“Um, Rabbi? Don’t you feel a little bit weird with a cross on the back of your car?”
I fielded this question recently on a jaunt down to New Orleans for a weekend of football and food. The inquiry came when my passenger, an Atlanta Falcons fan, noticed my Mississippi license plate, with its Saints loyalty on proud display. No doubt, my companion was puzzled that a Jew (kal v’chomer a rabbi!) would choose to put something that looks like a cross on his license plate.
But it’s not a cross. It’s a fleur de lis. And while this flower has had some interaction with the cross, that’s not what it represents to me. As I began to explain this, it got me thinking, oh, this is gonna turn into a blog post. And here it is.
The fleur de lis (sometimes spelled fleur de lys) is French in origin. The little symbol decorates flags, yards, jewelry, and crowns. The earliest fleur de lis are thought to be representative of the iris flower. Long adopted by royalty, it’s no surprise that many may associate the fleur de lis with Christianity, because the vast majority of kings and queens who used the symbol on their crests and in their commissioned paintings were of the Christian persuasion. It became Christianized as well when drawn so specifically with the trinity of three leaves, with various interpretations as to what those three things meant symbolically. In addition to the trinity, some ascribe it to the Song of Songs (“lily among thorns?”), while others have associated it with Mary, with the flower representing virginity.
New Orleans, along with many other cities/regions that were under heavy French influence in the New World, adopted this symbol. And when, in 1967 they received their first NFL franchise, they named their team the New Orleans Saints, and adorned them with a fleur de lis where other helmets had lions or stars.
So not only does the fleur de lis have some religious connotation in its past, the name of the football team that now claims the flower is the Saints – yeah, a bit of religion embedded there, too. Their moniker is no doubt an allusion to November 1st, AKA All Saints Day. Also, the jazz hit “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In” came to represent the city. Catholic influence can be seen throughout Louisiana, a state still made up not of counties but of PARISHES.
Hence, my favorite football team is surrounded by symbols with Christian connotations. But, as with any symbol, meaning and interpretation can change. So, too, can our connection to them.
I spent some time in the Superdome under the futile leadership of Aaron Brooks, but it was after Hurricane Katrina that all of a sudden I found myself purchasing shirts, flags, and hats adorned with the fleur de lis symbol. For the longest time, perhaps because they were the Ain’ts, it seemed as if there were more LSU decals than Saints floating around the city. But, as we began to resurge, as the team began to be a symbol for the entire city, the fleur de lis lost its old connotation.
Like the flower it is, the fleur de lis began to unfurl again and show us that spring had sprung. New Orleans would be in full bloom again. The fleur de lis gave hope to all, regardless of their religious affiliation.
After years of trying to figure out how to watch my team play while I was elsewhere, living in this city or that country, I’m proud to have finally returned to the region that I call home. It’s exciting for me to look around and see that I can connect with my neighbors over a symbol and a team, that our faiths and unique backgrounds can come together and be united. We can cheer for touchdowns, or be despondent over the most recent free agent departures. All this is only evident when we display our symbol—on our shirts, on festive game day cookies, and yes, on this rabbi’s license plate.
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When you’re not “from” the South, you have to get used to a few things when you move down here. There are the dialect differences, obviously. If you’re Jewish and have only lived up North, you do notice the Bible Belt culture quite a bit, too. And if you’re a sports fan, well – there’s even more culture shock to deal with!
Some people say home is where your heart is, or where your family is, and that may be true – but for me home is also where my teams are. I am a serious Boston sports fan. I am now living outside the area generally defined as “Red Sox Nation,” so there aren’t as many Sox or Pats fans around as I’m used to. During important sporting events, I feel a little far from home.
However, I am still as obnoxious a fan as ever.
I wore my New England Patriots t-shirt all season, and I enact all my game-day superstitions even in this hostile Southern territory. My family has a tradition that when the Patriots are playing badly, we rearrange how we’re sitting in the hopes that the change in our feng shui might positively affect the outcome of the game.
I have not hesitated to continue this practice in sports watching venues here in Mississippi. Much to my surprise, I even persuaded some of my friends to join me on this bandwagon.
One very telling moment was during the October 13th Patriots-Saints game. The New Orleans Saints are the geographically closest NFL team to Jackson, so most people here root for them. I was a lonely island in a sea of New Orleans fans watching this game at our local sports bar. Let me tell you, it’s a little scary to be “that fan” cheering for the team everyone else in the restaurant is rooting against. And I cheer loudly. But everyone still got along nicely. Maybe it’s part of that southern hospitality thing, but people here are still nice to you even when you root against the Saints.
The biggest challenge for me has been surviving in a land that loves Peyton Manning. You might have heard that Archie Manning (Peyton’s father) is from Drew, Mississippi, and this state seems to always root for him and his sons. I am not a fan of the Mannings. They’re probably very nice people and they all seem to be talented athletes but I am on the Tom Brady side of the Manning-Brady rivalry, thank you very much. Our loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship was therefore particularly disappointing.
The Super Bowl presented its own special challenge. After the Patriots lost the AFC championship, I had to decide who to cheer for in the Super Bowl. Since Peyton Manning is the Broncos’ Quarterback, I knew everyone here would root for them. Should I also root for Denver, because the people around me would be and I wanted my friends to be happy? Or should I stay true to my team and root against Peyton? In the end I was pretty happy the Seahawks emerged victorious, but I had a little more empathy for Mr. Manning, too.
Now that football season has drawn to a close, I am looking forward to more Southern Sports Education. It looks like NHL is not as big a deal here as it is back home (shocker!) but I think I will learn a lot about college basketball this season instead. College sports are, in general, a way bigger deal here than up north and I am enjoying gathering new allegiances for teams in the SEC. Rooting for newly discovered teams here has made this feel more like home, and that is something I can definitely cheer for…
But don’t worry, fellow Patriots and citizens of Red Sox Nation: I’m still a Boston fan first, and always!
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When I moved to Jacksonville, Florida, in 2006, I noticed much more general affiliation with university sports than I’d ever seen before.
I saw a “house divided” flag outside a home with University of Florida and Florida State University on either side, and I didn’t quite understand. In 2009, I joined the Gator Nation and finally understood the obsession. Fall means football in the South. Now that the college football season is over we can focus on the NFL playoffs and the upcoming Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Super Bowl is the once-a-year, end-all-be-all of professional football. Even if you don’t care about the game the Super Bowl is often the showcase for some of the funniest commercials shown all year, as well as a half-time show that is always full of surprises.
As the daughter of two avid Patriots fans, I’ve watched many a Super Bowl over the past several years. And as the daughter of a Jewish educator, I spent a lot of time growing up at temple. This got me to wondering, do we have a Jewish equivalent to this supreme sports event?
Yom Kippur is often called the holiest day of the year. Just like when people who don’t watch football the whole rest of the year make sure that they are watching the Super Bowl, if for no other reason than to be able to talk about with co-workers the next day. In the movie Keeping the Faith, Ben Stiller even refers to Yom Kippur as the Super Bowl of the Jewish calendar. It’s a time when rabbis write a “best of” sermon and Jews, who might not attend services the rest of the year, skip work and class to attend temple.
But in my home there is nothing better than Passover! You may not like eating matzah for 7 days, but there are few things greater than grandpa’s stories that he tells every year, delicious matzah ball soup, and singing—LOTS of singing—to make seder fun. Who said you can’t live off seder leftovers for the rest of Passover? Trust me…it can be done!
There are many other important Jewish holidays throughout the year, and everybody has a different connection to each.
So I’ll just leave you with this question: What is your Jewish Super Bowl?