Today’s tale of Southern Jewish family, history, and a meaningful road trip comes to us from our summer history intern, Gabe Weinstein, in the last of our “summer intern” series of posts. Thanks, Gabe, and all of our interns for the wonderful work and great reflections!
My Grandma Ethel lived in Cleveland, Ohio for over 50 years, but she never lost her Alabama drawl.
The drawl was her trademark. Her thing. Ethel immediately left the South after she graduated college in 1946. and never lived beneath the Mason Dixon line again. But a part of her heart always remained in northeastern Alabama.
There are over 250 Jewish communities in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. Grandma’s hometown, Piedmont, Alabama is not one of them. It’s easy to see why when you drive down Center Avenue. The storefronts that once housed dry goods stores and clothing stores sit empty, waiting patiently for new tenants that will never arrive.
Grandma Ethel’s family ended up in Piedmont for the same reasons thousands of Jewish families landed in small towns across the south. My great-grandfather George Kass had the opportunity to run a dry goods store. After a failed stint as a jewelry salesman in New York, George packed up the family and moved to Piedmont in the mid-1920s. The move made sense: prior to the New York stint, George had run a dry goods store in Cartersville, Georgia, and his wife Kate had family in Atlanta.
Grandma and my Aunt Louise never felt alienated growing up as Jews in Piedmont. Their friends always came over to socialize and they were always welcomed in their friend’s homes. There was one other Jewish family in town, the Steinbergs, who owned a clothing store next to my great-grandfather’s store and had been in town since 1912. But they were close with their non-Jewish neighbors, too: up until her death in August 2011, Grandma Ethel kept in touch with one of her closest childhood friends from Piedmont, Elizabeth Ellen, AKA “Sis.” Continue reading
“Do you know a rabbi by the name of Abraham Joshua Heschel?”
The question was asked of me by Jean Jackson, a life-long resident of Selma, Alabama.
I was setting up in Selma that hot August Saturday preparing to officiate a Bar Mitzvah, and was a little caught off guard by the inquiry. I replied:
“I didn’t know him personally. But, who doesn’t know his enduring words from this very town, where he marched with Dr. King? In recollecting on that moment, he said his ‘feet were praying.’”
“Well,” Ms. Jackson responded, “when they weren’t praying, they were resting at my home. I hosted him for the night and the next morning I saw one of the most amazing sights these eyes of mine have ever seen.”
I grabbed my colleague Rabbi Matt Dreffin who was on the road with me for that trip, and together we listened to her enthralling tale:
The Rabbi came into my living room, where the Russian Orthodox Priest (also staying at our home) was sitting. They nodded to one another in reverent silence. Then the Rabbi put his prayer book on my mantle and recited his morning prayers. All the while, the Priest listened intently, prayerfully. When the Rabbi finished, he closed his book and took a seat. Then, the Priest stood up, went to the mantle laid out his religious items and opened his prayer book. He too recited his morning prayers, while the Rabbi sat there, intently, prayerfully, taking it all in.
Picturing this historic scene, we were mesmerized by her words. When she went silent for a moment, the real world returned, along with the warm, stiff Southern air in the synagogue building that had no air conditioning.
Then, Ms. Jackson added: “So, don’t tell me religions cant’s get along!”
I assured her I wouldn’t dare. After all, Heschel’s host had just reminded me of the powerful changes that happen when strong interfaith guests, hosts, and partners in progress come together in places like Selma, Alabama.
At the ISJL, we’re often asked about all things “Southern” and “Jewish” – so it was no surprise that we received several inquiries regarding a recent article posted on JTA, headlined “Jewish newcomers bring optimism, but can they revive small towns in the South?”
Several of our staff members were interviewed for or contributed to the piece, but the question in the headline is still being asked of all of us.
My take? I think newcomers to any small town – the South, or elsewhere – can bring excitement, fresh ideas, and hopefully full participation in the Jewish community. There is certainly hope that with newcomers comes a better chance of long-term survival; this belief even inspired one group to offer Jewish newcomers $50,000 to move to Dothan, Alabama. We welcome newcomers, we see the optimism new residents can bring, but in the end, can bringing in new folks revive a community in the long term? That remains to be seen.
We are a transient society; people move around the country for any number of reasons: a new job, retirement, to be near family. It is wonderful when newcomers come into any community, bringing new ideas to share and making their mark in the community. It’s often hard to know, at first, if “newcomers” will become permanent members of the community for the long haul, especially in small towns. And if newcomers have children, will those children choose to stay in these small towns, or leave, as so many native-to-small-town-children have done over the years when they became adults?
In our daily work at the ISJL, we honor and work with Jewish communities large and small. If a community has one child in religious school or several hundred, whether they own a historic building or rent worship space in a church, no matter if their weekly Shabbat services draw 10 or 100 people, every Jew counts. No matter where they live. The ISJL helps connect these smaller population centers to the larger Jewish community, as well as to other small Jewish communities who are experiencing similar issues – diminishing population and resources.
Some of our staff are newcomers, but the organization is here to stay.
The truth is that some of these small towns in the South will no longer have a Jewish presence in the next 10 to 20 years. But the point is, however many Jews are in a community and however long they remain there, they deserve rich Jewish lives. So we will continue to provide support and resources to these communities as long as there is any Jewish presence at all – and when the last Jew in any given small Southern town is gone, we will continue to honor the memory of that community through the history collected on our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities.
So the question remains: Can Jewish newcomers revive small towns in the South? In the short term, absolutely; in the long term, we don’t know. But no matter what, we will support the efforts of those old and new, transient or settled.
What do you think?