One of my favorite things about my new role as a full-time historian at the ISJL is getting to meet great people with fascinating stories. The latest example? I recently had the privilege of speaking with Scott Davis, an Emmy award-winning Jewish television producer from Raleigh, North Carolina.
Scott Davis has told stories for a living for most of his life, and he became interested in the traditions of Jewish storytelling toward the end of his career. He began writing plays based on nineteenth century Yiddish culture. While doing research for a play based on the Jewish short stories of I. L. Peretz and Sholom Aleichem, two very famous classical nineteenth century Yiddish writers, Scott discovered another important literary figure, Jacob Dinezon.
It turns out Jacob Dinezon was a bestseller in his time (one of his very first novels sold more than 200,000 copies—a massive number in that era!), and he served as a mentor and benevolent uncle of sorts to several writers, but he never became as widely known as his contemporaries like Peretz and Aleichem. Why? Because his works were never translated into English.
Davis feels very passionately about sharing Dinezon’s amazing stories with the rest of the world. In 2007, he founded Jewish Storyteller Press to publish the work of Yiddish authors who deserve more recognition. Initially, he worked with existing English translations of old Yiddish tales. Davis himself doesn’t read Yiddish, so he hired professional scholars to translate directly from the original books. Davis also works with the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of books in the Yiddish language.
Davis just published the first English translation of Dinezon’s book, Memories and Scenes, a collection of 11 autobiographical short stories. In this collection, Dinezon recalls his childhood years in the shtetl and the events that led to his passion for becoming a writer. His simple tales provide a firsthand look into 19th-century shtetl life and a treasure trove of Yiddish history, culture and values. What Davis truly admires is the philosophy behind Dinezon’s tales. Hearing him talk about it so passionately, I can see why: Dinezon’s values reflected those of Davis’s father, a man Davis describes as generous and kind, always going out of his way to help other people.
One of the stories, entitled “Borekh,” tells the tale of a young orphan boy living in the yeshiva. Borekh was not very good at studying Talmud; but he was a generous soul, doing things for people and asking nothing in return. As he grew into manhood, he began to explore the question of who he would grow to be as an adult and what his contribution would be to his community. He asked God for help and soon realizes his special ability, woodworking. He make dreidels, Purim groggers, and toy animals for the children of the town. People in the town still looked down on him for not studying like his peers—until he ultimately carves a holy ark for the Torah, making his own significant and lasting contribution to his community.
Davis strongly identified with Borekh and his struggle to find his true calling. An avid clarinet player, he tried to learn to play Klezmer music. He knew he had an interest in promoting Jewish culture, whether in music or literature. After a few sessions, he realized that it wasn’t very good at it, but was he could do was he tell a good story. That love of storytelling has allowed Davis to engage so many individuals in history that could have easily been forgotten.
Like Davis, I see myself as a storyteller and feel fortunate that I get to tell the stories of Southern Jewry. Each of us offers a unique contribution in preserving Jewish heritage and ultimately, making a positive difference in our communities. Taking a cue from Scott Davis, we can all work together to make sure the story of our Jewish legacy continues.
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A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Tenement Museum in New York City. The museum, which can only be experienced through a guide-led tour, immerses you in the tenement story. Through the lens of the building itself, this museum tells the story of thousands of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries by exploring sections of one particular building on the Lower East Side that was home to many different people since 1863.
The tour I went on focused on the bottom level of the building, where numerous shops have rested over the years. As my group walked down the steps into the building, we were transported to 1870, to a German lager saloon. We learned about the couple who owned the saloon, their hardships, adopted children, the organizations they were members of, and imagined their lives in the very space we were sitting. Next, we learned about the kosher grocery store, the kosher butcher shop, and the peddler’s store that resided in the same space that was once a saloon.
As we learned more about each shop that inhabited this space, I thought about how amazing it was that such varied stories existed there—a German lager saloon, a kosher butcher, a lingerie store. I imagined all the owners sitting down for dinner together, discussing the hardships of owning a business in New York City.
I felt similarly about an historic building in Jackson—The Fairview Inn.
The first time I went to the Fairview Inn, I met with members of the selection committee for Jewish Cinema Mississippi, the Jewish film festival that takes place each January in Jackson. As we were drinking gourmet cocktails named for Mississippi authors (the bar at the Fairview is called The Library Lounge), I listened to the history of the bed and breakfast. The previous owner, who turned the space into a bed and breakfast, was William Simmons.
Simmons was born in Utica, MS in 1916 and grew up in Jackson, MS. He founded the Citizens’ Council in Jackson, which was a part of a network of white supremacist organizations. The groups opposed racial integration in the 1950s and 60s, using intimidation, economic boycotts, propaganda, and violence. Simmons functioned as editor and publisher of The Citizen, Administrator of Citizens’ Councils of America, and President of Citizens’ Council Forum. As a Citizens’ Council representative, he appeared on television and spoke to audiences across the nation. Upon hearing this, I felt a bit nervous in the space. I imagined Council meetings taking place where I was sitting.
But this place is now an entirely different sort of space: In 2006, the Fairview was purchased from Simmons by Peter and Tamar Sharp—a Jewish couple.
