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
This blog is written by Sam Gardner, who just finished his summer internship in the ISJL’s history department.
The Neshoba County Fair is not your typical county fair. Yes, it does have the rides, game booths, and fried delicacies, but this is where the ordinary ends and extraordinary begins at Neshoba.
Starting in 1889, the Neshoba County Fair is a long-standing Mississippi tradition, with two unique features: the cabins and the political speeches. Some of the cabins have been owned by the same families for generations. Although most owners reside in their cabin for the one week of the fair and the cabin is vacant the rest of the year, cabins can sell for as much as the most expensive house in the county. It’s prime real estate, hard to acquire.
Then, there are the speeches, traditionally made by state government officials, but also university presidents and even presidential nominee Ronald Reagan during his 1980 campaign. The two main speakers on the day I joined some other ISJL staff for a fair field trip were Mississippi’s Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn, and Governor Phil Bryant. The Phils are known for their strong conservative views, and in the weeks leading up to the fair, my fellow interns and I, all liberal-minded northerners, were excited to experience what some have described as “Woodstock for Mississippi Republicans.”
When we arrived at the fair, we saw colorful cabins with family names posted on the front, eccentric decorations, an unsettling number of confederate flags, and lots of white people. We walked over to Founder’s Square, the center of the fairgrounds, and made our way to the Pavilion, a large, open-air wooden structure with rows of benches and a podium at the front for the speakers.
Phillip Gunn spoke about new education requirements and charter school laws, intended to help children in failing school districts. His most memorable quote was on the topic of guns: “When it’s three in the morning and someone’s coming through my door, and I don’t know how many there are, I need to have more bullets and bigger guns than they have.” Like Gunn on guns, Governor Phil Bryant (pictured at left) was obviously in his element at Neshoba and delivered a free-wheeling and impassioned speech. When discussing a controversial new open carry gun law, he promised to veto any effort to overturn it “faster than a shot out of a Winchester.” His defense of gun rights and school prayer elicited loud cheers from the audience; I definitely felt out of place. Clearly, I was not in New York City anymore.
If conservative politics makes up one pillar of the fair, the other is southern hospitality. We were invited to eat lunch at the cabin of Dick Molpus, former Secretary of State and a longtime leader of the Democratic Party in Mississippi. Recently, Dick received attention on the Daily Show, including an on-air apology from Jon Stewart, who had made incorrect assumptions about him as a white office holder in Mississippi. In fact, Molpus, a native of Neshoba County, has been an outspoken advocate of racial justice and public education in Mississippi. He welcomed our group and served us a delicious southern (and kosher-style) lunch.
Before we left, Gabe and Lex, two co-workers, visited the Williams cabin on the advice of ESPN writer Wright Thompson. Gabe had tweeted Wright, a Mississippi native, the day before to ask his recommendations for the fair, and he told Gabe to go to the yellow cabin and ask for Snooky and Mary Lou. They were welcomed at the house and offered food and whiskey, and invited to join the hosts for a football tailgate at “The Grove” at Ole Miss in the fall. Southern hospitality at its finest.
After leaving the fair, we drove into Philadelphia, MS, site of the infamous murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. We visited Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist Church where there is a gravestone memorial for the three civil rights workers. After laying three stones on the marker, we headed back to Jackson.
My experience at the Neshoba County Fair was a microcosm of my time in Mississippi. I enjoyed my visit to the fair as people sat on their front porches schmoozing (though they might not use that word) and welcoming others into their cabins. The fun atmosphere of the fair is definitely palpable, and it is no wonder that people return year after year. However, being a New York Jew myself, having grown up literally three blocks away from where Andrew Goodman grew up, and having heard his brother talk at my high school a few years ago, I could not help but think about Philadelphia’s ugly history, which includes the murder of someone from such a similar background as myself.
I have definitely enjoyed my summer living in the South. I can now testify that in many ways, Mississippi is no less progressive than New York. However, I also cannot reconcile the fact that the Confederate flag, a symbol of oppression for so many Mississippians, continues to occupy a section of the state flag. This past weekend, I watched Wright Thompson’s documentary “Ghosts of Ole Miss,” which focuses on the Ole Miss 1962 football season and its relationship to the violent resistance to the school’s integration that same year. It accurately captures the questions and dilemmas that still puzzle me after spending the summer in Mississippi.
