Tag Archives: acceptance

“Profit is a Great Motivator for Tolerance”: Mississippi Jewish History Has Something to Say

Have you seen this image yet?

Eddie Outlaw

If not, can you guess which state it may be from? Believe it or not, this is a Mississippi initiative.

This glorious logo has been flooding my Facebook feed for weeks and is now getting the great press coverage it deserves – from local news outlets like the Jackson Free Press, and also from the likes of Time Magazine and some Posts—Washington and Huffington.

After the Mississippi House and Senate passed SB 2681—the controversial “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Mitchell Moore, owner of Campbell’s Bakery and a self-proclaimed “white, heterosexual, conservative Christian male,” decided to take a stand.

“The examples people always use (when talking about how businesses could discriminate) always involve weddings and a florist or a baker (refusing service to a gay or lesbian couple), since those are the ones that have probably happened somewhere,” Moore said to the Jackson Free Press. “I thought it was ridiculous, and I wanted to get the message out that we are not discriminatory, and that I want to sell my product to as many people as will buy it.”

Since then, hundreds of stickers have been printed and put up in storefront windows across the state. The campaign is getting so much attention that the American Family Association, a conservative evangelical organization, is fighting back. This article from the Huffington Post quotes the AFA saying  this is “not really a buying campaign, but it’s a bully campaign… carried out by radical homosexual activists who intend to trample the freedom of Christians to live according to the dictates of scripture.”

In counterpoint, the Huffington Post author points out that those who agree with the AFA might want to consider this: “…bigots in Mississippi are still free to discriminate, but they do at a disadvantage to competitors who don’t… Profit is a great motivator for tolerance.”

It’s this last line that got me thinking historically about tolerance among merchants. As I’ve written in the past, many Jewish immigrants to Mississippi at the turn of the century worked their way up from peddlers to become merchants in towns across the state. A majority of these merchants differentiated themselves from other businesses through their relationships with the black community. Jewish merchants across the South, especially the ones that owned lower-end dry goods stores (of whom there were many) relied heavily on black customers.

And in this relationship, there was a definite distinction between Jews and other whites. Jewish store owners had the reputation of treating their black customers far better than other white merchants. Jews were more willing to extend credit to blacks, and to use terms of respect when speaking to them. Certainly, there was an economic incentive to treat their customers well, but as one civil rights leader in Mississippi noted, Jewish merchants were considered “the better of the white element that you had dealings with.” In her memoir The Jew Store, Stella Suberman recalls how her father hired the first black store clerk in their small Tennessee town in the 1930s. In the store owned by Edward Cohen’s family in Jackson, clerks called their blacks customers “Mr.” or “Mrs,” which was unusual at the time. As Cohen notes: “We observed blacks’ humanity, if not their equality.”

But years later during the Civil Right Movement of the 1960s, the pressure to conform to segregation laws was more intense. When city leaders were not willing to integrate, Jewish merchants could be caught in the middle between movement sit-ins and white resistance. While they may have held progressive ideals, Jewish merchants were worried about the impact joining the movement would have on their businesses, and how speaking up could potentially endanger them and their families.

Only after integration became inevitable, or the cost of continued segregation became too high, did they change their practices—but they did often take the lead in this process. In Memphis in the 1960s, a handful of Jewish department store owners organized meetings with other merchants to discuss the peaceful integration of their stores. Jack Goldsmith, owner of Goldsmith’s, and Mel Grinspan of the Shainberg’s store chain, led this effort, which was designed to have all the stores integrate together so none of them could be singled out for retribution.

In both instances, profit was a main motivator,  but at different points in history a merchant’s practice of discrimination could either be bad or good for business. It’s why I find this “Religious Freedom” bill so dangerous. We’ve seen what happens when discrimination becomes acceptable and profitable, and the situation that it puts merchants in. Taking a look back helps frame the fight we are fighting today as social change threatens the sacred status quo.

The “If You’re Buying, We’re Selling”  campaign is trying to point out that in Mississippi, in 2014, discrimination is bad for business. This law is bad for the people in the state and those thinking of doing business in the state. And twisting the logic behind something as important as “religious freedom” of the majority to enforce discrimination against a minority is just another level of how disturbing it is.

Having lived in this state for six years, I’ve learned that the loudest voices are often assumed to be the majority. It was some loud voices who got the “Religious Freedom Bill” passed—but now, some other loud voices are taking the megaphone—loud, proud business owners who will sell to anyone who’s buying, and are taking a bright-stickered-sign against discrimination.

For more information, visit the website If You’re Buying website and follow the news of this growing movement on their Facebook page.

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Posted on April 30, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr…on Tu Bishvat

What’s the first Jewish holiday we’ll be welcoming in the secular New Year of 2014 (besides Shabbat, of course)? Tu Bishvat!

