“Did you hear about the rabbi getting thrown out of a Jackson restaurant?”
Everyone at our office has been asked that by friends and family near and far, after the story made national news last week.
Of course we heard about it. Some may have even wondered if I was involved, since I am a rabbi in Jackson, Mississippi, and there are only so many of us. But I am not the rabbi in this story; it was my colleague Rabbi Ted Riter, the interim rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation here in Jackson.
Rabbi Riter went to a small Greek restaurant—one he’s been to before—and placed a to-go order. The owner made an anti-Semitic slur regarding the size of the side salad. The rabbi, puzzled, asked for clarification. Rather than change course, the owner just dug in deeper, asking if Rabbi Riter was Jewish. When he said yes, the owner responded by cursing him out and demanding he leave the establishment store. News of the incident travelled quickly, from social media to local media to national coverage.
The Jewish community sometimes gets criticized for being overly sensitive when it comes to anti-Semitism. History teaches us that, unfortunately, such heightened sensitivity is necessary – but it’s important to balance vigilance with reason. In a country as large as ours, there will always be individuals prone to words and actions that we find objectionable. As disturbing as these cases may appear, they should not be our real worry. One person’s ignorant comments do not represent an entire city.
Further, if we turn our attention toward every isolated attack, we give such people more power than they deserve while giving ourselves unwarranted and unending anxiety. Instead, as a Jewish community our attention must be focused at how these individuals are received, not just by us, as Jews—but by everyone else in our community. The reactions are even more important than the initial action.
In the case of this incident, there is an easy way to gauge the reaction of the average person. Most of the online press coverage allowed for reader comments. Anonymous internet comments are not always pleasant to read, and probably should be avoided in most cases. However, in this case reading the comments can help us understand how others viewed the actions of the store owner. Hundreds of comments appeared within a day of the incident. Here are some examples:
I am so sorry that this happened to you.
Are you serious???!!! How ignorant.
I’m so sorry that you were treated that way. Please know not all of the Jackson Metro area is like that!!!!!!
Let’s boycott this restaurant
Unbelievable…it makes me sad
Disgusting and an embarrassment to the rest of Mississippi!
Terrible. He does not deserve his business to be successful while treating another human being this way.
I will never step foot in that restaurant ever, and that is just awful. God is watching and I feel sad that someone would do that to that rabbi. I am never going to understand the ignorance of that owner. I want to wish that rabbi happy Rosh Hashanah, and blessings to him and his family.
Internet comments are rarely a source of inspiration. Yet, in this case these comments can serve as a gift. At first, Rabbi Riter’s lunch experience seemed like an unbelievable insult on the eve of the new year. But this unfortunate incident has turned into a blessing. We enter 5775 knowing that our neighbors are as appalled by this behavior as we are. People rushed to take the rabbi’s side and assure everyone, near and far, that this anti-Semitism is not a sentiment shared by other Mississippians. They have reached out to share their regret and show their support.
That’s the real story here.
May we be grateful to live in a country that both allows for people to say whatever they believe, and in which the overwhelming majority chooses to believe in righteousness, decency, and love. May 5775 be a year of increased love and respect among all peoples, here in Mississippi, across this nation, and around the world.
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As we prepare for the new year ahead, we’ll be sharing several Southern & Jewish posts reflecting on “how we spent our summer.” Today’s post come from two guests who visited us down South, Jay Saper and Margot Seigle.
This May, the two of us—white Jews who grew up in the Midwest—traveled down to Mississippi. Inspired by emerging efforts to develop the South as a hub for cooperative enterprise, we sought to learn more at the Jackson Rising New Economies Conference. Like the Jews involved in the Civil Rights movement in the generations before us, we came South, too.
As we waited for the shuttle to pick us up from the Medgar Evers Airport to take us to Jackson State University, we strolled into an exhibit about the person after whom the airport was named. In 1954, Medgar Evers was appointed the first NAACP field secretary for the state of Mississippi. He traveled the state courageously advocating for Black rights.
Evers’ bravery came with a toll. After driving home on the evening of June 12, 1963, he took shirts reading “Jim Crow Must Go” out of the car to bring inside his home. He started up his driveway, but a bullet took his life before he could make it to the door.
The following year, building on Evers’ dedicated decade of organizing, a coalition of civil rights organizations launched Mississippi Freedom Summer. It was a summer of change – and of more loss. As we read the names of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman on the wall of the exhibit in the Jackson airport, we wondered at their legacy, and our own role in coming South.
