city’s founding in 1874 and were quite instrumental in its development and growth over the course of the twentieth century. The Texarkana synagogue, Mount Sinai, is still going strong. Be sure to stop there for services if you ever find yourself in the part of the country. In the meantime, you can read all about Texarkana right here.
My Texan grandmother never made Jewish delicacies such as matzo ball soup, borscht or stuffed cabbage, but she sure could make a mean raisin pie, and she made her living baking and decorating delicious cakes. I am sure if she had the recipe for kugel, she would have made it all the time for Sunday dinners, making sure that her version had twice the butter the recipe calls for, because why not add more butter?
If you have any fun Southern and Jewish recipes that are a part of your history, please share! As the saying goes, the next best thing to eating food—or being in Texas—is talking about it.
A few months ago, we saw a posting for a local environmental event. So we put on some sustainably manufactured clothes, grabbed our Nalgene water bottles, and headed to our neighborhood community garden. Unsure of what to expect, we wound up participating in a two hour drum circle while different people took turns reading off a list of “10,000 ways to save the earth” into a microphone.
Although our hands were sore and our ear drums were tired, we walked away energized and excited. We were going to compost! We were going to re-use old containers! We were going to walk to work!
Unfortunately, like a lot of resolutions, our commitment to compost, to re-use containers, and to walk slowly waned, and soon we were back to old habits. Part of our inability to follow through with our resolutions was due to our neighborhood’s current practices. There’s a lot of Styrofoam used here, a lot of double bagging those pesky plastic bags at supermarkets (our own fault, too, for forgetting to bring re-usable bags to the store). Our small recycling bin is only collected by the city every other week. There’s no outlet for recycling glass, either.
So, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of waste in our surroundings. And, like other cycles, waste begets waste. But when we noticed the adverse effects of this cycle, and how easy it is to get stuck in a rut, we knew we had to begin implementing some innovative changes our wasteful ways.
After accumulating an abundance of glass bottles over a 6-month period, we decided it was high time for a glass bottle painting party. We invited friends to bring their glass non-recyclables, got some acrylic paint, and created some really nice looking bottles. Now, these bottles decorate our homes as well as our desks at the office; they can be used as storage containers, as pitchers for drinks, as vases for flowers, and much more. We’ve re-used in the absence of a recycling outlet.
As a follow up to the painting party, we wanted to host an event that focused more broadly on sustainable practices. Lonnie recently became a Moishe House Without Walls host, which means we have the opportunity to plan and create events for the young Jewish community in Jackson, with a lot of support and guidance from the folks at Moishe House.
Lucky for us, the holiday of Tu Bishvat was a week away. Tu Bishvat, often called the birthday of the trees, is one of four new years mentioned in the Mishnah. We thought it would be cool to connect to the idea of the new year for trees with our drive for sustainability in Jackson. With the help of Moishe House Without Walls, we invited a bunch of folks to our house and asked everyone to share what their resolution for sustainability is. Answers ranged from “use less toilet paper” to “create a hydroponic fish tank.” We filled our house with fruits and nuts, and invited friends to try a new fruit.
We had about 25 people in our tiny home in Jackson, trying new fruits, drinking festive Tu Bishvat wine, and working on their resolutions for sustainability. Becoming sustainable, both on a personal level and on a wider scale, is a process — and a learning opportunity for everyone involved. And on that note, we really are going to make a concrete change, after months of only talking about it.
Our resolution for sustainability: we are going to start composting!
Hopefully this will bring our Jackson community closer to sustainable practices, which will create a culture of sustainability, because progress begets progress. Thanks to MHWOW, we will be able to host many events in which we can chat with folks about a range of issues relevant to young Jews.
Up next for Moishe House without Walls in Jackson, Mississippi: A Purim masquerade ball– featuring masks made exclusively from recycled materials. (And, of course, ongoing composting adventures.)
Today’s blog post is from Doug Smith, a member of one of the ISJL’s partner congregations, Temple Israel in Columbus, Georgia. He shares a poem inspired by the themes found in this week’s Torah readings and throughout the Exodus narrative.
Through Fierce and Flickering Flames,
G-d Told Moses,
“Bring Them Out of Egypt and Lead Them to The Holy Land”.
We Followed Him,
Into Stormy Seas and Through the Raging Waters,
All Marched Together as He Led Us to The Holy Land.
We Followed Him,
Into Desolate Wilderness and Through the Scorching Desert,
All Survived Together as He Led Us to The Holy Land.
We Continue to Follow Him.
Into Modern History and Through the Relentless Sands of Time,
He Still Leads Us to The Holy Land.
Thank You G-d,
Thank You Moses,
Thank You Mom and Dad,
Harriet (1937 – 2008) and Louis (1921 – 2001)
For this Faithful Journey,
Here Today I Stand,
With My Only Son,
Copyright DL Smith (2015)
Referencing / inspired by JPS Tanakh 2008
Exodus 3, 14, 17