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Mississippi: Jewish in Plenty of Ways That Matter

Lighting the Chanukah candles in Cleveland, MS.

Lighting candles in Cleveland, MS.

I recently came across this list of the “most and least Jewish states.” The list is derived from a study by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB). Wyoming was denoted as the least Jewish state, measuring 23 Jewish individuals per 100,000 people. New York, of course, was the “most Jewish state,” with a whopping 4,046 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people.

My current state, Mississippi (ranked once again as the most religious state in a recent Gallop poll), boasts 43 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. That places it at #46 on the list.

People tend to have a lot of negative assumptions about being Jewish in Mississippi. In all honesty, despite being a native Texan, I was a little hesitant about moving to the Magnolia State from New York City. I had lived in the “most Jewish state” for five years; my alma mater, NYU, had a thriving Hillel and large Jewish community, and it didn’t take much effort for me to be involved in Jewish life. Down here in the heart of Dixie, the scene is different—but it’s really quite lovely. Several trips to the Delta as this winter began reminded me why that is so true.

Here’s the thing: Jews in Mississippi have historically had to work pretty hard to maintain their Jewish identity. For instance, the ISJL’s founder and president, Macy B. Hart, would ride 80 miles with his family from Winona, Mississippi, to Temple Adath Israel in Cleveland, Mississippi to attend services and go to religious school. In the early 1960s, Cleveland had one of the largest temple youth groups in the state, with its membership including Jewish youth from many small surrounding Delta towns. Devoted Jews from smaller towns across the state made those long drives to participate in Jewish life in places across the state like Cleveland, Greenville, and Greenwood.

Greenville, MS, with Bethany Berger, Rabbi Debra Kassoff and her daughter

Greenville, MS, with Bethany Berger, Rabbi Debra Kassoff and her daughter Mariel

Though few in number these days, all three of those towns still hold services, thanks to dedicated community members that put in a lot of effort to maintain Jewish religious practice. I got to see this firsthand on my recent visits to the Delta — place like Greenwood, Mississippi, where ISJL Board Member Gail Goldberg and her family work tirelessly to keep her congregation, Ahavath Rayim, going strong. Her family’s commitment there is downright inspirational.

I also attended services at Adath Israel in Cleveland led by Rabbi Harry Danziger, retired now after a long career in Memphis. The service was intimate, and the congregation was most welcoming. They typically hold a potluck following services—the week I was there, they served fried chicken and latkes. What could be better?

The Chanukah party at Hebrew Union in Greenville, Mississippi, was joyful. Every year, Alan and Leanne Silverblatt prepare 30 pounds of brisket for the part, and everyone helps out making latkes. I got in on the latke-making action, too. (This was my first time making them. I don’t cook, but they weren’t too bad!) Another delightful Delta visit.

Mississippi may not have a lot of Jews, but the ones that call the state home have, in my experience, been steadfast, loyal, and most of all, kind. It seems to me there’s more than one way to calculate “most Jewish”—it’s not just the number of people, it’s the amount of enthusiastic Jewish life. We have plenty of it here. If you haven’t already been, y’all come on down and visit us in the Magnolia State!

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Posted on January 14, 2015

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

A Southern & Jewish Buckeye Fan Makes Her Case: “Cheer With Me!”

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Leah appeals to SEC fans with Buckeye treats!

In the South, college football is king. Adjusting to the world of Saturday morning tailgates (after shul, of course) and punting on fourth down is hard for some ISJL Education Fellows, but for me, it felt like being home. See, I am a Columbus, Ohio girl—born and raised on Buckeye Football. I come from the land of Woody Hayes, Archie Griffin, and scarlet and grey. This past year has been an exciting one for me. I’ve had a front row seat to the SEC—one of the most dominant leagues in the country.

Luckily for me, and probably to the chagrin of some of our readers, on New Year’s Day, my Buckeyes beat Alabama, the only SEC team in the new College Football Playoffs. As a result the SEC was knocked out of the bid for the first ever CFP Championship.

So why should my fellow Southern Jews, those normally loyal to their SEC home teams, support The Ohio State Buckeyes tonight? I humbly offer a few suggestions:

  1. The Buckeyes squeaked out a victory over the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl. Though the loss is still a sore spot, especially since this year is the first since 2005 in which no SEC team will play for the national title, the SEC looks best if the team that beat them in the playoffs wins the championship.
  2. Les Wexner is an alumnus of The Ohio State University and a proud Buckeye. Wexner is a notable Jewish philanthropist and founder of the Wexner Foundation, which seeks to develop Jewish leaders and sustain Jewish heritage across the United States.
  3. As Southerners and Jews, we love our traditions. The Buckeyes have tradition to spare. From the start of the game, when The Ohio State Marching Band performs “Script Ohio” to the end of every home game, when the football team joins the band to sing the alma mater, to the Mirror Lake jump, when thousands of students jump into a frozen lake on campus, tradition seeps from Buckeye pores.
  4. Urban Meyer is a former SEC coach. So while the speed, offense, and defensive lines are in the Big 10, we look a whole lot like an SEC team. What’s more, six of our starters, not including injured quarterback J.T. Barrett, hail from our great 13-state region. Oregon’s roster includes only 13 Southerners, while Ohio State’s includes 17.