At the Jackson Rising New Economies Conference we learned about an exciting way people in the South are working to challenge racism today: by building a democratic economy that meets their presently unmet needs. This approach to community resilience comes out of a long tradition documented by Jessica Gordon Nembhard in Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.
We got to meet with John Zippert, a fellow Jew who has long acted in solidarity with Blacks in the South to advance racial and economic justice through the cooperative model. The son of refugees from Nazi Germany, Zippert was active in social struggles from a young age in New York City. In the summer of 1965, Zippert went South as a volunteer with the Congress of Racial Equality. He helped farmers looking for a better price on their sweet potatoes to set up a cooperative. Through this work he met Carol Prejean. The two would go on to be the first married interracial couple in Louisiana.
Since 1970, Zippert has been working for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, an organization that grew directly out of the Civil Rights Movement. The Federation works to maintain Black owned land and expand the use of cooperatives for economic development. It has been integral to challenging discrimination against Black farmers by the USDA. In 2012, Tuskegee University inducted Zippert into the George Washington Carver Hall of Fame for his tireless dedication to those who are disadvantaged.
The organizers from Cooperation Jackson and the Southern Grassroots Economies Project communicated with us that the movement for economic democracy is building in exciting and powerful ways. There is still a lot of work to be done, and when we come together, that work can get done. That’s why we came South, and will continue to partner with the amazing individuals and groups fighting for social change today.
Jackson, Mississippi has one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parades in the country. This Saturday, 70,000(!) people will line the streets downtown, cheering for beads and dancing to the sounds of marching bands as dozens of floats ride down the streets.
What is inspiring all the hoopla? Well, it isn’t a large Irish population. I mean, I’ve been to the Southie parade in Boston, I’ve seen a lot of Irish people with a lot of Irish pride. Jackson isn’t Boston. Don’t get me wrong, there is a wonderful Irish community in Mississippi that puts on a world-class Celtic Fest every fall, and Fenian’s, the local Irish pub, it a main spot for St. Patty’s celebrations after the parade, but the size of the parade is not representative of the size of the community.
The Jackson parade is not an specifically ethnic celebration, but 30 years ago a small caravan of revelers were inspired by the American tradition of marking this particular holiday with public festivity. They started a small parade, which has grown more into Jackson’s own version of Mardi Gras than a genuine St. Patrick’s celebration… BUT it’s scheduled to fall on St. Pat’s weekend, NOT Mardi Gras, and thus voila: I can totally use it for my segue into Irish immigrants in the mid 19th century… and some Jewish connections!
The O’Tux Society,
Being Irish in America wasn’t always so festive. Irish immigrants were once one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the country when the Irish famine in the 1850s sent a massive wave of immigrants into Northern cities. In her chapter in Ethnic Heritage of Mississippi, Celeste Ray writes, “Whereas in northern cities large numbers of Irish immigrants faced discrimination and banded together into their own communities, Irish immigrants to Mississippi came in smaller numbers and assimilated into southern culture.”
Sound familiar? It’s important to note that like Jewish immigrants, through assimilation the Irish were able to build successful relationships and businesses in the area. By the time Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With The Wind in 1936, the Irish had become such an accepted part of the American South that it was not considered unusual for plantation owner Gerald O’Hara to be an Irish Catholic. Their traditions, like St. Patrick’s Day, became a part of American popular culture.
I’ve written a lot about cultural connections and Jewish outreach in the blog. Many of the communities in the South sponsor events that invite their neighborhoods to join in Jewish celebrations like a Hannukah party, Passover Seder, Sisterhood Bazzar or Deli Luncheon. Everyone who comes gets a positive, and usually delicious, Jewish cultural experience and makes connections to their own heritage. Even the best of Purim parties don’t get quite as rowdy at a St. Patty’s parade, but the sentiment is similar.
So this Saturday, with my green bows, beads, and beers, I will be reminded of the Irish community who found a home in this country and show my appreciation for the culture they brought with them that inspires these types of community celebrations today.
I love getting to share my Jewish traditions with friends here – but this Nice Jewish Girl also loves getting to share in other cultural traditions, and be part of celebrating the glorious fusion of cultures coming together. And there’s just nothing quite like St. Patrick’s Day in Jackson, Mississippi.
Happy St. Patty’s Day, y’all!