Want some insights into a historian’s dilemma? It involves cultural identity. Geography. And NASCAR. (Well – sort of.)
The Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities now contains 250 community histories from 11 different southern states. As we get toward the end of our researching and writing, we are beginning to reach the edges of our territory, where the borders can get a little fuzzy. Covington and Newport, Kentucky, for example, are considered part of the south, but just across the river, Cincinnati, Ohio, is not.
Virginia, which will be completed and online this fall, presents an interesting case. Richmond, with Confederate statues lining Monument Avenue, remains culturally southern, while Alexandria feels little different from the suburb of any northern metropolis. Our encyclopedia history of Alexandria will tell the story of how the southern river port with a small Jewish congregation became enveloped by the expansion of Washington, D.C. after World War II. If one defines the south culturally and historically, rather than simply geographically, then Alexandria was once southern, but is no longer.
The shifting southern-ness of northern Virginia foreshadows the next big dilemma for the encyclopedia: Florida.
Originally, Florida wasn’t even included in the ISJL’s territory. But a few years ago, we took in the Sunshine State as our “12-state region” became the “13-state region.” We don’t serve the entire state, just the panhandle, which is sometimes affectionately called “Lower Alabama.” But after Virginia goes live in the near future, Florida is the last frontier for the encyclopedia. How much of Florida is southern, and which communities should we include in our encyclopedia?
When I give lectures about southern Jewish history, I usually cite recent population statistics, but I always exclude Florida. The main reason for this is that the explosion of the Jewish population of south Florida, fueled by retirees and northern transplants over the last several decades, has little to do with the history of Jews in the South. South Florida’s Jewish community has far more connections and cultural similarities with the Jewish community of New York than with Pensacola, Florida, let alone Greenville, Mississippi. The columnist Leonard Pitts, writing from Miami, once declared that south Florida was the only part of America where you have to go north to get to the South.
Also, far more Jews reside in south Florida than live in the entire South. When the last national Jewish population study included Florida as the South in its regional breakdown, we learned nothing about southern Jewish life, only south Florida Jewish life.
Once, when I was speaking to a group in Sarasota, I was nervous about so easily excluding Florida from the South. So I decided to ask my audience whether they consider themselves to be southerners. Only two people amongst a hundred or so raised their hands: one woman originally from Waco, Texas and a man from Georgia. The rest of the audience, all residents of Florida, had no identity as southerners. While this impromptu poll made me feel a little better about excluding Florida from my population figures, the problem of Florida and how we define the South has always gnawed at me.
Now it’s time to face this issue head on. Will I have to visit Key West and Miami Beach on my next research trip? Was Seinfeld’s portrayal of the Florida retirement community “Del Boca Vista” a humorous portrait of southern Jewish life? Were Morty and Helen Seinfeld southern Jews? I haven’t figured out the answers to these questions just yet, and would love to read your opinions on the subject. In the meantime, I am working on a theory about drawing the South’s border somewhere between Daytona Beach, home of the Daytona 500, and Orlando, home of Disney world. After all, the Walt Disney Company, run from a nice Jewish boy from New York seems Yankee – and what’s more southern than NASCAR?
Do you think of Florida when you think of “the South”? Why or why not?
This blog post was written by Anna Stusser, a summer intern currently working in the Museum Department at the ISJL.
Vinyl records capture the imagination. In my hometown of Olympia, Washington, independent craft artists fashion bowls to and household items out of vinyl, appealing to the local indie market. In Brooklyn, the hipster set has revived an interest in vinyl records. I, too, have always seen the charm in the shape and vintage appeal of record players – which is why I became so excited when, in my first few days interning at the ISJL, I found some vintage LP records in the ISJL collection.
It is hard to imagine that modern day hipster twentysomethings, smoking cigarettes on a Brooklyn stoop, have anything in common with a small early-twentieth Southern Jewish congregation. (Other than maybe being Jewish – apparently, Jewish hipsters are their own subculture, and they’re into vinyl!)
But here they were, vintage vinyl records that would be prized today in Brooklyn, donated to the ISJL’s museum collection by a congregation in Columbia, Tennessee. Why were these vinyl records important to the daily life of their congregation? Why would Jews have vinyl records that they would consider important enough to donate to a museum that dedicates itself to Southern Jewish ethnography?
