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People, Places, Surprises, and More on the Road with Tent: The South

Tent: The South was an immersive learning experience.18 strangers got on a bus and trusted me to show them the Jewish South. Everything that we had worked so hard to put together was experienced, appreciated, and enjoyed by an enthusiastic group of adventurers.

I thought rather than tell you about our adventure – I’d show you the people and places, and describe a few of the surprises and lessons that we explored along the way.

The People:

The Places:

The Surprises:

2014-10-24 07.30.15-2Delta Chinese Reunion:  During our afternoon at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, we received a comprehensive and entertaining overview and tour of the Delta region. We discussed the cultural diversity for the region and the influential Chinese population. After stopping for the necessary Fighting Okra  memorabilia (surprise- everyone needed a t-shirt!), we made our way to the hotel, where it turned out the the Delta Chinese American Reunion was taking place, in conjunction with the opening of a new exhibition on Delta Chinese heritage. What luck! Everything we had discussed about Jewish communities in the region aligned with the history of Chinese immigrants and communities, and seeing it firsthand further strengthened our understanding of how Jews fit into the story of  immigrant communities living and working in the South.

2014-10-23 11.06.01David Feldman: David Feldman wasn’t someone we met, but someone we made a surprise visit to go see. Our Lead Scholar Eric Goldstein alerted me that he had a relative, David Feldman, buried in the Greenwood cemetery. Eric asked if we had time to visit. Based on the schedule, we didn’t. But this trip was turning out to be less about the schedule and more about following the interests of the group so off we went! We found the stone pretty quickly (it’s a small cemetery) and I watched as ISJL Board Member Gail Goldberg took a photo of Eric with the stone. Eric mentioned that he’s not sure anyone from his family has ever visited this grave and Gail said she was honored to be a part of the reunion. I think we all had a moment like that on this trip, some small connection or moment that related us to the larger Southern Jewish story.

And More…!

 

This trip was filled with people and places that I’m lucky to work with and visit frequently. But one of the main takeaways expressed during our last night together was how fortunate the participants felt to be able to visit these special Southern places, particularly the congregations that may not be as accessible in the next few years. I never like to use the words “dying” or “diminishing” when referring to these congregations, but rather the phrases of the congregants themselves who describe their “small” or “older” groups. We learned so much this week about the strength and warmth of a small congregation and the dedication it takes to continue Jewish life in rural areas.

Another participant mentioned that she was moved during our Shabbat experience in Tupelo when during the Mi Sheberach the congregants each gave reports on the well being of each of the people on the list. She felt a closer connection to the community and how important each individual member is to the life of a congregation. Of all the congregations we visited, we also got a sense that being a member here is almost like a second time job, whether it’s lay leading services or buying the toilet paper, everyone has a role and pitches in. Participants left the South with a charge to find ways to become more engaged in their own communities.

My own personal takeaway? I couldn’t help be feel that being on a bus with non-Southerners solidified by own Southern Jewish Identity. I may not have been born here, but I’m now a happily committed resident and realized during our discussions I more often support, identify with, and sometimes defend the Southern Jewish way of life. Whether I’m talking to a non-Jewish population about Judaism or a non-Southern population about the South, as an educator, sharing is a vital component  of how I communicate.

And one last note that resonated with me came from participant who is currently living in Brunswick, Georgia. She said the trip made her realize that she is the next generation for that historic congregation. Many of our discussions spoke about the future of the Jewish South, and she so eloquently described the weight and honor she felt, continuing Jewish life in her community.

This is already a long post, but there’s so much more to share! I invited participants to share their own experiences so you’ll hear from them but you can also see some of this through their eyes on our Tagboard page. Maybe you’ll be inspired to come down for your own Southern Jewish journey!

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Posted on November 21, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

An End to Appointment Judaism?

I am an avid television watcher, to say the least. My weekly repertoire includes everything from sports and the news, to reality TV and cop shows—I’m an equal opportunity viewer. Right now, I keep up with about 25 shows (which, even to me, seems insane).

Streaming services from Leah's hometown Columbus congregation

Streaming services from Leah’s hometown Columbus congregation

In the recent past, my packed schedule might seem daunting. It would mean staying in most nights, planted in front of the TV, ignoring plans and friends. Now, with a few taps on my iPad screen and a Wi-Fi signal, I can stream whatever I missed, at my own convenience. Thanks to online streaming services and network television websites, almost every episode of every program is readily accessible.

So, what does this have to do with Judaism?

Synagogues across the country are live-streaming their services. With a simple google search for “stream Shabbat,” one can access Shabbat services from congregations across the country and across the movements. Not only can folks click on and stream, but also some congregations even store services in online archives, to be accessed for on-demand play.

Television streaming has been heralded as the end of appointment television—could streaming services mean the end of appointment Judaism?

Before I moved to the South and started working full time, I attended Shabbat services with frequency. This was important to me, especially considering I’m part of the 20-35 year old demographic seemingly absent from many congregational Jewish communities. Getting to shul was easy in Columbus, Ohio—and I had options. That’s not the case, though, in many of the communities the ISJL serves.

