Today’s blog comes to us from Michael Goodman at Goodman Writes, another “Southern & Jewish” voice. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Last week, I made an online and somewhat anonymous contribution to the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. I had heard about the group from a college classmate from Mississippi with whom I shared stories of growing up Jewish in the South. Now, I want to be more outright in my support of the organization’s work because I am sure they will use my money well.
So why is this important to me?
My paternal grandfather came to this country in the early 1900s and settled in the Deep South, traveling across the region from Mississippi, to Louisiana, to Texas, to Arkansas. He was not a deeply religious man, from what I am told, but he had his own way of keeping Judaism alive. He was a peddler and a butcher by trade. He slaughtered and cut up meat for a living, and the meat he used in his own household was slaughtered in a kosher way. It was one important vestige of Judaism that he tried to maintain.
He eventually settled with his wife and most of his 12 children in the tiny town of Calion, Arkansas, not far from the semi-booming metropolis of El Dorado, probably in the mid to late 1920s. According to the entry on El Dorado in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, the city became a boom town in the 1920s when oil was discovered there. The boom led a number of Jewish merchants to come to El Dorado to open stores, deal in real estate, and establish oil-related businesses.
Now, it is important to know the luck of my family when it comes to oil. I can remember visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousins in the late 1950s in the unlikely-named town of Oil City, Louisiana, near Shreveport. Looking out from their backyard I could see oil well, oil well, oil well, then my uncle’s property, then oil well, oil well. What’s wrong with this picture? I am told that if I had visited my Aunt Libby in Kilgore, Texas, I would have seen a similar plethora of oil wells with a blank space on her property. And my mother says my grandfather suffered a similar plight on his land near El Dorado. It seems that we Goodmans were destined not to get rich quick (or even rich at all).
While he failed to prosper, my grandfather did continue to practice his brand of Judaism. He must have had a decent voice because he often served as Cantor for the High Holidays in El Dorado’s Ohev Zedek congregation. Sadly, that congregation slowly died out and was disbanded for good in 1936. My grandmother died in 1937, and my father left the El Dorado area to move in with his brother in OilCity. Three years later, he arrived as a serviceman in Savannah, where he met my mother and settled down. Like his father, my father was not a religious man, but he always hosted a Friday night dinner, observed the holidays, and supported my mother in establishing and maintaining a kosher home all of his adult life.
My father’s story was not typical of his siblings. Only two other children in his family married Jewish spouses and only one other—that uncle in Oil City—brought up his children as Jews. Intermarriage and the malaise of Judaism in the Delta took their toll. Other small branches of my father’s family in the Greenville,Mississippi, area did manage to keep Judaism alive. And there is a family legend told of my Aunt Fannie Schwartz who used to invite Jewish servicemen in the Greenville area during World War II to come to Friday night dinner, often entertaining as many as 20 for a mostly kosher meal. (My aunt always brought her own kosher plate and kosher food to luncheons in Greenville and went to Memphis periodically to get the kosher meat she kept in her own personal deep freezer.)
Which brings me back to the ISJL and its mission. There are still a large number of very small Jewish communities spread out in small and large towns in the Deep South. Providing support to these communities for simchas and sad occasions, offering information on Jewish history and learning, and providing a means to store elements of our own history is so very important. So I decided to make a small monetary contribution, and to write this blog post to perhaps stir others to find out more about the organization, and to continue my efforts to learn and write more about my family’s Jewish roots so my children can have something to hold on to and something important to add to their own foundation.
The Daf Yomi (Hebrew for “page a day”), is a program for learning Talmud. Participants study one page a day, individually or in groups, and after 7 years they have read all 2,711 pages of Talmud. Last time the cycle finished, there was a huge celebration at Met Life Stadium. Of the 90,000 people who attended, the vast majority were Orthodox Jewish men.
Despite being interested, I hesitated because I like to look at the sources through a critical historical lens—a very different approach than that used by Orthodox Daf Yomi resources. One day, I read about an Unorthodox Daf Yomi group on Facebook. After checking it out, I was inspired; I had to do it. So with the help of the Koren Steinsaltz Talmud, the JCAST Network’s Daily Daf Differently podcasts, Adam Kirsch’s weekly Tablet column on the Daf Yomi, and Rabbi Adam Chalom’s Not Your Father’s Talmud blog from a few years ago, I have read through about 60 full pages.
