Many of the Jewish communities that I research and write about for our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities are quite small. Very few people are aware that Jews established congregations in places like Lexington, Mississippi, or Owensboro, Kentucky. Finding congregational records or other information about these communities can be a real challenge. Thankfully, I have found a few extremely useful sources at the leading archives of American Jewish history.
The American Jewish Historical Society, whose archives are housed at the Center for Jewish History in New York, owns the records of the Industrial Removal Office. The IRO once helped to relocate poor Jewish immigrants from New York to other cities and towns around the country. The organization’s records are fascinating, but perhaps most useful for me are the surveys they sent out to towns to collect information about the local Jewish community. In 1908, they sent one to Morris Baldauf, one of the leaders of the small Jewish congregation in Henderson, Kentucky. Baldauf took this questionnaire seriously, and gave a precise accounting of the local Jewish population, noting that there were 58 adults and 69 children. He also provided information about the local economy, educational system, and even climate. Such a rich, contemporary description of a Jewish community is the gold standard for us historians.
A few weeks ago, I was able to visit the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives on the campus of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. HUC has a long tradition of serving small congregations through its student rabbi program. The correspondence and paperwork related to the program have been preserved at the archives, and they provide a treasure trove of information. A big reason for this was the foresight of Jacob Rader Marcus, the longtime professor of Jewish history at the college and the founder of the archives. Marcus and the leadership of HUC had each rabbinic student who served a congregation fill out of a detailed form about the local Jewish community. Particularly useful was the form from 1935. While some of the questions were straightforward (how many Jews lived there; what the style of worship was), others were clearly those of a historian hoping to help future researchers: when did Jews first arrive; where are the records of the congregation kept; is there a shochet or moil in town; is there “a distinct cleavage between orthodox and reform Jews”; have Jews ever held elected office in the town; have there been any notable instances of anti-Semitism; are there any intermarried couples and are they raising their children to be Jewish.
Thanks to Dr. Marcus, I was able to use these questionnaires to provide a detailed portrait of several small Jewish communities at a particular point in history. Each year, the student rabbi filled out additional surveys, so I could gauge a congregation’s change over time. For a congregation like Adas Israel in Henderson, Kentucky, which never had more than thirty families and did not produce a long historical record, these documents have proven essential to my writing of its history. In another example, the only way I know that there was once a short-lived congregation in Danville, Kentucky, in the 1940s is through these student rabbi records.
My experience with the IRO Records and the HUC Student Rabbi files got me thinking about the work of our organization, the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Each weekend our education fellows and rabbi hit the road to serve congregations across the South. After a Monday comp day, they return to the office on Tuesday and write a detailed trip report about their visit. One day, these trip reports will be an amazing source of information about southern Jewish communities in the early years of the 21st century. While history is a record of what happened in the past, it can be both sobering and inspiring to realize that one day we will also be part of history.
What do Yiddish-speaking chickens, screaming latkes, and a pig who really, really wants to be kosher have in common?
They’re all characters featured in Jewish Books Cooking, a children’s theater show that brings eight popular, contemporary children’s books to life with bright characters and catchy songs.
Jewish Books Cooking (JBC) is a project made possible by The Covenant Foundation. The show debuted earlier this year in New York City. Created and directed by Liz Swados, the New York production of Jewish Books Cooking was mounted at several venues around the city. This December, along with a new director, new music director, and new cast, the show is also going to have a whole new destination – the Deep South.
How does a show like JBC wind up traveling through the South? It happened how it always happens in show biz, baby: “ya know a guy.”
While preparing for the inaugural New York production, the staff at Covenant thought about how great it might be to bring a peppy show like this to smaller communities. They would need a director for the touring show, and an organizational partner with connections to smaller communities…
But they knew a guy – or, in this case, a gal – and they knew of just such an organization. So they made a few phone calls. They called me (because I’m a theater nerd who lives in Mississippi, and was lucky enough to intern with Covenant awhile back). They called the ISJL (since they’re an organization located in Mississippi, accustomed to partnering and delivering programming to smaller communities). They posed the question: what do you think about teaming up to bring JBC to Southern cities – smaller communities that aren’t always reached by this sort of performance?
