At my congregation in New Orleans, I teach an adult beginner Hebrew class. There are many different types of students in the class: Jews who want to be able to better follow the prayers in Hebrew during services; Christians who want to be able to read passages from the Bible in the original language; Jews preparing for an adult bar/bat mitzvah; and those in the process of conversion to Judaism.
Last week I fielded a question from a woman in that last group. Her question was not about Hebrew, but about Judaism: “I am coming to the Rabbi’s classes, I have learned the history and holidays and all pertinent information, I am learning how to read Hebrew… but I still don’t think I understand what it feels like to be a Jew. What should it ‘feel’ like?”
I invited her to attend Shabbat services with me that Friday night and sit with me so I could show her in live action what being Jewish feels like to me – how praying, hoping, and coming together with other Jews moves me, personally. She was hesitant at first; wasn’t there an easier answer? Could she “Google it on her own,” or figure out some other way to get this question answered, on her own time frame and by herself?
Quite simply… no.
Judaism is a communal experience. Yes, we can learn information on our own, but when we attend a class or have a study buddy, that’s when there is debate and discussion— and that is the Jewish way to learn. Yes, we can pray on our own, but when we attend a Shabbat service, meet and greet others, and pray together, we share a bond with our community like no other—and that is the Jewish way to pray. Judaism is, above all, a shared experience. No matter how big or small our Jewish community, the fact that we come together is meaningful.That sense of connection—that is the way to “feel Jewish.”
I don’t know if there is a way to teach someone a feeling, but when you show them how you feel things and where you feel things and why, they begin to understand and maybe can feel it for themselves. My student did come to services last Friday night, and sat beside me. After being nervous about the initial peer pressure to get up and greet someone that you don’t know, she participated. After experiencing the connections, right from the beginning of the worship experience, she said to me: “This really is a communal experience.”
Quite simply… yes.
We use the phrase “transplants” often down here—referring to the “Yankees” who for one reason or another found themselves down South. (Transplants like… me.)
In the Southern Jewish communities with which I interact, the transplants are often people who, though lacking “deep Southern roots,” have stepped up as local leaders. They step up alongside those with the deep Southern roots, the ones who have been leaders in their communities for multiple generations. Both the transplants and the long-term residents share an appreciation of and dedication to Jewish communal life—but for the transplants, this passion is often newfound. Even if they weren’t as active “Up North,” they end up serving as leaders in their Southern congregation, and ambassadors in their communities.
When I traveled as an Education Fellow, I would hear from moms and dads in small Southern towns who “never in a million years” thought they would be teaching religious school. In New York, New Jersey, California, places with large Jewish populations, there were plenty of people to do all the things that maintain a healthy and thriving congregation. In smaller communities, it’s more do-it-yourself.
So, what was I doing in Tarpon Springs? It began with a phone call from Joel May, a transplant to Tarpon Springs. But he wasn’t the typical “snowbird” retiree most of us picture when we imagine transplant Jews moving to Florida. Joel is originally from Jasper, Alabama. And while he has lived in many places since, he was a born and bred Southern Jew. He contacted me about a loan of an eternal light for their sanctuary, a process we affectionately call “re-planting”. Being from the region, Joel knew of our museum. He made the connection, and I worked with him and his committee to re-plant a beautiful ner tamid from Gemiluth Chassed, a congregation that had closed in Port Gibson, Mississippi, to his congregation in Florida.
For me, the experience of replanting a Southern Jewish artifact rich in value and history (the ner tamid was originally donated to Gemiluth Chassed, the oldest synagogue in Mississippi, built in 1892) was already incredible. Making it even more meaningful was the Southern Jewish congregant, Joel from Jasper, helping to bring this artifact to his new community. His new a community is one full of transplants, from many places outside the South, but all are now connected to the Southern Jewish experience. It is a remarkable testament to the contribution and quality of the small population of Southern Jewish communities.
My time in Tarpon Springs was lovely. Years ago, I was lucky to drop into communities every other weekend, but I had forgotten what a joyful feeling it is to be warmly welcomed into a new group of people. Food, music, gossip, what could be better! What I soon learned is that while the community was made up of transplants, they weren’t the typical New York Jews I was expecting. All the jokes I had written into my talk about Brooklyn were going to fall flat with the people I was meeting from Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota. (Apparently the west coast of Florida attracts Midwesterners—who knew?!) I admit I felt foolish for coming with preconceived assumptions, when most of what I do each day is try to break down stereotypes of Southern communities.
