Why did the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) meet in Chicago for its recent board meeting?
Well… why not?
Many of our board members divide their time and attention between both large and small towns in the South. Others share a story similar to my story.
I grew up in Wynne, Arkansas, also known as “The City with a Smile” and home of the Wynne Yellowjackets. I attended synagogue, religious school and youth group events at Temple Israel in Memphis, Tennessee, just a short 60 mile drive east over the Mississippi River. I loved spending my summers going to camp at Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi, where I embraced my Jewish identity and found lifelong Jewish friends. Always, I had my immediate family around me who lovingly taught me how family and Judaism were intertwined and a part of my life and tradition.
For the past 25 years, I have lived in Chicago and its suburbs. I am involved in the Jewish community, ensured my children went to religious school and had their bar and bat mitzvahs, and remain an active member of a congregation. However, I have continued to have a strong connection with my Southern heritage, my Southern Jewish heritage. Visiting my parents when they still lived in Wynne, and now where they live in Hot Springs, Arkansas, is wonderful—but visiting was not enough.
I felt like I wanted and needed to do more to stay involved and be involved. A few years ago, I was approached about serving on the Board of the ISJL, and was asked if I would be interested in working with the group that delivers amazing rabbinic services, educational programming and cultural events to communities throughout the ISJL’s thirteen-state region. I found out more about the history department and preservation initiatives, as well as the cultural tours and travelling exhibitions of the museum department. I was intrigued with the community engagement department, which was newly formed at the time but has now developed into a program which partners with nonprofits, schools and congregations to pursue tikkun olam, repairing our world, in meaningful ways.
I decided that joining the ISJL Board to promote Judaism and our heritage was just what I needed and wanted to do.
Are there others like me in Chicago? Yes, I know there are. There are other similar Southern transplants who would like to reconnect with their roots and be involved with the ISJL and support the ISJL. They are here in Chicago, and they are also in Detroit, Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, Portland, Denver, Des Moines, and New York City. They live all over our country and outside our country.
So, gathering in Chicago made good sense. As will gathering in other cities, and finding other Southern transplants and allies to become friends and active supporters like me of the ISJL. Of course, next time we meet in this part of the world, perhaps we’ll pick our spring board meeting instead of our fall/winter meeting… still, discussing Southern Jewish life as the snow began to fall brought both of my worlds together in a meaningful way.
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Last week, I was on the road with TENT, a week-long traveling seminar on culture, history, and social justice for a group of Jewish twenty-somethings. The group started in New Orleans and finished in Memphis, spending several days in Mississippi along the way.
I accompanied the group from New Orleans to Jackson, and it was a privilege to spend time with such an intelligent, enthusiastic group of young adults. All but one of them hailed from the North, so it was interesting to watch them experience Southern culture and learn about Southern Jewry from trip leader Rachel Myers and their scholar-on-the-road, Professor Eric Goldstein of Emory University.
Some in the group had been to New Orleans, but none of them had been to Natchez, Mississippi, the second stop on our tour.
Natchez, a river port town in Adams County, sits on high bluffs towering over the mighty Mississippi River. Commonly referred to as “The Bluff City,” Natchez is one of the oldest and most important European settlements in the lower Mississippi River Valley. Its economy, firmly rooted in the cotton trade, prospered during the 19th century and attracted people from around the world seeking to profit from the trade. Goods came to the area from ports in New Orleans, St. Louis, Boston, New York, and even Great Britain. As a result of this great success, in 1860 Natchez had more millionaires than anywhere else in the United States.
Though past its economic prime, Natchez continues to attract visitors with its many historic homes and festivals that celebrate life in the Old South. Here, in the so-called “most Southern place on earth,” the group quickly learned that Jews flourished in The Bluff City for over two centuries.
Natchez has thirteen National Historic Landmarks and over 1,000 structures on the National Register of Historic Places. A number of historic churches are scattered throughout the city, including Temple B’nai Israel. The original temple was built in 1870, but burned to the ground due to faulty wiring. B’nai Israel’s new building was dedicated on March 25, 1905, with over 600 people in attendance.
A number of esteemed guests come to B’nai Israel to talk to us about the history of the Natchez Jewish community. Mayor Larry Lynn “Butch” Brown [named for two other Natchez Jews of blessed memory, Larry and Lynn Abrams] spoke about the many contributions Jews made over the years, and invited us to return to the city’s tri-centennial celebration in 2016. Mimi Miller, Executive Director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, shared that the synagogue looks much as it looked in 1905. The bima, lighting fixtures, and chairs are the same. Temple member Beau Baumgardner informed us that lay-lead services are held monthly, despite the fact that the median age of temple members is 74. The congregation is fortunate to have David Goldblatt, a music professor at Alcorn State University, serve as cantorial soloist. To the group’s surprise, Beau also told us that often, more gentiles than Jews are in attendance at Shabbat services.
After visiting the temple, we met Natchez resident Jerry Krouse and toured his historic home. His adorable granddaughters helped lead the tour. Jerry has an exquisite collection of mid-eighteenth-century Rococo furniture and antiques.
Though small in numbers now, the Natchez Jewish community continues to shine in this historic gem of a city. In 1991, Temple B’nai Israel went into partnership with the ISJL (then called the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience) to ensure their temple’s preservation down the road. B’nai Israel is now listed as a Mississippi historical site. In fact, the Historic Natchez Foundation has a riddle on their architectural scavenger hunt: “I alone am surmounted by a dome, but I have few members who call me home.”
The TENT participants visiting Natchez almost all came from towns with large, thriving Jewish communities. We were all impressed by the determination of the Natchez Jewish community to keep their Jewish traditions alive for as long as possible. It was a wonderful way to begin a journey through the Jewish South, and a good lesson: a community can be small, and still be thriving.
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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.
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