After discussing it with my supervisor and reviewing the titles of such records (some example: Kol Nidre and Eili, Eili), I began to understand that these vinyl records had been something less trendy, and more functional. More meaningful.
To listen to Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky Singing Aneinu, as featured on one of the records, you can play this recording on YouTube (unfortunately not available as an embedded video, but worth a listen!).
Jews worshiping in Columbia, Tennessee, in the first half of the twentieth century, had no full time rabbi to guide them. Many of the Jewish people living in the area commuted into Nashville for their spiritual needs. However, in the early part of the 1900s, a group of people started the Khal Kadosh Congregation, a name which means “Holy Community.” Bilingual services were held in Hebrew and English for a congregation of 16, just barely above the size of a minyan, took place on the second floor of community member Isaac Wolf’s store. Although they had no permanent location, the small congregation acquired an Ark and a Torah. The records from Columbia very likely supplemented the services provided. Unfortunately, Khal Kadosh did not survive past 1926, so we do not know for sure.
But it’s a likely conclusion that the Jewish people living in Columbia utilized vinyl records out of necessity, because that was the technology that was available at the time. Back then, vinyl wasn’t vintage. It was cutting edge.
Small congregations like the one once found in Columbia, TN, still exist today. In the South, many of them are served by the ISJL’s rabbinic department, led by Rabbi Marshal Klaven. From Skype B’nai Mitzvah lessons to sending out his Taste of Torah weekly emails, today’s virtual resources have replaced those found on vinyl.
Do you remember vinyl – or as a young adult, are you discovering it for the first time? We’d love to hear your vinyl stories, especially if you’ve ever listened to recordings of Jewish music!
This post is from a new staff member, 2013-2015 ISJL Education Fellow Lex Rofes.
A few weeks ago, I listened intently as Beverly Wade Hogan, President of Tougaloo College, gave a truly inspirational speech. Entitled “The Responsibility of Privilege,” President Hogan discussed the importance of recognizing the advantages each of us may have in life, and taking from those advantages not a sense of entitlement but rather a sense of obligation to better the communities in which we live.
Tougaloo College is located in Jackson, Mississippi. I too am located in Jackson, now –so it might be logical to assume that I heard this speech at Tougaloo itself or somewhere else nearby. In fact, that is not the case. A few weeks ago, as I listened to President Hogan’s speech, I was sitting in a Baptist church not in Mississippi but in Providence, Rhode Island, at my college graduation ceremony.
It felt poetic, almost as if this gathering was specifically catered to my life. My classmates in Providence (my past community) listened intently as a leading figure in my future community (Jackson, Mississippi) provided some words of motivation as I transitioned from one to the next. As I sat in that church, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit special. Whereas just about every student in that room had no tangible way of connecting to our graduation speaker, I felt close to her because I knew I would be moving to the place that she calls home.
I felt like I knew Jackson, and I felt like I knew Mississippi. For two months, I had known I would be moving there to be an Education Fellow at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, and for two months I had done a little bit of Googling about my soon-to-be home. I knew the names of a few restaurants, I looked up the names of some of Mississippi’s leading political figures, and I even could tell you which area parks had facilities for me to play my beloved sport of disc golf. These surface level bits of information, in my head, were grounds for a real emotional connection to what would become my new home.
Since arriving down here, I already resent Two-Weeks-Ago-Lex. I would even say that Two-Weeks-Ago-Lex was incredibly presumptuous. If I had a time machine, I would go back and give him a piece of my mind. Basically, I was operating under one incredibly flawed assumption: that from my computer in New England, I could gain an understanding of a city a thousand miles away by reading a few books and running a few Googling searches. In reality, it takes time to understand the nature of a new place, and the only way to do so is by immersing yourself in it fully.
Now, more than ever, I am taking President Hogan’s advice to heart. Along with the other new ISJL Fellows, I am committed to more than living as passive recipients of the attractions Jackson has to offer. I am committed to engaging in the community where I now live, contributing to better our city and our region, and take responsibility.
Pictured: A peaceful spot on the Reservoir… a place best discovered when you meet Mississippi, in person.