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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The last thing I imagined to find when I moved to Mississippi? A tabernacle.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about the Mishkan, the encampment the Israelites set up in the while wandering in the desert, the physical space where God dwelled among them. But I never thought I would see a life-size replica… let alone in Pearl, Mississippi.
I read about it online, and was immediately tempted to go see it—but I also felt a bit strange about the fact that this “life-size replica of the Mosaic Sanctuary that God gave instructions to Moses to build in the wilderness” was constructed by a Seventh-day Adventist organization. I wondered what the agenda might be, as the group travels with the tabernacle across the nation.
But my curiosity got the best of me. And so I went to see the Mishkan.
Located in the middle of a large open field, next to a church in Pearl, Mississippi, sat several large tents. Two kind older women welcomed me and handed me an admission ticket that read “tribe of Benjamin.” My father’s Hebrew name, I observed silently. The women asked me why I was in Jackson, where I worked and I told them about the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Although I wasn’t trying to hide the fact that I’m Jewish, I realized I was a bit uncomfortable. Was I coming here “as a Jew”? Was I walking in as a student of religious studies?
Either way, I was probably not their intended audience.
Our tour guide began by explaining the history of the Temple, and Jewish worship at the Temple. I was impressed with the guide’s level of knowledge. He had a lot of dates and important figures memorized, and his information seemed consistent with what I learned in my Jewish day school education.
We walked into the tent, stopping to look at the altar made of “brass” (or plastic spray-painted to look like brass). An unfortunate plush-toy sheep was awaiting a demonstration. The guide explained to us the process of sacrifice, starting with the sin, and ending with the fats and innards burnt on the altar. He shared all the information I was familiar with, but his interpretation was different: for the tour guide in the church’s re-created tabernacle, every part of the sacrifice and worship to God somehow connected to Jesus’ ministry.
We made our way through the tabernacle, beginning from the least holy spot to the most—the Holy of Holies.
Inside the Holy of Holies sat items I knew were supposedly there, but had never pictured. This was perhaps the most interesting thing for me; to see things like manna and Aaron’s staff, depicted in material terms. Manna is something I’ve always learned about as maybe bread, or maybe grain, but definitely heavenly, other-worldly. To see it in a bowl, so obviously of this world, was confusing. Some of the mystery, the ineffable quality was lost.
Perhaps the most jarring interpretation of all: the tour ended in a tent where the High Priest was dressed in a breastplate—and instead of pomegranates and bells around the bottom of his frock, instead Christmas ornaments dangled from the garment.
It was an odd experience, but I’m glad I went. I left this Mishkan feeling confused, but also full of pride. Though our religions look very different today, the Christians who created this tabernacle share many of the same historical roots that connect me to my faith. For my tour guide, the Mishkan was an extraordinary thing that led the way for Jesus’ salvation. For me, it was something that helped shape my people, as a people. Christianity and Judaism both changed drastically over the years, and neither look much like the religion practiced in the desert for 40 years—but both still find meaning in memories and experiences of the Mishkan.
Jews get lumped together a lot. Polls refer to “the Jewish vote.” We hear about the “Jewish response.” Labels of Jewish are smacked across everything from “Jewish humor” to “Jewish tradition” with little acknowledgment that Sarah Silverman’s fans aren’t necessarily Mel Brooks enthusiasts, and the traditions found in one Jewish household may vary wildly from the traditions found in a household one state over… or just down the block.
When representing a “Southern Jewish” organization, I’ve been asked frequently what makes “Southern Jews” different from “Northern Jews.” My response keeps evolving, but I do think there’s a difference.
There’s a difference because we are all products of our environment. With the exception of communities that choose to be expressly insular, we are all shaped by multiple forces. The Southern Jewish experience, particularly the small-town Southern Jewish experience, is one shaped by having fewer massive Jewish organizational infrastructure, and more overtly Christian neighbors. It is shaped by the music and the culture of the place, as is any other ethnic or religious group living here. In many ways, Southern Jewry has its own flavor, metaphorically and literally. It is connected to the larger Jewish experience, while being unique.
There’s a difference. But there’s also something more. There’s connection– and there’s conflict.
Ever since Jews started living in different places, we have always had things that have distinguished us. But now, more than ever, we seem to have an increasing number of things that not only distinguish us but also divide us. While the larger world might continue to lump us together, it is harder for many of us individual Jews to do so.
From egalitarianism to the equality movement, interfaith families to Israel, we are a polarized people. And in an era where we out our positions on Facebook, contend with new issues daily, our differences are surfaced quite quickly and clearly. When Jews are united on… well, probably nothing… how do we connect?
How do we remain “a people,” whatever that means?
I don’t know. But I do know this: somehow, we do. Somehow, there is still a Team Jewish affiliation that transcends Just-Southern-Jews or Just-Progressive-Jews or Just-Conservative-Jews. The team spirit doesn’t stop simply at our politics, be they progressive or conservative, or at our address, be it in the American South or South America.
It’s hard to define, this invisible thread. It’s a gut feeling. It’s our hearts twisting when the Holocaust is mentioned, and getting riled when it is invoked unjustly (even if our definitions of “unjust use” vary). It’s our ears perking up when there’s a mention of Something Jewish in the news. It’s feeling deep pride (maybe over different things) and feeling deep guilt (definitely over different things) and it’s wrestling, and wrestling, and wrestling.
Somehow, there still is a Team Jewish. But we sure are passing/throwing/swatting/
We feel it, but we don’t always show it. Or we show it in different ways. And we disagree, more and more heatedly. And there are seismic shifts and growing rifts in what that tricky “Jewish vote” looks like to the rest of the world, too.
What does that mean for the Jewish future?
Well. I don’t know that, either. But I’m pretty sure there will be a Jewish future. So that’s something.
At various times in my life, my own observance, stances, and struggles have varied. So too have the commitments and connections that kept me playing for Team Jewish. This has been one of those years where it’s challenging to define what exactly those “ties that bind” me might be, as the world continually unravels.
But I keep going to the mat.
Or the stadium. Or whatever.
What are your thoughts? From the cultural to the religious and the inane to the innate… what makes or breaks Jewish identity? How much is it shaped by where you live and what you experience?
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