The only Jewish person I knew of growing up was Jesus, and to be honest I had never thought much about this aspect of his identity until college when a professor described Jesus as a rabbi during a lecture.
I had developed an affinity for Jewish culture as a teenager, much the same way a teenager develops a curious interest in anything their parents haven’t told them much about. When I told my mother of my newfound interest, she bought me a small menorah, sent me a Rosh Hashanah e-card at the appropriate time of year, and told me that it was at least moderately likely that my grandmother’s German ancestors had been Jewish, but left that part of their culture behind when moving to the wild, lawless trapper’s country of South Louisiana.
(It seems that my ancestry is diverse enough to accommodate any passing cultural fancy I’ve had growing up. When I went abroad for a semester in Northern Ireland, my grandfather informed me that his grandfather had been Irish. I found it odd that this had never been mentioned before I brought up the subject.)
The point of these perhaps too-indulgent anecdotes is that any knowledge I’ve had of Jewish culture prior to interning here at the Institute for Southern Jewish Life has been superficial at best. The menorah my mother gave me is tucked away, forgotten in a drawer somewhere (and it uses candles that look suspiciously similar to those found on birthday cakes). I was nineteen years old before I really met and had a conversation with a Jewish person, at least to my knowledge.
At last week’s staff meeting, my first at the ISJL, we had a program on inclusion in honor of MLK Day. It was discussed that the ISJL is in the unique position of being the first Jewish organization that many people in the area will come in contact with. It certainly has been that for me. I couldn’t be more grateful to everyone for how welcoming they’ve been and am so appreciative of everyone’s willingness to explain any term or aspect of Jewish culture that I don’t understand.
My uncle has always said of New Orleans, a place he lived for 11 years, that you “never stop peeling back the onion.” My past week at the institute has taught me the same of the South in general. I’ve lived in the South my entire life and have yet to be involved, or even be in conversation with, the Jewish community here. A community that thrives, perhaps shamefully forgotten by those not a part of it, right in our midst.
I could not be more grateful for the opportunity to peel back and better understand this particular layer of my home.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
This week, as I perused the internet, I stumbled upon a quiz entitled “Where You Belong: Your State Personality.”
It involved a series of ten questions and, at the end, it tells you in which state you should live. I’m a little bit of a sucker for these kinds of quizzes, so I took a stab at it. Based on my answers to the ten questions, I belong in… Georgia!
I was pretty unfazed by this, considering I was raised about twenty-five minutes from the Florida-Georgia Line (the boundary, not the band) and feel comfortable in the area. But this whole concept of a person “belonging” in a state really got me thinking. Is it true? Are there states in which I “belong,” and states in which I do not?
I have never felt this way. In Florida, I belonged. In Massachusetts, I hated the cold, but I belonged. In Mississippi, I belong. However, when I talk to some of my friends, I don’t get the same reaction. Sometimes, my friends are too nervous to even try a new place, a location different from where they grew up.
“The South?” My Northern friends will say. “Oh, no. No thanks, I’m fine up here. I don’t think I could ever move down there.”
“The North?” My Southern friends will say, “Oh, no. I’m fine down here. I don’t think I could ever move up there.”
Why do I feel comfortable everywhere I go, when others just… don’t?
I think I’ve figured it out, though. It’s not that I’m a perfect blend of Northern and Southern, or that I’m more adaptable than most. It’s that I’m Jewish.
After much thought, I realized that this defining characteristic – being Jewish – is what has consistently allowed to me to find a home and to feel comfortable in all the states, and all the countries, in which I have lived. I don’t have to worry about where I will make my first friends, where I will find meaning, or how I will be spiritually fulfilled. All that is a given: I just find the other Jews!
I now realize how incredibly lucky I am, but I also am hopeful that others will understand that they too can belong anywhere once they find their niche, be it a faith community, activity, cause, or passion. Besides, as dynamic personalities, we change and find new ways to fit in, too.
Case in point? I took the quiz three days later to see if it was the same, and this time it said I’m made for Tennessee…maybe that’ll be my next stop!
Over the last few months, I had the pleasure of working to put together a Southern Jewish Heritage tour for a group of Prozdor high school students from the Boston area. Using our resources and contacts in the region, we were able to create an itinerary through Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham that introduced these students not only to the South, but also to the role that Jewish communities played in this region’s history, particularly during the Civil Rights Movement. Below is a story written by one of the trip participants, re-posted from Prozdor Heads South, a blog that the students collaboratively maintained during their trip.
Yesterday we visited Auburn, Alabama, and Beth Shalom – the only temple in east Alabama. We were greeted by Mike Friedman, who immediately offered us food, and lots of it. He then began to speak to us about the history of the temple, his life, and the Auburn Jewish community.
Mike repeatedly mentioned that his story was also the synagogue’s story. He is originally from New York, but throughout his life, he and his wife moved around a lot, eventually ending up in Alabama.
My favorite part of the visit was hearing about his leadership skills. The Auburn Jewish community consists of about 35 families. He was the one that got the synagogue started, but more importantly, he was the one who kept it going. He is not a “certified” rabbi, but he explained that in the sense of teaching a community, he is a rabbi.
Beth Shalom is a Reform temple, which runs services weekly. The fact that he has kept the synagogue going for years is inspirational. They hold high holiday services, Passover Seders, Purim parties, and much more.
This experience left me with a new sense of profound appreciation for the Jewish community I am surrounded by in Needham. I find that often it is easy to take advantage of the fact that we all have close knit and supportive Jewish communities back in Boston. Mike had the courage to get one going and recruit others to keep the sense of community alive.
Just before leaving, he said, and I quote, “Someone has got to lead.”
This resonated strongly with me. I often feel this way about different aspects of my life, especially USY. My chapter started out small, but we have grown into a strong and great chapter with great leaders. There is still room to grow, but the fact that we have come so far is amazing.
Personally, this was the highlight of my trip and I am grateful that Prozdor has given me this opportunity.
We are so glad that this group was able to receive true Southern hospitality from a variety of hosts along the way, and we hope they will value their experiences here for years to come. If your group is interested in creating a similar trip, you can find more information on the ISJL website.