But I was pleasantly surprised that many of the people in the congregation would find it easier to connect to small town congregational life like Port Gibson. I heard from people telling me about their families immigrating to the Midwest, opening stores or becoming fur traders, very similar narratives of the Southern story that I was planning to share. I listened and learned about the natural connections between Midwest and Southern congregations that I hadn’t previously considered before my visit. This made this replanting all the more special.
The night of the dedication, I met a few people who had come because they did have Southern roots. A woman from Atlanta, a family from Brookhaven, Mississippi, a couple from New Orleans. I liked seeing them seated in the congregation, nodding along with my new Midwestern-ex-pat friends as I talked about the connection between the long and rich history of Jewish communities in the Deep South to the larger national Jewish population. Dedicating a piece of the Gemiluth Chassed sanctuary built a special connection through time and space between these two small congregations, a connection that is important for continuing to support the legacy of Jewish communities in the region.
This eternal light, the ner tamid, will be given the opportunity to shine again and serve a congregation, ensuring the ancestors of small town Jewish communities like Port Gibson will not be forgotten… well, I get goosebumps just thinking about it! I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful celebration.
The stereotype that “Jews run Hollywood” didn’t come up much when I was a little kid; I doubt it comes up for most kids. This is not only because, hopefully, we’re spared from some stereotyping when we’re really small—but also because as a little kid, if Jews were running Hollywood, well, you sure wouldn’t know it from children’s entertainment.
As the only Jewish family in our little town, I didn’t see a lot of other Jewish families around. I also never saw my family reflected in the television or movies we watched. I mean, like, other than our annual Passover screening of The Ten Commandments, or our way-too-early introduction to Fiddler on the Roof. But both of those movies had been made a long time ago, and were obviously For Grown Ups. I fully expected that, like all of my friends and neighbors, the characters in the movies and TV shows I watched would celebrate Christmas, not Chanukah.
Until the Jewish mice.
When I saw Don Bluth’s now-classic animated feature, An American Tail, I was thunderstruck. The movie begins with the Mousekewitzes, gathered together to celebrate Chanukah. They even pronounced the “ch” right. The father played a violin, just like in Fiddler on the Roof, but for kids! And then, of course, the Cossacks raided their little Mouskewitz home in The Old World, and then the little mouse family was off to America, going through Ellis Island… just like my family.
Those mice are Jewish, I thought. Fievel and Tanya, they’re Jewish. They’re like me.
But here’s what I really loved about those Jewish mice: Their Jewishness was just part of who they were, and the story was about big ideas that everyone could relate to—starting somewhere new, family, growing up. The same way that in most of the other movies and TV shows I watched, the show wasn’t about them being Christian—they just were Christian, and therefore celebrated Christmas and Easter and everything, but their stories were about big ideas. My friends who weren’t Jewish still loved Feivel and related to his little Jewish-mouse family.
Even later, when I started going to Hebrew School and watched Torah-toons and holiday specials that reflected Judaism in the characters onscreen, there was something special to me about those Jewish mice. When Fievel is searching for his family, he didn’t stop along the way to explain what “kosher” is, or to teach the viewers how to play dreidel. He wasn’t a token Jewish character in a holiday special, designated as “The Jewish One.” He was Fievel, a lost immigrant kid who happened to be Jewish (and happened to be a mouse). I loved that in his little mouse family, they just were Jewish, and that fact was treated as casually as other movies treated the Christianity of their characters.
That felt like my own American tale. Being Jewish is part of my story, and influences my experience. Even when I’m not “doing something Jewish,” it’s still part of who I am. Those are the characters that still resonate with me most: not the ones overtly teaching us something about Something Jewish (or, sadly, playing into one of those old Jewish stereotypes), but the ones who just are Jewish. Like Fievel.
Seeing that reflected onscreen as a little kid had a lasting impact on me. Maybe that’s why I still tear up when I hear Somewhere Out There.
Mickey and Minnie are great. But Fievel and Tanya? Those mice helped me feel a little more included. They helped me believe that somewhere, out there – all of us can be represented.
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