There is now a mezuzah on the front door, and Jewish organizational meetings often take place inside. This place is not The Fairview Inn of the past. Walking through the building, you can still learn about its history—but it is an entirely different space today.
Since I moved to Mississippi in June, I’ve had the chance to learn about the complex and inspiring history of Jews in the South. There’s something about living here I haven’t quite been able to put into words. While spending a few days with the TENT tour last week, Dr. Eric Goldstein perfectly captured what I’ve been feeling—he said that there’s an incredible weight of history here. This weight lends a feeling of significance and sanctity to sites that might otherwise seem ordinary. Sitting at the Fairview Inn, I think about the role we play in repurposing spaces, that spaces are shaped by the people who inhabit them.
Do you know the history of the space you live or work in? Does this history impact the way you experience that space today? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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Today’s guest post is from our friend (and one of our favorite scholars!) Dr. Joel M. Hoffman. Last year, we shared a piece from Michele Schipper about why her Jewish family celebrates Halloween. This year, we asked Joel for his scholarly insights on the holiday, its history, and whether or not celebrating Halloween conflicts with Jewish identity. Turns out, he had already written a good deal on the subject on his own blog, and was generous enough to let us share some of it here, too. You can learn more about Joel and his work on his website. Enjoy this not-so-scary Halloween treat!
When I was 11 years old, a grumpy Israeli teacher told me that good Jews don’t dress up for Halloween because it’s a Christian holiday when Christians persecuted Jews.
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
First of all, Halloween began as a Pagan holiday, not Christian. The Celtic Pagan year was divided into two halves. The first half, roughly from spring to fall, was for the world of light, and the second half was for the world of darkness. Holidays marked the transitions from each half to the other.
In spring, Beltane celebrated the spiritual beginning of light-filled summer days and the life-giving force of the sun.
By contrast, Samhain (pronounced “sow-an”), the precursor to Halloween, fell on November 1 and represented summer’s end, winter nights, and, in general, darkness. As is typical of gateways and transitions (which are known technically as “liminal” times), Samhain was regarded with suspicion and even reverence. It was seen as a bridge between two opposite worlds: the human world of light and good on one hand, and the netherworld of darkness and evil on the other. Samhain was the time when the inhabitants of the latter might cross over to the former.
The custom of masks and costumes probably comes from the holiday’s general celebratory character. Some people may have dressed up specifically as ghouls to chase away the real evil powers, perhaps hoping that the denizens of the netherworld would try to distribute themselves evenly, and, seeing an abundance in one place, would go elsewhere. Or they may have thought that even the goblins were afraid of other goblins.
The Catholic Church highlighted the theme of the dead on the holiday when it adapted Samhain for its own purposes, merging it into its existing day for saints. All Saints Day, as it was called, was a time for recognizing the power the saints have over the still living. In some traditions, people paid special homage to the newly dead or offered prayers on behalf of the souls stuck in purgatory, hoping to pave a way to heaven rather than hell. Some people carried candles in turnips to represent the souls stuck in purgatory. In America, these would become our jack o’lanterns.
Since Catholic mass was held on the day, All Saints Day was also called All Saints Mass, the Middle English for which is Alholowmesse, and the Modern English for which is Hallowmas. (Christmas similarly gets its name from the mass held for Christ.)
Because the Catholic Church at the time still followed the Jewish tradition of reckoning days from sundown to sundown, Alholowmesse actually began on the evening before November 1, that is, on the evening of October 31, which was called Alholowevening, or more colloquially Alholowe’en. That gave us our Modern English name Halloween.
In addition to offering words of prayer for the dead, some Christians prepared physical food for their departed loves ones. Once food was potentially available, the poor wanted in on the action, and before long, the holiday became, in part, a day for begging (leading to Shakespeare’s image of “a beggar at Hallowmas”).
But the Puritans who largely founded America despised both the Pagan and Catholic aspects of Halloween, and in this country Halloween was never regarded as a sectarian celebration. It wasn’t even on most American calendars until the mid-nineteenth century. When it finally did take root, it was a mixture of pranks, dress up, jack o’lanterns, and candy, none of which is un-Jewish in any way.
So my grumpy Israeli teacher was wrong. He was equally wrong when he told me that Halloween was created to persecute Jews. There were no Jews living among the Celts when Samhain arose, and the Jews had already been exiled from England by the time the Christians turned Samhain into All Saints Day there.
But he was most severely wrong in his general approach. He failed to distinguish the history of the holiday from the holiday itself. If we abandoned everything that had a disagreeable history, we’d have to give up many of our favorite Jewish rituals, too.
Whatever their non-Jewish roots, American holidays such as Thanksgiving and, yes, Halloween are now symbols of pluralism, yearly signposts advertising America’s freedom and tolerance. These holidays are an opportunity for Americans, regardless of background, to come together and share an experience. And they can be an enormous amount of fun.
Pluralism, tolerance, community, and fun are all Jewish ideals. So I’ll continue to look forward to greeting bizarrely dressed children as they come to my door and ask for treats.
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