Everyone was excited about the idea. I mean, who wouldn’t want to bring something totally different to Southern audiences … namely, a children’s show filled with moxie-rich Jewish stories, not to mention all the kooky, rapping, dancing, hilarious characters?
In short order we had actors, venues, and everything else the recipe called for to stir up a Southern helping of Jewish Books Cooking. Though a lot to wrangle, this has been a fun and rewarding process. The stories included in the show are all upbeat, sometimes poignant, sometimes zany, but never dull. The music gets stuck in your head for days — in a good way, as the entire cast can assure you. And even the craziest of the characters is charming and relate-able, especially as conveyed by our talented actors. (These guys are pros: they go from being rats to parrots to witches to fried foods, without batting an eye!)
Directing JBC has been a treat. But best of all, knowing that this show will travel around and delight audiences who might not see anything like it all year … well. It’s practically a theatrical Chanukah miracle.
Next week, this show hits the road, traveling to Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Memphis, and closes out right here in Jackson, Mississippi. The show is free, and the Southern touring production will be followed by a family program focused on exploring Jewish stories and sharing family bedtime rituals. The program was written and will be implemented by the ISJL Education Department staff – so it’ll be just as fun as the show itself.
Welllllllllll, maybe it’ll be more fun. I mean, the show is pretty hard to beat. Did I mention there’s a Yiddish-speaking chicken?
If JBC is coming to a city near you, find more info here and go check it out! In the meantime, tell us: what’s your favorite Jewish children’s story?
The following thoughts come to us from Education Fellow Erin Kahal.
A few weeks ago, another Education Fellow, Sam Kahan, and I were at the end of several back-to-back summer visits that took us on a whirlwind six day trip through Virginia and Arkansas.
We had a blast with each of our congregations, but we were exhausted since this was also the last round of a month of non-stop travel. We were standing in the Atlanta airport when Sam looked at me and asked, “Where are we? What state are we in right now?!”
I looked back at her, unsure, and we both started giggling hysterically. Our laughter continued for several minutes, even as strangers gave us awkward glances. I enjoyed the fact that this moment was a typical event in the life of an ISJL Education Fellow. The embarrassing scene provided me with great relief, but it also reflects my journey toward discovering my own joy working for the ISJL. The fellowship is challenging at times, but I have learned to harness a sense of happiness through laughter.
As soon as I heard of the fellowship, I knew the job was the perfect for me. I did not realize, though, how challenging it would be to jump straight out of school and into the working world. At first, I felt homesick and unsure of my exact role as a part of an amazing staff comprised of outstanding individuals from all over the country. However, as soon as I started going on my visits, I overcame my fears. I discovered just how much I love department brainstorming, leading and writing programs, and interacting with the wonderful people in all of my communities. In turn, my newfound confidence allowed me to discover my own sense of joy in the job.
We take our roles very seriously at the ISJL, but we also laugh together as a way to bond as a team and cope with everyday demands. My supervisor, Education Director Rachel Stern, guided me in this process by helping me to remain positive in the work I was doing. One way that she did that was by encouraging me to create a “Blue Folder” that contains all of my saved emails from communities that reflect my achievements; that way, I have something to cheer me up whenever I needed encouragement. As I began to feel more at ease in my job, I learned that my own happiness has a direct impact on my performance and on my community members. Enthusiasm is contagious, and being around so many different people throughout the South has allowed me to discover the ripple effects of positive thinking.
Earlier this year, Rachel proposed that we create a program dedicated to the joy of teaching, and her thoughts eventually turned into a session for one of the keynotes at our 2012 Education Conference. Afterward, I reformatted the talk as a program that we can take it on the road for summer visits. The lesson provides a serious analysis on joy, but it ends on a comical note, which you can watch below.
Leading this session, I have witnessed firsthand how simple laughter can transform the energy of a room. In Atlanta, it transformed my experience of the airport. Education fellows, like so many people, keep hectic schedules. Airports, roads, and rest stops often blur together, but it helps tremendously to hold fast to our enthusiasm. At times, I may forget my location, but when I stop to laugh and smile, I remember my place: serving the people of our congregations.
As Reb Nahman of Bratslav said: “Mitzvah gedolah lihyot besimchah tamid! (It’s a great mitzvah to be happy always!)”
So, how do you find joy in your daily life?