We use the phrase “transplants” often down here—referring to the “Yankees” who for one reason or another found themselves down South. (Transplants like… me.)
In the Southern Jewish communities with which I interact, the transplants are often people who, though lacking “deep Southern roots,” have stepped up as local leaders. They step up alongside those with the deep Southern roots, the ones who have been leaders in their communities for multiple generations. Both the transplants and the long-term residents share an appreciation of and dedication to Jewish communal life—but for the transplants, this passion is often newfound. Even if they weren’t as active “Up North,” they end up serving as leaders in their Southern congregation, and ambassadors in their communities.
When I traveled as an Education Fellow, I would hear from moms and dads in small Southern towns who “never in a million years” thought they would be teaching religious school. In New York, New Jersey, California, places with large Jewish populations, there were plenty of people to do all the things that maintain a healthy and thriving congregation. In smaller communities, it’s more do-it-yourself.
So, what was I doing in Tarpon Springs? It began with a phone call from Joel May, a transplant to Tarpon Springs. But he wasn’t the typical “snowbird” retiree most of us picture when we imagine transplant Jews moving to Florida. Joel is originally from Jasper, Alabama. And while he has lived in many places since, he was a born and bred Southern Jew. He contacted me about a loan of an eternal light for their sanctuary, a process we affectionately call “re-planting”. Being from the region, Joel knew of our museum. He made the connection, and I worked with him and his committee to re-plant a beautiful ner tamid from Gemiluth Chassed, a congregation that had closed in Port Gibson, Mississippi, to his congregation in Florida.
For me, the experience of replanting a Southern Jewish artifact rich in value and history (the ner tamid was originally donated to Gemiluth Chassed, the oldest synagogue in Mississippi, built in 1892) was already incredible. Making it even more meaningful was the Southern Jewish congregant, Joel from Jasper, helping to bring this artifact to his new community. His new a community is one full of transplants, from many places outside the South, but all are now connected to the Southern Jewish experience. It is a remarkable testament to the contribution and quality of the small population of Southern Jewish communities.
My time in Tarpon Springs was lovely. Years ago, I was lucky to drop into communities every other weekend, but I had forgotten what a joyful feeling it is to be warmly welcomed into a new group of people. Food, music, gossip, what could be better! What I soon learned is that while the community was made up of transplants, they weren’t the typical New York Jews I was expecting. All the jokes I had written into my talk about Brooklyn were going to fall flat with the people I was meeting from Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota. (Apparently the west coast of Florida attracts Midwesterners—who knew?!) I admit I felt foolish for coming with preconceived assumptions, when most of what I do each day is try to break down stereotypes of Southern communities.
But I was pleasantly surprised that many of the people in the congregation would find it easier to connect to small town congregational life like Port Gibson. I heard from people telling me about their families immigrating to the Midwest, opening stores or becoming fur traders, very similar narratives of the Southern story that I was planning to share. I listened and learned about the natural connections between Midwest and Southern congregations that I hadn’t previously considered before my visit. This made this replanting all the more special.
The night of the dedication, I met a few people who had come because they did have Southern roots. A woman from Atlanta, a family from Brookhaven, Mississippi, a couple from New Orleans. I liked seeing them seated in the congregation, nodding along with my new Midwestern-ex-pat friends as I talked about the connection between the long and rich history of Jewish communities in the Deep South to the larger national Jewish population. Dedicating a piece of the Gemiluth Chassed sanctuary built a special connection through time and space between these two small congregations, a connection that is important for continuing to support the legacy of Jewish communities in the region.
This eternal light, the ner tamid, will be given the opportunity to shine again and serve a congregation, ensuring the ancestors of small town Jewish communities like Port Gibson will not be forgotten… well, I get goosebumps just thinking about it! I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful celebration.
With residents mostly emigrating from colder climates, my hometown really is a Southern (geographically) and Northern (cultural) fusion. Nicknamed “Paradise,” Sarasota, Florida’s motto boasts “Big City Amenities Meets Small Town Living.”
The town has plenty of personality with its big-meets-small mentality, beaches, and population. If you land in the airport, you’ll find a shark tank to greet you just outside of TSA Security. The “small town living” note on the sign should really say “small beach town living,” since Sarasota boasts one of the USA’s consistently best-rated beaches. Its affluent nature no doubt relates to the culture that John Ringling helped infuse into the society.
While travelling recently to a community on a rabbinic visit, I encountered another city with a very clear, yet completely different identity: Kilgore, Texas.
