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 special holiday post comes from guest blogger Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, Executive Director of Hillel at Texas A&M University. Thank you, Rabbi Matt!
“Rabbi Matt, they’ve scheduled the Alabama game for Yom Kippur.”
Hearing these words while still living in Los Angeles did not mean much to me; more to the point, I didn’t understand just how significant they were. I was finishing rabbinical school and preparing to move to College Station, Texas to be the executive director of Hillel at Texas A&M University. I thought, “Why are they telling me this?”
How naive I was.
Now, two months into my job at Texas A&M, I have a far richer appreciation for the role of football in Texas. As a new rabbi just out of rabbinical school, where for the last six years I was immersed in the traditions of our ancestors, there was nearly nothing holier or more important than the Day of Atonement. Yet, here we were, with this dilemma: Alabama vs. Texas A&M, the biggest football game of the year, was going to take place on that very Sabbath of Sabbaths, Yom Kippur. Saturday, September 14, with a kickoff time of 2:30 p.m.
I was truly grateful for the 2:30 p.m. kickoff. It made my life so much easier. I realized I wouldn’t have to abbreviate services or start Yom Kippur morning services at a strange time. We could easily complete the additional musaf service and perhaps mincha well before kickoff, before alumni or students needed to rush off from our brand-new Hillel building across the street to Kyle Field, the football stadium where the Aggies would hopefully defeat their opponents from Alabama.
With such a kickoff time, I determined that we’d be able to resume our closing services at 6 p.m., which should coincide with the end of the big game. After the game and after my congregation returned from Kyle Field to Hillel, we’d be able to hopefully rejoice in not only the exhilarating feeling one experiences after a long day of fasting for Yom Kippur but also in the exhilaration of an Aggie victory. Alternatively, if the Aggies were to lose, the chest-beating of the confessional “ashamnu” prayer would take on new meaning for my new congregation.
One of the traditions of Kyle Field is that students remain standing throughout the game. For my students attending the Alabama game on Yom Kippur, they’ve elected to try to pull tickets in a special section for those who need to remain seated. I do hope, for my students’ sake, that the weather is mild and not the 100-degree-plus weather we’ve been having in these days leading up to the High Holy Days.
For me, this juxtaposition of atonement and football will be an enlightening experience, one which I have never experienced before but I was trained by my teachers in California to be flexible and creative within the bounds of our tradition. To meet our congregants where they are, and emphasize the importance of Jewish life not “in place of” other things we value, but right alongside them – and certainly not of lesser importance. With the Alabama game, I appreciate the opportunity to exercise that flexibility in bringing Torah to the world.
It’s happened twice in the last four years: I’ve been in the middle of a lovely conversation with someone, and the “accidental slur” popped out: Jewing someone down.
Now, these two conversations were both with different people. Both of these individuals know I am Jewish, and both of them care deeply about me and have a definite respect for Judaism. So why would they say this? Well, they just didn’t know any better … but the real question each time, after someone said it to me, immediately became: what should I do?
They were very different situations, and very different people: one was my 30-something hairdresser. The accidental slur came up when he was sharing a story about buying a horse. Then, there it was: the slur.
I had been going to him for several years at the time, and my mind began reeling as he said it, knowing he meant no malice but… what to do about it?
The next case was when I met a delightful 70-something woman. It was our first meeting, but she also knew I was Jewish and had no malice in her heart for Judaism, or for me. I admired a sculpture in her home, and she then told me the story of how her deceased husband, um … effectively bargained to get it. (The slur again!)
In the first case, with the young hairdresser, I decided that for both our sakes, I needed to point out what he said. I explained that had I been a new customer, I never would have come back, but because I knew him well by now, and knew his heart and knew it was unintentional. I thought it better to explain why the “good old boy” expression was offensive. It was a good move, and he was grateful.
In the second case, although the friend I was with nearly had a coronary on the spot when he heard the older woman’s use of the slur, I silently waved him off. I quickly decided that if I were to share with her how the slur is offensive, it would have caused her great shame and humiliation, so my decision was to simply let it go.
Living in the South, or anywhere where Jews are true minority, these situations can provide quite the dilemma. How would you have handled these or other similar situations?