My family flew to Los Angeles two weeks ago to attend the funeral of my father-in-law, z’’l. We had been with him for a visit in December, and we are grateful for these good and recent memories. He was truly a wonderful man. Throughout this journey to Los Angeles, many emotions flowed through us. We were relieved that he’s no longer suffering, sad that he won’t be here for so many lifecycle events and moments with the grandchildren. I was expecting to feel those emotions. I was unprepared for some of the others that came up while we were there.
My husband grew up in the L.A. area, and his parents and his brother and extended family still live there. We are the ones who don’t – the “family that lives in Mississippi.” At the shiva house, as people chatted after the service, I received an odd comment, from a woman I did not know. The woman said: “I noticed your children seemed to be able to really participate in the service with the Hebrew… and you’re from Mississippi? That’s wonderful.”
In that moment, I think I was in shock, so being the “polite woman from Mississippi” I simply responded by saying thank you and moved on to the next person. However, two weeks later, it’s still bothering me – it’s that itch that’s in the middle of your shoulder blade that you just can’t reach so it just keeps irritating.
I’m sure this woman felt like she was complimenting my children, but the implication that they would be Jewish illiterates because we live in Mississippi is infuriating and ridiculous! Yes, it’s wonderful that my children are from Mississippi and have learned Hebrew, attend religious school, participate in youth group, and so on. But it shouldn’t be shocking, and I imagine there are others who share this woman’s sentiment.
Raising Jewish children anywhere can be a challenge. You have to work at participating in the Jewish community. It’s very easy to sit at home and not get involved. We have been active in our synagogue and involved in Jewish organizations. We go to Shabbat services, religious school, holiday celebrations and programs at the synagogue. We have a Shabbat meal together, and our children are enriched by going to Jewish summer camp. Two of our children have gone on a NFTY-in-Israel program, and our third will go once he turns sixteen.
We enjoy a fulfilling Jewish life here in Jackson, Mississippi. We don’t enjoy it “in spite of where we live”—we enjoy it because we seek it out. We participate. We make the effort. You can live in Los Angeles and do nothing Jewish beyond going to a good deli and eating fresh lox. And you can live in Mississippi and do something Jewish every day. It’s not about where you live—wherever you live, it’s about the choices you make.
The legacy that my husband’s parents gave him, raising him in Los Angeles, and the legacy my parents gave me, raising me in Mississippi, is a shared one: we are committed to being active participants in the Jewish community. It is a legacy that I hope our children take with them – wherever they may choose to live as adults.
And to that I proudly say, “shalom, y’all”— from Jackson, Mississippi.
For my family, like many Jewish families, holidays play an important role in our life. Holidays are the times when we all get together. There are endless, crazy traditions. Holidays meant coming home, and being with my family.
I grew up in Florida, and went to college in Florida. When my parents moved from Florida to Texas, I suddenly had a to plan on a plane ride instead of a two-hour drive to be with my family for the holidays. Then I graduated from college and started a real job, forcing me to face the reality of not spending every holiday with my family. Being “home for the holidays” was no longer a given.
I certainly am not alone. Every recent college graduate balances making it home for celebrations with our families to what our “grown up life” and holiday celebrations will look like. Luckily, with my first out-of-college job, I literally am not alone.
When I moved to Jackson to start work for the ISJL, I knew that I was joining a new family. My Education Fellow cohort has family dinners together. We look out for each other. We bring each other pints of ice cream with a Shabbat candle for birthdays, squeal over the sweet story of a fellow Fellow’s engagement, and make sure that everyone has a family with whom to spend the holidays. We celebrate together. And yes, we have even and taken family portraits at JC Penney together.
This year in particular, I have been truly blessed in the holiday-celebration regard. One of our board members invited anyone who was in town to spend all or part of the High Holy days with her family in Greenwood, Mississippi. Even though I wasn’t able to spend Yom Kippur with my family, another family opened its arms to welcome me in. I fasted, watched football, and broke fast with M&Ms and Diet Coke—just as I would have done with my family of origin.
As Education Fellows, this happens to us all year round. We each have six or seven communities that we visit and, with the gift of home hospitality, we are lucky to be welcomed into many families throughout our two years. We light the candles at Shabbat dinners in these families’ homes, and hear about how everybody’s week has been. They allow us to truly be part of the family and the greater community; in addition to celebrating many Jewish holidays, I have also cheered at soccer games (even though I don’t entirely remember the rules), attended local craft and historical festivals, and participated in a charity fundraiser.
Other Fellows have enjoyed family movie nights, gone on afternoon hikes, and visited kids’ art shows; there’s no end to the possibilities!
Not only do our hosts welcome us into their families for the weekend, but we also share our lives with them. We tell stories about the shenanigans and adventures of group summer visits. Especially as second year Fellows, we want to contact our hosts or education directors when exciting things develop for graduate school or plans for Life After The Fellowship.
I still love getting to be with my family. I also love how much more “family” I have now. When I first started at the ISJL in June 2013, I added 8 Fellows to my family. Over the last 18 months, that family has grown exponentially with every summer, fall, and spring visit I make. Not every recent college graduate gets so warmly embraced by so many families, who make us feel at home even when we’re far from home. I look forward to continuing growing my Southern Jewish family this year, and staying in touch as the world takes us in all different directions.
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This year, I decided to give the #BlogElul challenge a try. I am mostly posting Facebook statuses to explore each day’s idea, but wanted to share this longer post about one of the words that truly is meaningful to me: Bless.
I like to say that life is about perspective, choosing to see things as a blessing rather than as a burden. Sometimes it can be challenging to make this mental shift. How do we go from burden to blessing? Like so.
Burden: My twins just started high school. They are at the same high school as my step-children. It’s the first time all four kiddos are at the same place. Thanks to having twins, and our beautiful blended family, we have three freshman and a sophomore! Yes, you read that correctly. Imagine the upcoming graduation parties!)
All four of them are in marching band, and Friday was their first football game. (In case you didn’t know, Texas football is a BIG DEAL.)
Getting the three freshman situated this week has been an adjustment for both my husband and me, as well as for the kids. Early morning and afternoon practices, mounting homework, still keeping up with work and religious school and all of the day-to-day business of life… all of us are facing a pretty steep learning curve. By the time the first game arrived, we were already mentally and physically spent. We got home from the football game at 11:30pm. The kids were drenched from sweat, starving, crabby and anxious because while it was so late, they still needed to finish homework and they had a quiz the next day. The family meltdown was on its way, BUT.
Blessing: I’m re-framing the burden, the stress, the hectic schedule… because when I look back on this first week, my kids are experiencing a whole new, exciting phase of life. One week in, and they are already learning so much. I had the chance to volunteer and meet some new people along the way. Even though I had no idea what I was doing, they were patient and kind. I even met a woman who shared with me that my father delivered her children, and that he had meant so much to their family – making me glad, once again, that I moved back to my hometown of San Antonio.
I got to see my kids perform, and they were AWESOME! They all lit up when they saw my husband and me at the game. We sat in the stands with amazing friends and ate popcorn (one of my favorite foods). My kids came home to a late night snack, a cool shower, and a comfy bed. The next morning dawned early… but the coffee was brewed, and we were ready to go again.
Burden? Nah. Blessing. Countless blessings, indeed!
This post was written as part of the #BlogElul project. The entire month of Elul is traditionally a time of reflection before the High Holidays. We welcome your reflections, too!