Jews get lumped together a lot. Polls refer to “the Jewish vote.” We hear about the “Jewish response.” Labels of Jewish are smacked across everything from “Jewish humor” to “Jewish tradition” with little acknowledgment that Sarah Silverman’s fans aren’t necessarily Mel Brooks enthusiasts, and the traditions found in one Jewish household may vary wildly from the traditions found in a household one state over… or just down the block.
When representing a “Southern Jewish” organization, I’ve been asked frequently what makes “Southern Jews” different from “Northern Jews.” My response keeps evolving, but I do think there’s a difference.
There’s a difference because we are all products of our environment. With the exception of communities that choose to be expressly insular, we are all shaped by multiple forces. The Southern Jewish experience, particularly the small-town Southern Jewish experience, is one shaped by having fewer massive Jewish organizational infrastructure, and more overtly Christian neighbors. It is shaped by the music and the culture of the place, as is any other ethnic or religious group living here. In many ways, Southern Jewry has its own flavor, metaphorically and literally. It is connected to the larger Jewish experience, while being unique.
There’s a difference. But there’s also something more. There’s connection– and there’s conflict.
Ever since Jews started living in different places, we have always had things that have distinguished us. But now, more than ever, we seem to have an increasing number of things that not only distinguish us but also divide us. While the larger world might continue to lump us together, it is harder for many of us individual Jews to do so.
From egalitarianism to the equality movement, interfaith families to Israel, we are a polarized people. And in an era where we out our positions on Facebook, contend with new issues daily, our differences are surfaced quite quickly and clearly. When Jews are united on… well, probably nothing… how do we connect?
How do we remain “a people,” whatever that means?
I don’t know. But I do know this: somehow, we do. Somehow, there is still a Team Jewish affiliation that transcends Just-Southern-Jews or Just-Progressive-Jews or Just-Conservative-Jews. The team spirit doesn’t stop simply at our politics, be they progressive or conservative, or at our address, be it in the American South or South America.
It’s hard to define, this invisible thread. It’s a gut feeling. It’s our hearts twisting when the Holocaust is mentioned, and getting riled when it is invoked unjustly (even if our definitions of “unjust use” vary). It’s our ears perking up when there’s a mention of Something Jewish in the news. It’s feeling deep pride (maybe over different things) and feeling deep guilt (definitely over different things) and it’s wrestling, and wrestling, and wrestling.
Somehow, there still is a Team Jewish. But we sure are passing/throwing/swatting/
We feel it, but we don’t always show it. Or we show it in different ways. And we disagree, more and more heatedly. And there are seismic shifts and growing rifts in what that tricky “Jewish vote” looks like to the rest of the world, too.
What does that mean for the Jewish future?
Well. I don’t know that, either. But I’m pretty sure there will be a Jewish future. So that’s something.
At various times in my life, my own observance, stances, and struggles have varied. So too have the commitments and connections that kept me playing for Team Jewish. This has been one of those years where it’s challenging to define what exactly those “ties that bind” me might be, as the world continually unravels.
But I keep going to the mat.
Or the stadium. Or whatever.
What are your thoughts? From the cultural to the religious and the inane to the innate… what makes or breaks Jewish identity? How much is it shaped by where you live and what you experience?
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Yesterday, the ISJL hosted students from Operation Understanding, an organization whose mission is to develop a group of young African American and Jewish leaders knowledgeable about each other’s histories and cultures to effectively lead the communities of Philadelphia, PA and Washington, D.C. to a greater understanding of diversity and acceptance.
I thought I would share with our readers here a little of what I shared with the students in our office.
Having taught high school history for a number of years, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to do a presentation for teenagers on the relationship between Southern Jews and African Americans. This is not an easy talk to give to any age group, because while we like the stories of Jews fighting for civil rights, the historical truth is that those were primarily Northern Jews; most Southern Jews were not actively involved in fighting against the white hierarchy of the South.
Jews in states like Mississippi lived in a climate of fear and intimidation. Southern Jews were acutely aware that any challenge to white supremacy would result in serious social and economic consequences. Synagogue bombings, threats of economic boycott, and violence directed against civil rights workers convinced a lot of Southern Jews to remain relatively silent.
African American activists faced the same challenges, but to a much higher degree. James Chaney – one of three civil rights workers murdered during Freedom Summer by members of the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi – struggled to find support for civil rights among his local community. They were afraid of falling prey to what ultimately happened to Chaney. Chaney knew the risk and accepted it, paying dearly for his bravery. Following his death, his mother Fannie made sure that James’ younger brother Ben would follow his brother’s footsteps. I can’t imagine the kind of courage that would allow a mother to risk such a sacrifice, but she did, and Ben is still an active advocate of civil rights today.
Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, a Jewish activist who came down to Hattiesburg, Mississippi trying to register black voters, elected to leave the danger almost as soon as he arrived. He did not make the decision lightly or at some small act of intimidation, however: he was senselessly beaten with a tire iron in board daylight by white supremacists. A small group representing Hattiesburg’s Jewish community urged him to get out of town, fearful their synagogue would get burned or their members injured or killed. Lelyveld responded: “Don’t worry, I can’t wait to leave.”
These stories illustrate of a larger lesson: when any one of us fights for a social justice cause, we often embark on that journey with the best of intentions and without anticipating all of the dangers, difficulties and tragedies along the way. When that path threatens our safety or the safety of others, we begin to question how far we should go. Despite enduring great risk and suffering great injury, Lelyveld was able to return to the North and never face his aggressors again. Jews within the Hattiesburg community had to live among them with the memory of his beating urging them against anything other than compliance.
Even still, some very brave Southern Jews did stand up for civil rights in all sorts of ways. Many prominent Southern rabbis called for an end to bombings of African American churches and school segregation. And, despite the threat of boycotts against businesses owned by their husbands and families, many Jewish women worked against the segregationist system through organizations like the Women’s Emergency Committee. The organization was formed to combat the governor’s closing of Little Rock High schools. One Jewish woman, Marilyn Siegel, raised money for the WEC while dying from cancer.
Today, learning and working together, we can use these stories as an opportunity to ask ourselves larger questions about what we would do in similar circumstances. The issue of personal sacrifice for the sake of the common good is at the crux of a democracy. Each of us must inevitably weigh just how much we are willing to sacrifice for others every day in our own lives.
Here are some of the reflections and insights from some of these amazing students:
- “I think too many people my age assume someone else is going to take care of things and so they don’t do anything but it doesn’t mean we don’t still care.”
- “In my community, the biggest problem is young black males being incarcerated, but I don’t know how to help because the problem seems so big.”
- “A bunch of us walked out to protest budget cuts to our public schools, but not everyone because they were scared of being suspended. I think we let fear get in the way of standing up for things we care about.”
- “I like the fact that my community is so diverse. I think it makes everyone stronger somehow. People tend to look out for one another and that makes me proud to live there.”
What are your observations about diversity in your community? How do historical narratives shape your own understanding? I’d love to hear your thoughts, too.
The only Jewish person I knew of growing up was Jesus, and to be honest I had never thought much about this aspect of his identity until college when a professor described Jesus as a rabbi during a lecture.
I had developed an affinity for Jewish culture as a teenager, much the same way a teenager develops a curious interest in anything their parents haven’t told them much about. When I told my mother of my newfound interest, she bought me a small menorah, sent me a Rosh Hashanah e-card at the appropriate time of year, and told me that it was at least moderately likely that my grandmother’s German ancestors had been Jewish, but left that part of their culture behind when moving to the wild, lawless trapper’s country of South Louisiana.
(It seems that my ancestry is diverse enough to accommodate any passing cultural fancy I’ve had growing up. When I went abroad for a semester in Northern Ireland, my grandfather informed me that his grandfather had been Irish. I found it odd that this had never been mentioned before I brought up the subject.)
The point of these perhaps too-indulgent anecdotes is that any knowledge I’ve had of Jewish culture prior to interning here at the Institute for Southern Jewish Life has been superficial at best. The menorah my mother gave me is tucked away, forgotten in a drawer somewhere (and it uses candles that look suspiciously similar to those found on birthday cakes). I was nineteen years old before I really met and had a conversation with a Jewish person, at least to my knowledge.
At last week’s staff meeting, my first at the ISJL, we had a program on inclusion in honor of MLK Day. It was discussed that the ISJL is in the unique position of being the first Jewish organization that many people in the area will come in contact with. It certainly has been that for me. I couldn’t be more grateful to everyone for how welcoming they’ve been and am so appreciative of everyone’s willingness to explain any term or aspect of Jewish culture that I don’t understand.
My uncle has always said of New Orleans, a place he lived for 11 years, that you “never stop peeling back the onion.” My past week at the institute has taught me the same of the South in general. I’ve lived in the South my entire life and have yet to be involved, or even be in conversation with, the Jewish community here. A community that thrives, perhaps shamefully forgotten by those not a part of it, right in our midst.
I could not be more grateful for the opportunity to peel back and better understand this particular layer of my home.
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