Through this process, I have begun to make the Talmud my own. I read the laws, discussions, and stories, and visualize how they would have applied in the Ancient Jewish world, but I can also reinterpret them to be applicable to my own life as a religiously liberal American Jew in modern times.
One of these gems is the only Talmudic mention of our current holiday, Chanukah! While the High Holidays, Purim and Passover get their own sections, Chanukah is only mentioned once, in tractate Shabbat. In it, along with many of the other laws of Hanukkah, the rabbis discuss how many menorahs each household should light:
The Rabbis taught: The law of Chanukah demands that every man should light one lamp for himself and his household. Those who seek to embellish the mitzvah have a lamp lit for every member of the household. (Shabbat 21b)
This passage echoes one of my favorite ideas of Judaism, that there is often more than one correct way to observe a tradition. I would argue further that there are many ways to lead a Jewish life, including my own non-Orthodox reading of Talmud through Daf Yomi. There is no single correct way to celebrate Hanukkah, so if you want to light one menorah for the entire household that’s great. But if you want to light one menorah for each person in the household, that’s great too. In my house growing up, we would occasionally put up decorations and occasionally give gifts. But always, each of us always lit his or her menorah, and every year we would take a family picture—including the dog—behind all of our Chanukah lights.
Many families light the candles, play dreidel, and sing maoh tzur or other songs. Other families, especially in this Southern land of fried food, revel in eating fried sufganyot and fried potato latkes. I’ve heard of some people making beignets or fried chicken! A lot of Jewish children in the South (and throughout the United States) have at least one set of non-Jewish grandparents, and some families celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas, with traditions shared to acknowledge their entire family – since family, of course, is so important to us all. However you celebrate it, and however you spell it (I used a couple different spellings in this post …), have a wonderful festival of lights!
What are some of the special ways that your family celebrates Hanukkah?
Clarksdale, Mississippi. To fans of the blues, Clarksdale is the birthplace of the great Sam Cook, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and of course, site of the legendary crossroads of Hwy 61 and 49 where bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil.
To me, however, Clarksdale represents family, and an important part of my childhood.
Growing up in Jackson, I remember our family’s annual “pilgrimage” to Clarksdale, a small town in the Mississippi Delta. Every year before the fall holidays, my siblings, mother and I (Dad was at work) would drive up to the Delta, passing lush farmland and cotton fields, to go to Beth Israel cemetery and “visit” with my mom’s parents, both buried there.
We left early in the morning, got to the cemetery by 11, had lunch – vague recollections of the plate lunch special included fried chicken and black eyed peas – and then visited with my mom’s friend, who we knew as “Aunt” Adele Cohen (who was not an actual relation). And then we turned around and drove home.
My mom treasured this annual road trip. She lived in Clarksdale as a young girl and graduated high school there. My grandparents had a small grocery store in Clarksdale, and lived there until the early 1960s before moving to Jackson.
I left Mississippi when I was 24, and headed to the West Coast. After two decades away, and now with a family of my own, I moved back to Jackson five years ago. By the time I returned to reside in my home state, my mom had passed away.
I don’t really know when my family’s last Clarksdale “visit” took place. But this summer, en route to Memphis, I vowed to go visit. All I had was the street name for the cemetery; no address. I drove up and down Friar’s Point Road – no cemetery. I decided to find downtown Clarksdale – perhaps someone could direct me.
It was a hot day in July – I mean, HOT. Easily 99 degrees, with humidity to match. I made it to Main Street, which has seen better days. Lots of empty stores, a victim of small towns getting smaller and a poor economy in the Delta. But I spotted the Clarksdale Press Register newspaper office, went in, asked if they could point me in the direction of the Jewish cemetery.
Though her companion gave me a confused look, one of the young women said: “Oh sure, it’s just around the corner.”
I quickly got back in the car and made my way to the cemetery.
And there they were. Michael (for whom I’m named) and Shelda Binder, my maternal grandparents. It was a moment that brought a flash of days long gone, as well as a connection to my mom and generations past. I also saw the graves of relatives for whom I have no memories – they were just names to me.
As I placed the stones on their tombstones, I spoke to them; whether it was aloud or simply words in my head, I’m not certain. But I told them: “I’m sorry it’s been such a long time since I’ve been here. I love you.”
I returned to my car and headed back to the highway, feeling a sense of calm and comfort. It won’t be my last visit to Clarksdale.