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!
Today’s blog is by Gabe Weinstein, a 2013 ISJL Summer Intern in the History Department. He now lives in Angel Fire, New Mexico, and is a staff writer at the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle. He shares his thoughts here on his new corner of the American Jewish world.
I never thought I would find a Jewish cemetery in Mora, New Mexico. Its miles of lush pastures are surrounded by the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and most residents are Hispanic Catholics. So when I heard about the Jewish cemetery just outside town I knew I had to check it out.
I headed to Mora after participating in a cemetery cleanup at the Montefiore Cemetery outside Las Vegas, New Mexico. From the 1880’s to the 1950’s Las Vegas’ Jewish Community thrived. Charles Ilfeld and his family established one of the Southwest’s most dominant commercial enterprises in the town. Jews became active in Las Vegas’ civic affairs during the era.
Like many small towns in the ISJL’s 13 state region, Las Vegas’ Jewish community experienced a quick boom and a decline. The Jewish community dwindled over the years and the synagogue, Congregation Montefiore, closed in the 1950’s.
Mora’s Jewish community was never the size of the Las Vegas, NM community. Only a handful of German Jewish families lived in Mora and the surrounding communities of Cleveland, Ocate, Guadalupita, Sapello and La Cueva. Jewish settlers arrived in the region starting in the 1870’s and began opening general stores, butcher shops and acquired interests in real estate and livestock.
It is virtually impossible to look at a map of where I live in northern New Mexico and not find a Jewish story. Brothers Alex and Gerson Gusdorf were business tycoons in Taos. The Spigelberg brothers were among the first Jewish settlers in Santa Fe, the state’s capital. They established a successful business empire in Santa Fe and helped countless other Jewish immigrants start their lives out on the frontier. The Rubin Family of Raton and the Herzsteins of Clayton are two of the countless Jewish connections that can be found throughout northern New Mexico’s plains and mountains.
The Jewish history of towns like Mora, Las Vegas, Taos and Santa Fe share many similarities with Southern communities the ISJL serves. German Jews made up most of the early settlers in both places. Many Jewish merchants in New Mexico and the South settled in isolated after stints as peddlers. Like Southern Jews, New Mexico’s Jewish pioneers took on regional speech patterns. Instead of developing southern drawls, New Mexican Jews learned Spanish and local Native American languages.
Today, northern New Mexico has a small and thriving Jewish community. Taos, the region’s tourism and commercial hub, is home to a Chabad house, a non-denominational congregation, and a Chavurah.
Jewish life in northern New Mexico’s smaller and more remote communities is for the most part extinct. But the legacy of Mora’s Jewish residents is still very much felt. The offspring of the people buried in the cemetery still live in the Mora Valley and are active in Mora County’s political and commercial activities.
After my visit to the Mora cemetery I’m itching to hit the road and check out more places in New Mexico with unique Jewish stories. I have to visit western New Mexico to learn more about Solomon Bibo, the German Jew who served four terms as governor of Acoma Pueblo. One of these days I need to make the short trip up to the border towns of northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado where the region’s Crypto-Jews have deep roots.
If there’s one thing I learned from my experiences at the ISJL and in New Mexico it’s that Jewish history exists in every corner of the United States. From the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico you never know when you’ll stumble upon a piece of American Jewish history.