What is the appropriate way to deal with Mississippi’s history? How much can today’s problems be blamed on the past and how can we remember while also moving forward? Ghosts from Mississippi’s past still linger today, yet there has been so much positive change. I feel like I came to understand Mississippi’s ghosts – and its generosity- a little better at Neshoba. After my summer in Jackson meeting people from an assortment of backgrounds dedicated to making this state a better place, as I head home to New York, I am hopeful for Mississippi.
Today’s post comes from Linnea Hurst, the ISJL’s Community Engagement Department intern this summer.
I am from Portland, Oregon, and had never visited to the South before this summer, so the adjustment to living in Jackson was a big one for me. Yet despite the fact I have only lived here for a month, I already feel at home. This is because I have been initiated into two welcoming and vibrant communities: the ISJL community and the larger community of Jackson.
In recognition of everything I’ve learned since arriving in Mississippi, here are a few of the new things I’ve learned:
1) It is extremely exciting to watch older students teach younger students to read.
Every day I oversee our Read, Lead, Succeed reading program, and recently I have learned to stop nervously circling the room waiting for an older student to goof off or lose focus. Instead, I spend most of my time simply watching in awe as the reading leaders take on the role of teacher and encourage their student to stay focused or tackle new words.
2) Medgar Evers was an advocate for youth involvement during the Civil Rights Movement.
All the ISJL summer interns were lucky enough to attend some of the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Medgar Evers’ assassination here in Jackson. We learned that while other Civil rights leaders were hesitant to include young people in the activism, Evers made a point to encourage involvement of younger activists in local youth councils.
3) There is no one way to approach social justice.
When I’m not working with the reading program, I spend my days researching social justice efforts taken by Jewish communities in the South. I have discovered that inter-faith work, forming women’s advocacy groups and radio broadcasting have all been ways in which Jews in the region have historically tackled social issues in their communities.
4) The drive for equality and justice is something felt by everyone, no matter their faith. In my research I have found that in many Southern communities (including Jackson), Jews have worked alongside the larger community to advocate, organize and create change. Although for Jews this urge to help others may have originated from their Jewish identity, it could be understood and picked up by those who were not Jewish. This is not just an occurrence of the past. I am a living example as I work with the ISJL’s Community Engagement Department to create positive change here in Jackson, even though I am not Jewish.
5) Pickled eggs are pink on the inside, and I am not entirely opposed to their taste.
As you might have guessed, this was a learning experience that took place outside of the ISJL. As I was standing in line at a gas station, I wondered aloud if I should try one of the pickled eggs floating ominously in a large jar. The woman behind me overheard and told me of her love of pickled pig lip. She then suggested that yes, I should try an egg. Before I knew it, I was biting into a pink slippery sphere. The egg tasted strongly of vinegar, but I managed to eat it all. I left the gas station excited to live in a city that is full of people eager to get to know newcomers and proud to teach them about Southern culture.
6) The ISJL’s annual education conference is a unique and inspiring event.
While I could go on and on about Education Director Rachel Stern’s infectious positive attitude or the education fellows’ dedication to honing their rapping skills, the Department of Community Engagement’s panel on Building Inclusive Communities stuck with me the most. The session addressed how congregations’ responses (or lack thereof) to issues like race, poverty, disability or mental illness leave some members of the Jewish community feeling invisible or unwelcome. Unless encouraged to do so, most people do not naturally talk about such difficult and sensitive topics. Yet, to my delight, I heard many conversations not only directly after the panel, but also for days afterwards addressing how conference participants and ISJL staff plan to approach these issues, and their own personal privileges, more mindfully and sensitively in the future.
7) There are more Jewish holidays than just Passover and Hanukkah
Those are the two I heard about growing up, but there are many more, and they all have incredible meaning and values behind them. Malkie (Schwartz) and I are brainstorming how to connect congregations with resources to aid with inclusion and awareness of minority Jews, interfaith families, LGBTQ Jews, and more. We quickly discovered that the easiest way to do this would be to link these social issues to the values behind various Jewish holidays – not just Passover and Hanukkah!
Stay tuned to Southern & Jewish and to our Facebook page for more updates on what the ISJL Community Engagement Department is up to this summer!