Today’s guest post comes from Bob M. Schwartz, a member of Temple B’nai Israel in Tupelo, Mississippi. His thoughts can be found at bobmschwartz.com as well.
On April 28, 2014, a tornado cut a path of destruction through Tupelo, Mississippi. Many buildings were damaged and destroyed. Houses of worship were no exception.
A tree punctured the roof of Temple B’nai Israel. A few blocks away, St. Luke United Methodist Church was hit much worse. Thanks to an outdoor security camera, the world has seen dramatic video of the church playground being blown away. The tornado also tore off the roof of the church’s sanctuary.
B’nai Israel missed only one Shabbat service for repairs. At St. Luke, Sunday services for the 800-member congregation were held in the Family Life Center. But many classes and groups had to look for temporary homes elsewhere.
That’s where the story of friendship begins- or really, where it continues.
B’nai Israel has been an integral part of the Tupelo community since 1939. It is the center of Jewish life for a broad region stretching all the way into Alabama. When the current building was dedicated in 1957, it was a development supported and celebrated by institutions across northeast Mississippi, including many of the local churches.
Openness has marked the relationship between B’nai Israel and the churches that surround it. So it was natural that when St. Luke Church needed a place for its Sunday School, it would come calling at B’nai Israel. But there is much more to this story than just a convenient location.
Bettye Coggin of St. Luke Church is the primary teacher of what is called the Friendship Sunday School. It is an adult education class that includes about sixty congregants, mostly in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. Three of the couples are “charter members,” having been in the class for fifty-two years. That is where the “Friendship” name came from.
In this case, that was not the only friendship that mattered.
George Copen is a past President and current Board member at B’nai Israel. His family came to Tupelo in 1954, where his parents Reuben and Dorothy Copen played a major role in the growth of the congregation. George attended school in Tupelo, and it was there in 8th grade that he first met Bettye Coggin.
Continuity has been until recently a hallmark of Southern life and Southern Jewish life. And even with the increased mobility of the last few decades, Tupelo and other Southern sites still seem to have a hold on the people born or raised there. So maybe it is no surprise after decades that Bettye Coggin and George Copen should still be in Tupelo, worshipping in buildings just a few blocks apart, serving leading roles with their congregations. They also continue to share the principle that in extreme circumstances they should get together to help serve their congregations and their faith.
There are differences in particular beliefs, of course. On the most fundamental of human concerns, though, those differences vanish in the face of need and service. Bettye Coggin points out that current curriculum for the Friendship Sunday School concerns the Old Testament, and studying that inside a Jewish synagogue adds a special dimension to the learning. While these particular lessons may not include Ecclesiastes, part of the biblical Ketuvim (Writings), that book has something appropriate to say:
“Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).
My last year has been full of change: I got married. My husband got a new job, out of state. These two changes led to a third change, as I became… well, whatever the landlocked version of “bi-coastal” might be: we moved, but I kept my job, and now I’m dividing my time between the Midwest and the South.
We’ve had several posts on this blog about what it’s like to come to the South, and be Jewish (like this great guest post about Jewish life in Jonesboro, Arkansas). But now, I have a fresh perspective on the other side of the coin: what it’s like to move to a much bigger, Northern Jewish community… and watch the reactions when you say you came from the South.
Recently, my husband and I began “Shabbat-Shopping” – i.e. checking out synagogues, chavurah groups, and other alternatives in the big city, to see where we might find the right-fit Jewish community. There’s certainly no shortage of options! On our first outing, we went to a progressive service in the heart of the city. At the end of the service, all newcomers were asked to stand up and say their names and where they were from, if visiting or new in town.
When we stood, we said our names, and shared that we were from Mississippi.
There was audible reaction to this statement from the congregants. Two, in particular, stood out.
An older woman, seated in front of us, turned around and said: “Mississippi? Really? Ugh. I’m sorry. I mean, I’m glad for you that you’re not there anymore. I’m sorry you had to live there. I can’t even imagine.”
Meanwhile, a younger woman from the back of the room called out: “I’m from Louisiana! Find me later!”
Both of these folks did indeed find us after the service.
The first woman had her husband in tow. He, too, felt it must be miserable to live in Mississippi: “How’d you wind up there in the first place?” He asked, making a face. “Are you, y’know, real Jews?”
My husband stared at me, clearly wondering—as anyone should—what the heck “real Jews” even meant in that context. (Or, um— ever.)
“Actually,” I said, completely ignoring the ‘real Jews’ part of the question, “I work for a Jewish nonprofit in Jackson. And we love Mississippi.”
