In the mid-nineteenth century, thousands of Jewish immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine came to America and made new lives for themselves in the Deep South. Last week, some Alsatian Jews embarked on the same journey (made much more convenient by intercontinental air travel) to learn about Jewish history and heritage in the South.
Traveling up from New Orleans, last Friday this group of 33 Jewish Alsatian tourists found themselves spending a day with ISJL staff in Jackson, Mississippi. We have worked with tour groups in the past, but never in a different language! While many of them did speak English, the group leader translated every presentation into French. Take a look at this short clip I filmed of Dr. Rockoff presenting to the group…
From our office we went on our usual tour of Jackson sites, stopping at Tougaloo College, the COFO Civil Rights Education Center and the Medgar Evers House Museum. These sites mainly focus on the events of the Civil Rights movement, so I did my best to explain how that history has shaped this region. Questions like why so many buildings were empty downtown, why students pay so much for a college education, and inquiries regarding contemporary race relations, covered huge topics that while difficult to explain easily in English, are especially challenging to explain in French, to an audience without a native understanding of American history.
The cultural exchange went both ways, as I got to hear about the French Jewish experience as well. One woman asked me about how Southerners practice Judaism, and if they still identify as Jewish if they aren’t active in a congregation. She explained that while there are many secular Jews in France, many strongly identify as racially Jewish because of their direct connection to the Holocaust. The leader told me later that a few of the visitors were hidden children during the war. I also found it interesting in discussing our ISJL education program when a few of the guests then explained to me that their children never had any formal Jewish schooling; they simply learned Jewish practices and customs in the home.
It was a great learning experience and such a wonderful opportunity to spend the day with this group. We’re happy that they chose to spend their time in our neck of the woods and I hope this post will encourage some of you with fewer oceans to travel across to make plans to join us soon for your own Southern Jewish experience!
As we approach the winter holidays, one thing will likely dominate our minds: doors.
What? Doors weren’t the first thing on your mind? Come on! We just had the ringing of doorbells on Halloween; next up is the opening of doors to family and friends on Thanksgiving; and this year, that occasion will coincide with the rededication of the Temple’s doors, as we celebrate Hanukkah (and the mash-up “Thanksgivukkah” we keep hearing about).
Understanding that doors play a central place in our secular and religious lives, as the threshold to meaning and community, I wanted to share with you something interesting that I observed while visiting Temple Emanuel in Longview, Texas. There, the mezuzot are affixed to the left side of the doors, not the right; and, they lean outward as opposed to inward.
When I asked the co-president of this Reform congregation how they got into this “unorthodox” position, I was told a fascinating story. Originally, the mezuzot were on correctly. The doors, however, were not, as they opened inwards as opposed to outwards, which is the standard for all public buildings. Thus, the congregation was forced to turn the entire door frame around.
“But, what difference does the door’s direction really make?” I wondered. Then, it hit me! In cases of emergency, the doors in a public building need to open outward as to manage the rapid flow of people exiting. Go ahead. Look around you. I promise that you’ll notice that just about all public buildings’ doors open outward.
“So, where,” you may ask, “do they open inward?”
And here is where we find a powerful message. In outward-opening doors, a public space unconsciously imparts the message of departure and exclusion; whereas, our homes – through their inward opening doors – relates welcoming and inclusion. Likely, that was the original intent behind Emanuel’s construction: to be an extension of home, wherein all would be welcomed.
So as friends and family, neighbors and strangers, get poised to go from door to door this winter holiday season, let us keep in mind that every knock is a knock of opportunity. And, whether the door opens inward or outward, let’s just be mindful to keep it open to all.
So there’s this website called Pork Memoirs.
Dedicated to sharing “personal stories about a complicated meat,” the site explores personal identity relative to the consumption or avoidance of pork.
The site has drawn contributions from Jews who don’t eat pork, Jews who do eat pork, Muslims who don’t eat pork, bacon enthusiasts, vegetarians, those who slaughter pig, those who have pet pigs. It made me start thinking.
What’s with all the pork punditry of late? Especially within the Jewish world, where it’s a traditionally-off-limits nosh? It’s made me think, once again, about this most beloved and forbidden of flesh-foods.
Even if you eat shrimp—even if you love a cheeseburger—there’s just something about pork that seems less kosher than everything else out there. Maybe it’s just because everyone knows it’s not kosher. Maybe it’s because there are other cultures where pig is forbidden, while the shellfish or dairy/meat or other rules aren’t in place. Regardless: it is the pinnacle of treyf.
Forget Mary. There’s something about pork.
Which brings us to my own pork memoir. My own answer to the “Got Bacon?” question.
Which would be “No … ish.”
See, I’ve never eaten pork. Not really. But after a decade of living in the South, I can assure you that it’s hard to over-emphasize how much this region loves its pig products, and how often pork is infused into non-pig-dishes … like, y’know, green beans.
That can make keeping kosher in the Bible Belt a challenge. Doable, certainly, but depending on where in the South you live, it’ll require some thought, planning, and either the willingness to go veg and/or the establishment of a buddy system with folks who travel to places like Atlanta, New Orleans, or Memphis where you can get kosher meat.
I don’t “keep kosher,” but I do aim for ”ethical eating,” and have been some shade of vegetarian since I was 11. So I’ve never really eaten pork … but I know I’ve inadvertently (or even willfully ignorantly) ingested the stuff.
When I first moved to the South, I was a stricter vegetarian, and was taken aback the first time I saw little animal bits floating in my greens at a local buffet. It made me pay more attention, for sure – and being intentional about what we eat and why seems significant.
It became a quandry: should I stop eating all foods that might have hidden hog, likely limiting where I can eat? Always ask the question “is this vegetarian”? Or, especially when invited into someone’s home, do I just not look too closely and eat my delicious greens?
For me, the pig journey became less about the traditional laws of kashrut and more about other Jewish traditions, ones I was raised to value and live out every day. Traditions like hospitality. Being a good host, and also being a good guest. Folks have made me meals in their home, or insisted on taking me to their beloved restaurant to experience their local culinary favorites. Favorites which may or may not have
pork some sort of meat lending flavor to the veggies. So, to question? Or to say thanks, and eat? Ultimately, I adopted a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. Those who know me well avoid serving up the meat they know I don’t eat. But in general, I simply accept hospitality. If I don’t see meat, I eat the meal, and am grateful to whoever prepped the meal for sharing it with me.
That’s my own choice, and certainly not one that works for everyone. But for me, a truly important part of this process was the engagement. The fact that I, like everyone else sharing their pork memoirs, thought about this very deeply – and knowing that all of this, somehow, has something to do with my identity. It wasn’t an easy or thoughtless decision. It was one I had to take seriously, because what we eat does matter, not only for our physical health but also for our mental and spiritual health.
At least, that’s true for me. And wherever you ultimately land on what you will or won’t eat, I think the contemplation-factor resonates for a lot of Jewish folks. We feel a connection to all food, and especially our individual acceptance or rejection of pork. Playing with your food may be rude, but wrestling with it, well – that seems pretty Jewish.
Beth Kander will be just fine in the coming A-Pork-Alypse. Will you? What are your thoughts about this tempting but taboo treyf treat?