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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What’s the first Jewish holiday we’ll be welcoming in the secular New Year of 2014 (besides Shabbat, of course)? Tu Bishvat!
This holiday is connected to the agricultural cycle of Israel. This year, Tu Bishvat is on January 16th, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day is only a few days later—January 20th. Could there be a connection between these two, seemingly unconnected holidays?
Tu Bishvat has in many ways become “Jewish Earth Day.” We are encouraged to pay attention to all forms of life on our planet including the life of plants, trees and produce. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we celebrate the life of one of our nation’s greatest transformers, a man who did so much to advance the human experience by highlighting the dignity of all people.
In thinking about this exact question, I remembered a clip I saw that helped me better understand racism and the 3 primary ways in which racism manifests itself in our society. I thought I’d share it for two reasons: It describes the depth of racism and what Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting against. It also uses the metaphor of a garden—perfect for Tu Bishvat…
Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, MPH, PhD, according the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, is a family physician and epidemiologist whose work focuses on the impacts of racism on the health and well-being of the nation. In her article Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and a Gardener’s Tale, she focuses on health disparities between people of different races. This film provides a general framework for looking at racism and can be translated to issues beyond health including education and criminal justice. In honor of both of these days, I encourage you to watch the film (and also read this article):
Maybe this film can help start an important conversation about acceptance (perfect for MLK Day) using the beautiful metaphor of a garden (perfect for Tu Bishvat)!
I also encourage you to host a Martin Luther King Jr. Tu Bishvat Seder/Shabbat supper. You can use this guide published last year by Repair the World and this Sunday Supper guide prepared by Points of Light. Perhaps you want to combine the themes of these two days, look at these questions as a group:
- How does my community respond to each level of racism? Am I usually pleased by the response of my community?
- How do I respond when I see the different levels of racism? How would I like to be able to respond to the different levels of racism?
- What about Dr. Camara Jones’s question: Who is the gardener? Do I want to try and influence the gardener? How?
- Are there similar allegories that portray different levels of racism?
Share any additional ideas or inspiration you may have for observing these holidays – we’d love to hear them!
What do you do when you have a mission to promote Southern Jewish history, but you have no physical place in which to do it?
Well, I think it’s a good idea to make friends… with benefits!
Specifically, friends with access to a beautiful art gallery, who want to team up and host a photograph exhibit about an important historical event that happens to have an interesting Jewish connection.
As I previously mentioned on this blog, Scottsboro Boys: Outside the Circle of Humanity is a powerful exhibit curated by the Morgan County Archives. The ISJL helped bring this exhibition to Jackson though a collaborative partnership with the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University.
These types of collaborative connections are the standard for Jewish programming in the this region. Small populations and limited resources inspire communities to look outside the box for new “friends with benefits,” creating partnerships to make programs possible. Whether it’s a new congregation using a church space for services, or an academic institution sponsoring a Jewish scholar, outreach is a strong and important tool for our communities.
And the results can be pretty fabulous. In my case, we were able to plan three unique events that attracted diverse audiences from across the city. I’m partial to the party that we managed to throw on the last day of Hanukkah in conjunction with a lecture on Jewish lawyers and activists involved with the Scottsboro case. I have yet to check the official university records but I’m pretty sure it was the first Hanukkah party ever thrown at Jackson State. Even though the latkes were a little mushy (had to prep them the night before!), we were able to pull of a successful cultural exchange that may not have happened if we were within a traditionally “Jewish” space.
Have you ever partnered with a non-Jewish entity to create a shared space where Jewish programs can be enjoyed by all? We’d love to hear about it!