This holiday is connected to the agricultural cycle of Israel. This year, Tu Bishvat is on January 16th, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day is only a few days later—January 20th. Could there be a connection between these two, seemingly unconnected holidays?

Tu Bishvat has in many ways become “Jewish Earth Day.” We are encouraged to pay attention to all forms of life on our planet including the life of plants, trees and produce. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we celebrate the life of one of our nation’s greatest transformers, a man who did so much to advance the human experience by highlighting the dignity of all people.

In thinking about this exact question, I remembered a clip I saw that helped me better understand racism and the 3 primary ways in which racism manifests itself in our society. I thought I’d share it for two reasons: It describes the depth of racism and what Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting against. It also uses the metaphor of a garden—perfect for Tu Bishvat…

Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, MPH, PhD, according the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, is a family physician and epidemiologist whose work focuses on the impacts of racism on the health and well-being of the nation.  In her article Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and a Gardener’s Tale, she focuses on health disparities between people of different races. This film provides a general framework for looking at racism and can be translated to issues beyond health including education and criminal justice. In honor of both of these days, I encourage you to watch the film (and also read this article):

Maybe this film can help start an important conversation about acceptance (perfect for MLK Day) using the beautiful metaphor of a garden (perfect for Tu Bishvat)!

I also encourage you to host a Martin Luther King Jr. Tu Bishvat Seder/Shabbat supper. You can use this guide published last year by Repair the World and this Sunday Supper guide prepared by Points of Light. Perhaps you want to combine the themes of these two days, look at these questions as a group:

  • How does my community respond to each level of racism? Am I usually pleased by the response of my community?
  • How do I respond when I see the different levels of racism? How would I like to be able to respond to the different levels of racism?
  • What about Dr. Camara Jones’s question: Who is the gardener? Do I want to try and influence the gardener? How?
  • Are there similar allegories that portray different levels of racism?

Share any additional ideas or inspiration you may have for observing these holidays – we’d love to hear them!

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Posted on January 8, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Finding Joy

Ladin-1

                        Joy Ladin

I was moved by a story I heard on NPR last week. Krista Tippet, host of NPR’s show “On Being,” spoke with Joy Ladin, Professor of English at Stern College of Yeshiva University, is the author of Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, and has also published five books of poetry.

Joy shared her story candidly, in the interview and an accompanying photo essay. She also shared insights such as the following question posed to her, and the life-altering answer (and subsequent questions) that followed:

‘“Did anyone ever teach you to be true to yourself?’ a therapist once asked me. I had come to her in the midst of what I call my gender crisis — the physical, mental, and emotional breakdown I experienced after 40-plus years of living as the male I knew I wasn’t. I had just told her about my shame about hiding for decades my lifelong sense that I was female. Having failed to keep faith with my own gender identity, how could I now break my covenant with my wife, my children, and all who knew me as a man?”

This interview aired only a week or so before the ISJL’s Education Conference. At the conference this year, we had a keynote session for all participants, with five brave panelists willing to lead the conversation about privilege, and how privilege manifests itself in life generally and in Jewish communal life in particular. We discussed privilege and assumptions in terms of poverty, physical ability, mental illness, sexual identity, race – the wide range of ways in which some are granted privilege in our society while others are stigmatized or overlooked.

There are many privileges associated with having a gender identity that matches the gender assigned to us by society at birth. Many of us have the privilege of going about our daily lives without having to hide our gender identity from the people who are closest to us. For those of us who have been given this privilege, it is hard to imagine what it must be like to live a life in which we own one gender identity but seek to live the life of another.

Joy was afraid to reveal her true self to her students – students at Yeshiva University, a community primarily comprised of religious Jews. To her surprise, when she finally did tell them that she identified a woman and wanted to live as such, some of her students were most upset not by this revelation but by the fact up until that moment, she had been deceiving them. By living as a man, she had betrayed their trust. It is uplifting to know that it was of utmost importance to Joy’s students that Joy live as Joy; it is sad to imagine that Joy may have been tormented by the possibility that her students would reject her. The students’ true response, which surprised Joy with its level of acceptance, demonstrates that it is not sufficient to be accepting and welcoming, quietly. If people don’t know that we are understanding people, people will not have an easy time being who they are around us. If Joy knew that the culture around her was more accepting, perhaps she would have revealed her true self earlier and with less fear.

One question that emerges after listening to this interview is: How can Jewish institutions and congregations communicate a genuine interest in celebrating the diversity of the Jewish people? How can we encourage people—ourselves and people who fear coming out of hiding–to be as Joy says our “truest selves”? How can we support one another as we go about our “lifelong work of being at home in ourselves?”

We started some great conversation on this topic at the education conference, and we would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Posted on July 10, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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