In this season of Thanksgivukkah, I’ve started to think a lot about cultural syncretism. I’ve come to the conclusion that, as a Jewish banjo player playing Hebrew prayers, I’m a very good example of cultural syncretism.
Cultural syncretism can be defined as combining aspects of two different and separate cultures, traditions, or belief systems. Some good examples of cultural syncretism in Jewish life would be the Passover seder being based on a royal meal in Ancient Greece, Ashkenazi challah being a Jewish take on German sweet bread, or the convenient similarities between Purim and Mardi Gras.
So how is a Jewish banjo player an ultimate example of this phenomenon? This calls for a brief history lesson:
The banjo began not in backwoods America, but in medieval Africa. During the colonial period, the banjo was brought over to the Americas by enslaved Africans who found similar materials easily available in their new environment. Soon enough, European Americans soon learned about the banjo from the enslaved African Americans, and by the mid-18th century, European Americans were touring around the country playing banjo in rural and urban settings (typically in minstrel fashion, including the infamous blackface). They also merged it with other musical traditions they were familiar with such as Irish, English, and Scottish music. Everyone was doing it!
Although the banjo waned in popularity in the early 20th century, it was re-popularized in the 1940s with the advent of bluegrass music (a combination of jazz and blues), most Jewish players of the banjo didn’t begin to learn it until the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. And nowadays, these Jewish players also have brought the banjo into many modern Klezmer bands, combining it with our own old-time Eastern European traditions. They’ve also created their own genre – Jewgrass. Check out Lucky Break, Banjo Billy, and The Sinai Mountain Boys!
It’s one of those ideas that it is hard to wrap my head around. When I’m playing Debbie Friedman’s Havdalah on the banjo, using chords and lyrics from the handy Shireinu, I’m not combining just African and Jewish traditions. Instead, I’m really combining African, Jewish, Irish, English, Scottish, American, and Eastern European musical traditions into one.
If that’s not cultural syncretism – I’m not sure what is. Bring it on, Thanksgivukkah!
“All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” — Victor Hugo
This line was quoted by Carol Penick, Executive Director of The Women’s Foundation of Mississippi at the opening of the foundation’s annual luncheon. This year, as the foundation celebrated its 10th anniversary, they honored ten “Women of Vision”. Carol pointed out that years ago, the time for change in the role of women had come– but while the time for change had come, it took people like these ten women who invested time, energy, and funds into making sure that changes took place in Mississippi.
The ISJL was honored to participate in the event, which honored our own board member emeritus, Kathryn Wiener.
As one of the women who helped start the Women’s Foundation, Kathryn Wiener has made a significant impact on the lives of women throughout this state. As pointed out at the event, the foundation has grown from a fund which distributed $6,400 to a foundation which distributed $506,000 this year. The Women’s Foundation is the only grantmaking and advocacy organization in Mississippi entirely dedicated to funding programs that improve the lives of women and girls statewide.
By ensuring the creation of the Women’s Foundation, Kathryn has been instrumental in advancing the economic security, safety and health of women and girls in Mississippi as well as their families and communities. In fact, it is because of the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi that the ISJL has been able to implement T.A.P.(Talk About the Problems) in Mississippi schools.
T.A.P., a conflict resolution program, provides a process through which students can resolve their conflicts peacefully. Girls who are selected to serve as peer mediators play a critical role in helping their peers arrive at a peaceful resolution to their conflict thereby improving the learning environment of all of the school’s students.
In addition to helping women and girls in Mississippi, Kathryn played an important role in the founding of the ISJL. Thanks to leaders like her, our organization now reaches a 13 state region, enhancing Jewish life for thousands of Southern Jews each year.
In his introduction of Kathryn Wiener, Dr. Robert Pearigen, President of Millsaps College told the audience that there isn’t a cultural organization in Jackson that has not been touched by Kathryn Wiener. Kathryn’s reach has been deep and vast. Kathryn is an example of what one individual can do to improve the lives of people in their community.
The ISJL is tremendously grateful to the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi for inviting us to participate in honoring Kathryn Wiener, a strong Southern Jewish woman. Seeing Kathryn, along with her nine “sisters in change,” be recognized for achievements that were undoubtedly hard to come by, was inspiring and energizing. We celebrate Kathryn, and her peers, all of whom chose to engage in turning the idea of advocacy for women and girls into a reality. We recognize the great responsibility that comes along with standing on the shoulders of such incredible women, and are honored to have been given the opportunity to be a part of the ongoing pursuit of positive change.
The 270-plus community histories in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities contain countless stories of Jewish-owned businesses. Often, these stories are fairly typical: a small dry goods store grows into a big department store or maybe even a regional chain of shopping emporiums.
But in Norfolk, Virginia – just one of 23 Virginia encyclopedia histories we recently unveiled – I came across a unique story with an explosive ending (literally).
Dudley Cooper was an optometrist who got his start going door-to-door fitting people for eyeglasses. He later moved into various real estate ventures, and in 1942 he bought the dilapidated Ocean View Amusement Park. Cooper bought it for its prime ocean front property, and had plans to tear it down to develop the site. It was during World War II, and Norfolk was home to a large naval base with several other military installations in the area. The military brass was concerned by the dearth of wholesome recreational activities for off-duty sailors and soldiers in Norfolk, and in a bid to distract them from the bars and brothels in the area, convinced Cooper to reopen the amusement park. Their plan was evidently a success, as the rate of venereal disease among area military personnel sharply declined by 1943. Ocean View remained in business after the war and became a summer ritual for generations of children and their parents.
During the years of legal segregation, Ocean View was for whites-only. But in 1946, Cooper partnered with three prominent black businessmen to establish the Seaview Beach Amusement Park exclusively for African Americans. With both black and white staff and managers and nice new rides, Seaview was the nation’s only major amusement park for African Americans. In a 1950 newspaper article, Cooper called it “a victory sociologically but a dud financially.” After Ocean View was integrated in the 1960s, Seaview was closed.
By the 1970s, Ocean View began to lose money due to high maintenance costs and increased competition from newer amusement parks in the area. In 1976, the Hollywood movie “Rollercoaster,” starring Timothy Bottoms, George Segal, and Richard Widmark, was filmed at Ocean View, which brought attention to the park, but was not enough to save it. By 1978, Cooper had decided to close the park.
When he sold the property to the City of Norfolk, it was his responsibility to clear its structures, which would be a difficult and expensive undertaking. Enter film director Michael Trikilis, who was looking to shoot a disaster movie set at an amusement park and had heard about Ocean View’s demise. He proposed to Cooper’s son, Joel, and to his nephew, Richard Miller, that the family allow Trikilis to blow up the rides for his TV movie to be entitled, appropriately, “The Death of Ocean View Park.” The Coopers agreed, and the rest is Norfolk and TV movie history.
Destroying the Rocket rollercoaster was not as easy as it looked in the film. The ride was so well-made that two attempts to detonate it left The Rocket standing. Finally, after its supporting beams were cut and pulled down by a large tractor, The Rocket gave way. Thanks to the magic of Youtube, you can witness the exciting climax of “The Death of Ocean View Park.” As you watch it, try to forget the bad acting and think about the important legacy of Dudley Cooper and his mission to provide wholesale entertainment to the people of Norfolk:
You can read more compelling (if less explosive) stories about the history of Jews in Virginia here.