So, that’s my case. I love the Buckeyes and I love college football – and of course, I love my fellow Southern and Jewish football fans. Win or lose, I’m so excited that I was able to spend this season deep in SEC territory, where people love it just as much as I do.

Tonight the Bucks take on the Ducks in Dallas. I’d love it if you cheered for the Bucks along with me (but I promise to get over it if you don’t). Go Bucks!

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Posted on January 12, 2015

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

“Selma”: It’s Not About The Jews, And That’s Okay

This piece was written jointly by Lonnie Kleinman and Lex Rofes.

Film poster. Image source: Wikipedia, free use.

Film poster. Image source: Wikipedia, free use.

An article about the soon-to-be-released film Selma recently appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward, a publication we both read regularly and respect immensely. The article, written by Leida Snow, is entitled Selma Distorts History by Airbrushing Out Jewish Contributions to Civil Rights.” The assertion that Selma under-represents Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movie and “distorts” history is a claim with which we strongly disagree.

Full disclosure: We have not yet seen ‘Selma,’ which opens January 9. What we have seen is Ms. Snow’s article. Therefore, we are not responding to any alleged inaccuracies in the film– only the inaccuracies in Ms. Snow’s own piece.

Before articulating any philosophical disagreement, we believe it is important to first mention a few factual inaccuracies. We point out these inaccuracies not to demean the author, but because the historical events referenced are so crucial to our country’s history, and should be presented thoughtfully and accurately.

Snow refers to “thousands” of Freedom Riders “riding into Mississippi” in 1964. In fact, the Freedom Riders rode in 1961, and there were only 436 total riders. She also incorrectly implies that James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were freedom riders. The murder of those three civil rights workers was a tragedy that, as Snow states, provoked national outrage, but they were not involved with the Freedom Rides. We believe that, when stating “Freedom Riders,” Ms. Snow means to refer to the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, which was indeed characterized by “well over a thousand volunteers, mostly white,” risking their lives to come to Mississippi.

Factual inaccuracies aside, the broader message of her piece is deeply troubling. As the title suggests, Ms. Snow believes that the film’s failure to include Jews undermines its credibility. She states that by “excluding” Jews, the movie misses a “great teaching moment.”

We see things differently.

As Jews, we are certainly inspired by Jewish veterans of the Civil Rights movement. That said, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and the story of Selma specifically, was not “our” story. The story of Selma was about fighting to achieve justice for African-Americans, living in an unjust society.

To be sure, this movie could have mentioned Jews. It could have featured inspirational Freedom Summer veterans, as Snow asserts—and just as easily, while we may not like to admit it, it could have featured Jews like Sol Tepper, who wrote dozens of articles for the Selma Times Journal advocating for segregation and was quite hostile towards Civil Rights advocates. Good or bad, Jews could have been included more—but that’s not the focus of this film. This omission is not a “distortion.”

Selma’s producers include several people of color. Its director, Ava DuVernay, was the first ever black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe—a great milestone in film history. It is all too common for the stories of African-Americans to be told by people who are not African-American, and we all have the right to tell our own stories.

Let’s think about what Snow’s criticism would look like if directed at a movie written by Jews about Jewish oppression.

There are many movies about the Holocaust, and some of them speak only to the experiences of Jews, without including righteous Gentiles (may their memories be for a blessing). These movies have not “distorted” history. They have chosen to focus specifically on the lives of Jews who were the subject of incredible discrimination and hatred, and that editorial decision is a reasonable one. Just as we would expect Catholics to watch a Holocaust film without criticizing the editorial choice not to includecourageous acts by Catholics, we should be able to watch a film about others’ struggles without demanding that we share the spotlight.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that a core aspect of being a Jew is “the ability to experience the suffering of others.” As many of us head to theaters to watch Selma, let’s seek to hone that skill. Let’s seek to better understand the story of African-Americans – their history, their struggles, and their suffering. Doing so might not teach us much about any particular Jews. But it could teach us something about what it means to be Jewish.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 8, 2015

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