Rest assured, Jewish communities are alive and well in the South (and some are even live-streaming their services!), but often, there is only one option for a synagogue in town. Whereas folks in cities with larger Jewish populations can essentially congregation shop, picking a rabbi and worship style in tune with their own preferences, it’s not always an option in smaller, rural towns.

Enter streaming.

No Conservative service in your town? You can stream it. Your friend’s son is a rabbi in Detroit? You can stream it. You can’t spend the hour in the car it would take to get to temple? Too tired? Can’t find a babysitter? Stream. Stream. Stream.

I, for one, love the entryways to Jewish practice that online streaming provides. It makes religious observance accessible to people who might otherwise not hear Torah chanted or find a min’yan to say Kaddish. But I understand the hesitation some might feel before jumping on board.

I think a primary concern is that worshipers will replace live attendance with online streaming—synagogues, especially those small in size, will close. The sense of community built in Hebrew school classes, sisterhood meetings, and oneg Shabbats will dwindle. Just as appointment TV has fallen by the wayside, so too will congregational Judaism. That narrative makes sense to me, until I hear stories from people actually streaming services.

A friend of mine is a recent college graduate. When he left home for college, he moved across the country. After graduating and taking a job, he, again, moved. This Yom Kippur, he attended Kol Nidrei services at the local congregation. On Yom Kippur, he spent the day streaming services from across the United States. One from home, one from school—he was able to stay connected to the communities that instilled in him the importance of Jewish practice and tradition without eschewing the local congregation.

In the South, it’s sometimes hard to find one Jewish service. We now have access to an entire world of options, and we don’t have to disengage in our own communities to access them. Streaming Judaism won’t replace the importance of connections, in person, but can be a wonderful supplement to traditional appointment Judaism, offering even more opportunities for Jewish life. And that’s an incredible thing.

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Posted on November 19, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Yiddish Author You Never Heard Of, And The Southern Jewish Man Who Will Introduce You To Him

Jacob Dinezon

Jacob Dinezon

One of my favorite things about my new role as a full-time historian at the ISJL is getting to meet great people with fascinating stories. The latest example? I recently had the privilege of speaking with Scott Davis, an Emmy award-winning Jewish television producer from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Scott Davis has told stories for a living for most of his life, and he became interested in the traditions of Jewish storytelling toward the end of his career. He began writing plays based on nineteenth century Yiddish culture. While doing research for a play based on the Jewish short stories of I. L. Peretz and Sholom Aleichem, two very famous classical nineteenth century Yiddish writers, Scott discovered another important literary figure, Jacob Dinezon.

It turns out Jacob Dinezon was a bestseller in his time (one of his very first novels sold more than 200,000 copies—a massive number in that era!), and he served as a mentor and benevolent uncle of sorts to several writers, but he never became as widely known as his contemporaries like Peretz and Aleichem. Why? Because his works were never translated into English.

Davis feels very passionately about sharing Dinezon’s amazing stories with the rest of the world. In 2007, he founded Jewish Storyteller Press to publish the work of Yiddish authors who deserve more recognition. Initially, he worked with existing English translations of old Yiddish tales. Davis himself doesn’t read Yiddish, so he hired professional scholars to translate directly from the original books. Davis also works with the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of books in the Yiddish language.

Scott Davis

Scott Davis

Davis just published the first English translation of Dinezon’s book, Memories and Scenes, a collection of 11 autobiographical short stories. In this collection, Dinezon recalls his childhood years in the shtetl and the events that led to his passion for becoming a writer. His simple tales provide a firsthand look into 19th-century shtetl life and a treasure trove of Yiddish history, culture and values. What Davis truly admires is the philosophy behind Dinezon’s tales. Hearing him talk about it so passionately, I can see why: Dinezon’s values reflected those of Davis’s father, a man Davis describes as generous and kind, always going out of his way to help other people.

One of the stories, entitled “Borekh,” tells the tale of a young orphan boy living in the yeshiva. Borekh was not very good at studying Talmud; but he was a generous soul, doing things for people and asking nothing in return. As he grew into manhood, he began to explore the question of who he would grow to be as an adult and what his contribution would be to his community. He asked God for help and soon realizes his special ability, woodworking. He make dreidels, Purim groggers, and toy animals for the children of the town. People in the town still looked down on him for not studying like his peers—until he ultimately carves a holy ark for the Torah, making his own significant and lasting contribution to his community.

Davis strongly identified with Borekh and his struggle to find his true calling. An avid clarinet player, he tried to learn to play Klezmer music. He knew he had an interest in promoting Jewish culture, whether in music or literature. After a few sessions, he realized that it wasn’t very good at it, but was he could do was he tell a good story. That love of storytelling has allowed Davis to engage so many individuals in history that could have easily been forgotten.

Like Davis, I see myself as a storyteller and feel fortunate that I get to tell the stories of Southern Jewry. Each of us offers a unique contribution in preserving Jewish heritage and ultimately, making a positive difference in our communities. Taking a cue from Scott Davis, we can all work together to make sure the story of our Jewish legacy continues.

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Posted on November 17, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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