I had the pleasure of driving over from Longview after my visit had concluded to play a round of golf with some fellow golf-obsessed Nice Jewish Boys. Titled the “city of stars,” it’s not for astronomical or astrological reasons. Instead, it’s due to the discovery of oil in 1930. The “stars” to which it refers are the tops of oil derricks.
Never had I entered a city whose identity is so clearly played out virtually everywhere you go. As you drive in, instead of a shark tank, you are greeted by a giant oil derricks holding up the road sign. Immediately following is another oil derrick with the welcome sign… on which stands yet another oil derrick. I stopped in Circle K to grab a Gatorade to stay hydrated— lo and behold, an oil derrick was a column holding up the front overhang.
When I pumped my gas on the way out of town, I noticed that even the liquor store’s sign was modeled after the oil derrick. There’s something important about a town’s history, identity, and culture from what they make sure you notice while you’re there.
Whether it’s beaches or bohemian flair, olive trees or oil derricks, all towns are built around something. I will certainly pay more attention to the cities I enter from now on, looking for these markers that help explain who they are. It’s all part of hitting the road and really getting to know the communities we visit.
For what is your city best known?
Does it have a slogan?
How does its identity on display as you wander the streets?
Want some insights into a historian’s dilemma? It involves cultural identity. Geography. And NASCAR. (Well – sort of.)
The Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities now contains 250 community histories from 11 different southern states. As we get toward the end of our researching and writing, we are beginning to reach the edges of our territory, where the borders can get a little fuzzy. Covington and Newport, Kentucky, for example, are considered part of the south, but just across the river, Cincinnati, Ohio, is not.
Virginia, which will be completed and online this fall, presents an interesting case. Richmond, with Confederate statues lining Monument Avenue, remains culturally southern, while Alexandria feels little different from the suburb of any northern metropolis. Our encyclopedia history of Alexandria will tell the story of how the southern river port with a small Jewish congregation became enveloped by the expansion of Washington, D.C. after World War II. If one defines the south culturally and historically, rather than simply geographically, then Alexandria was once southern, but is no longer.
The shifting southern-ness of northern Virginia foreshadows the next big dilemma for the encyclopedia: Florida.
Originally, Florida wasn’t even included in the ISJL’s territory. But a few years ago, we took in the Sunshine State as our “12-state region” became the “13-state region.” We don’t serve the entire state, just the panhandle, which is sometimes affectionately called “Lower Alabama.” But after Virginia goes live in the near future, Florida is the last frontier for the encyclopedia. How much of Florida is southern, and which communities should we include in our encyclopedia?
When I give lectures about southern Jewish history, I usually cite recent population statistics, but I always exclude Florida. The main reason for this is that the explosion of the Jewish population of south Florida, fueled by retirees and northern transplants over the last several decades, has little to do with the history of Jews in the South. South Florida’s Jewish community has far more connections and cultural similarities with the Jewish community of New York than with Pensacola, Florida, let alone Greenville, Mississippi. The columnist Leonard Pitts, writing from Miami, once declared that south Florida was the only part of America where you have to go north to get to the South.
Also, far more Jews reside in south Florida than live in the entire South. When the last national Jewish population study included Florida as the South in its regional breakdown, we learned nothing about southern Jewish life, only south Florida Jewish life.
Once, when I was speaking to a group in Sarasota, I was nervous about so easily excluding Florida from the South. So I decided to ask my audience whether they consider themselves to be southerners. Only two people amongst a hundred or so raised their hands: one woman originally from Waco, Texas and a man from Georgia. The rest of the audience, all residents of Florida, had no identity as southerners. While this impromptu poll made me feel a little better about excluding Florida from my population figures, the problem of Florida and how we define the South has always gnawed at me.
Now it’s time to face this issue head on. Will I have to visit Key West and Miami Beach on my next research trip? Was Seinfeld’s portrayal of the Florida retirement community “Del Boca Vista” a humorous portrait of southern Jewish life? Were Morty and Helen Seinfeld southern Jews? I haven’t figured out the answers to these questions just yet, and would love to read your opinions on the subject. In the meantime, I am working on a theory about drawing the South’s border somewhere between Daytona Beach, home of the Daytona 500, and Orlando, home of Disney world. After all, the Walt Disney Company, run from a nice Jewish boy from New York seems Yankee – and what’s more southern than NASCAR?
Do you think of Florida when you think of “the South”? Why or why not?