This blog post comes from Linnea Hurst, who interned in the ISJL’s Community Engagement department last summer.
I wasn’t raised with religion. Growing up, I always learned about religion through my friends or communities I have lived in—including through my internship experience at the ISJL last summer, where I gained a much richer understanding of Judaism.
This winter, my religious education took a new twist. I had the opportunity to travel around Spain after studying abroad in London. The first stop on my Spanish adventure was a sleepy medium-sized Southern city named Córdoba. To my surprise, I learned that in the 10th century Córdoba was the largest city in Western Europe, boasting 500,000 inhabitants. Even more spectacular than this fact was the fact that at the request of King Alfonzo, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars were all brought to his court in Córdoba to learn together and translate books from Arabic and Hebrew into Latin.
These three religions clearly existed in Córdoba without serious strife during the 10th century; a fact that today seems far-fetched. Although there is no synagogue left in the city, there is a large mosque which dates back to 784. Yet as with almost all non-Christian religions sites in Spain, something was built atop this mosque: in this case, a large cathedral sits smack dab in the middle. The contrasting architectural styles of the Cathedral and the Mosque depicts how although the Jews, Muslims, and Christians learned from each other as scholars in Córdoba in the 10th century this peace did not last long.
Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain in the 15th century. Only a lucky few synagogues and mosques, such as the mosque I saw in Córdoba, did not get completely destroyed.
When I reached central Spain, I still had not seen a synagogue and was curious if there were any still in the country. Jewish life seemed more like a memory there. In every city I visited in Southern Spain, there was a “Jewish Quarter,” where a thriving Jewish community had once lived very long ago, and none remained. When I visited the city of Toledo, which used to be Spain’s capital before Madrid, I finally found something more than a sign saying “barrio Judío”. In Toledo I visited Synagogue El Transito, founded in 1356 by Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia who was the Treasurer to Peter of Castile. The building was not big, but as soon as I entered I could not take my eyes away from the ornate stucco decorations covering the walls. As I got closer I noticed that the walls were beautifully inscribed with both Hebrew and Arabic, a testament to the close ties between Judaism and Arabic culture in medieval Spain. The synagogue was temporarily turned into a Catholic Church after the expulsion of the Jews.
Leaving Spain was hard, and on the last day I decided I needed just one more adventure, just one more new city. I took a day trip to Segovia, where I spent all day entranced by the larger than life cathedral and imposing yet beautiful medieval castle. It wasn’t until the sun had set that I chanced upon a landmark from Segovia’s 14th century Jewish community. I was following a hiking trail back down a hill where I had watched the sunset when I came across two large pits with stone slabs. I knew immediately they must be something very old and very important and I just had to figure out what. Not far from the slabs were historical signs mostly in Spanish but with a little English. “Old Jewish Burial Ground…” the title read. It turns out that the Jewish quarter of Segovia, which was right across from this hill, was where the burial procession would originate.
I don’t know if I would have looked for those hidden remnants of Jewish life if not for my summer in the South, working for a Jewish organization. That was one great exposure to culture, which many might find unexpected; and now this, learning about three religions simply by walking the old medieval streets of Spain, where I learned there is something about being right there, something about the weight of history, that is truly unique.
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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Today’s tale of Southern Jewish family, history, and a meaningful road trip comes to us from our summer history intern, Gabe Weinstein, in the last of our “summer intern” series of posts. Thanks, Gabe, and all of our interns for the wonderful work and great reflections!
My Grandma Ethel lived in Cleveland, Ohio for over 50 years, but she never lost her Alabama drawl.
The drawl was her trademark. Her thing. Ethel immediately left the South after she graduated college in 1946. and never lived beneath the Mason Dixon line again. But a part of her heart always remained in northeastern Alabama.
There are over 250 Jewish communities in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. Grandma’s hometown, Piedmont, Alabama is not one of them. It’s easy to see why when you drive down Center Avenue. The storefronts that once housed dry goods stores and clothing stores sit empty, waiting patiently for new tenants that will never arrive.
Grandma Ethel’s family ended up in Piedmont for the same reasons thousands of Jewish families landed in small towns across the south. My great-grandfather George Kass had the opportunity to run a dry goods store. After a failed stint as a jewelry salesman in New York, George packed up the family and moved to Piedmont in the mid-1920s. The move made sense: prior to the New York stint, George had run a dry goods store in Cartersville, Georgia, and his wife Kate had family in Atlanta.
Grandma and my Aunt Louise never felt alienated growing up as Jews in Piedmont. Their friends always came over to socialize and they were always welcomed in their friend’s homes. There was one other Jewish family in town, the Steinbergs, who owned a clothing store next to my great-grandfather’s store and had been in town since 1912. But they were close with their non-Jewish neighbors, too: up until her death in August 2011, Grandma Ethel kept in touch with one of her closest childhood friends from Piedmont, Elizabeth Ellen, AKA “Sis.” Continue reading