“We left because I got a job here,” my husband explained. “But we still have a lot of friends and family there.”
“Oh,” said the woman. “I’m sorry if what we said was rude. We didn’t mean to offend you.”
“No harm done,” I said, smiling. “Have you ever been to Mississippi?”
“No,” she admitted.
“It has its issues. We don’t love it for the politics,” I joked. (Hey, know your audience.) “But there’s a lot to love about it. And the Jewish communities there are great. I’m glad I still get to spend a lot of time there—I miss it when I’m not in Mississippi. It’s home. And it definitely has better winters!”
“That’s true,” the woman’s husband chuckled. We made small talk with them for a few more minutes. Then the young woman from Louisiana found us.
“You’re from Mississippi?” She asked, grinning. “I left Louisiana after high school. Like, more than a decade ago. But I still miss it. I dream about Louisiana a lot of nights. Don’t you just love it?”
My husband (a Louisiana native) and I nodded, and began talking with her about what she loved about life here, and life there. I love the instant kinship you often feel with those who have also lived in the South.
As we left the service, it hit me: how funny it is that when you’re Jewish in the small-town South, you’re explaining Judaism—and when you come from the South to the big-city Jewish world, you’re explaining the South.
William Faulkner said that to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi. Knowing, loving, and wrestling with Mississippi continues to help me understand the world, and also to understand myself. I’m still sometimes taken aback by the visceral reactions people have to the South, and particularly Mississippi, even if they’ve never been – but I’m happy to respond to those reactions. It’s part of the tax we pay, we who call Mississippi home; I’m always happy to share the good stories, acknowledge the difficulties, and maybe even change a few minds… and inspire a few visits.
There’s a common stereotype about the American South. A nice one: people here are friendlier when compared to the rest of the country.
On the way out of Jackson, I joked around with some folks also waiting in the unusually long security line. We discussed the length of our wait, the Jackson airport, and our time in Mississippi. One of the men was on my flight to DC, and we continued chatting as we disembarked the flight.
Upon arrival in DC, I sensed a different vibe. Strolling through the area, I found myself nodding and saying hello to many random strangers I passed, just as I do when strolling through Jackson. In Jackson, people respond, smiling back, saying hello, asking how you’re doing. In the DC suburbs, I got a few nods and smiles, and also had my brother telling me to “stop being weird, Daniel. You’ve been in Mississippi too long!”
Naturally, as younger siblings are supposed to do, I did it more, just to irritate him.
Still, however, I did not get the results to which I’ve become accustomed.
After a wonderful weekend, on the way back to the airport, I spent several hours commuting to DCA by MARC train and then two separate DC metro lines. Throughout the entire ride, I only encountered a handful of smiles, nods, or friendly remarks. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only people who I had a conversation with were my friends I visited in DC. And while they might be strange, they’re not strangers to me.
However, once the airport attendant called for all the passengers going to Jackson, and we all crammed into the bus which would take us to our tiny plane, everything changed. One person made a silly comment about Mississippi rather loudly, and suddenly everyone began laughing, smiling, and chatting with random strangers. I conversed with a woman heading down to assist the Red Cross disaster relief efforts following the tornadoes. Two strangers were swapping stories about their respective trips. I made funny faces at a baby in front of me, and chatted with his mother. I’m absolutely certain that I spoke to more people on the 20 minute bus ride to the train on the tarmac than I did during the 2 hours I spent in transit to the airport.
One of the former Education Fellows, originally from New York City, had a theory: people are friendlier in Mississippi because there are simply fewer people down here. In big, busy, cities, if you stopped to chat with (or even just nod to and acknowledge!) every single person you saw while walking down the street, you would never get anywhere. In Mississippi, there are fewer people, so you can afford to take time to talk to the people you meet, you can afford to get to know them, and you can still get where you’re going a little bit early.
Alternatively, people might be friendlier because of a shared culture in Mississippi and the American South. Perhaps this shared culture brings people together and makes them friendlier. Maybe it’s just good ole’ fashioned southern hospitality. Of course, in the Jewish world, Shammai said in Pirkei Avot: “Hevei m’kabeil et kol ha-adam b’seiver panim yafot.” Receive every person with a cheerful countenance.
Sounds like Southern friendliness to me.
In any case, it’s not that big city folks are necessarily rude, but “Southern Hospitality” and general friendliness remains a true legacy…and I know for certain that I will definitely miss it when I leave, and plan to take it with me!