This post is from a new staff member, 2013-2015 ISJL Education Fellow Lex Rofes.
A few weeks ago, I listened intently as Beverly Wade Hogan, President of Tougaloo College, gave a truly inspirational speech. Entitled “The Responsibility of Privilege,” President Hogan discussed the importance of recognizing the advantages each of us may have in life, and taking from those advantages not a sense of entitlement but rather a sense of obligation to better the communities in which we live.
Tougaloo College is located in Jackson, Mississippi. I too am located in Jackson, now –so it might be logical to assume that I heard this speech at Tougaloo itself or somewhere else nearby. In fact, that is not the case. A few weeks ago, as I listened to President Hogan’s speech, I was sitting in a Baptist church not in Mississippi but in Providence, Rhode Island, at my college graduation ceremony.
It felt poetic, almost as if this gathering was specifically catered to my life. My classmates in Providence (my past community) listened intently as a leading figure in my future community (Jackson, Mississippi) provided some words of motivation as I transitioned from one to the next. As I sat in that church, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit special. Whereas just about every student in that room had no tangible way of connecting to our graduation speaker, I felt close to her because I knew I would be moving to the place that she calls home.
I felt like I knew Jackson, and I felt like I knew Mississippi. For two months, I had known I would be moving there to be an Education Fellow at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, and for two months I had done a little bit of Googling about my soon-to-be home. I knew the names of a few restaurants, I looked up the names of some of Mississippi’s leading political figures, and I even could tell you which area parks had facilities for me to play my beloved sport of disc golf. These surface level bits of information, in my head, were grounds for a real emotional connection to what would become my new home.
Since arriving down here, I already resent Two-Weeks-Ago-Lex. I would even say that Two-Weeks-Ago-Lex was incredibly presumptuous. If I had a time machine, I would go back and give him a piece of my mind. Basically, I was operating under one incredibly flawed assumption: that from my computer in New England, I could gain an understanding of a city a thousand miles away by reading a few books and running a few Googling searches. In reality, it takes time to understand the nature of a new place, and the only way to do so is by immersing yourself in it fully.
Now, more than ever, I am taking President Hogan’s advice to heart. Along with the other new ISJL Fellows, I am committed to more than living as passive recipients of the attractions Jackson has to offer. I am committed to engaging in the community where I now live, contributing to better our city and our region, and take responsibility.
Pictured: A peaceful spot on the Reservoir… a place best discovered when you meet Mississippi, in person.
I’m involved with a wonderful collection of people in Jackson who work hard to put on Figment, a participatory arts festival that we like to describe as an “art pot luck” party. Artists are asked to install pieces that encourage some kind of artistic participation.
My project was inspired during a meeting when the Figment team was trying to figure out a way to create a border around the festival, which was taking place on the streets of Jackson’s Midtown neighborhood. Earlier this year I had received information about a wonderful exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum. It’s a Thin Line was an exhibit about the Manhattan eruv and included a fascinating short video about its history and significance. Inspired by this very public and creative Jewish tradition, I thought of adapting the practice for my Figment project.
My idea was to create a Figment Eruv that enforces the 11 principles of Figment within its borders. Really an inverse of the Jewish tradition, this eruv was intended to be a place in which people are reminded to keep the rules.
An eruv in Jackson, Mississippi? Certainly the first of its kind and I was ready for the challenge. I did a little research and figured out it would take about 3,000 feet of pink masonry twine, a 15 foot ladder and one handsome brave husband to climb said ladder. Over three days it took us about 5 hours to hang all of the string. I gained a new appreciation for ladder safety.
On the Tuesday afternoon before the festival, some guys who own the local garage along the route came out to see what we were doing. I worried they would be upset that we were stringing along the side of their building but the three men just looked up. Without questioning why we were doing it, they immediately began advising us on the best place to wind the string and how to avoid electrocuting ourselves on the transformer.
I’m glad they were amenable because it was important to me that this eruv not create barriers or borders with negative connotations within the neighborhood and its residents. I wanted it to create an inclusive temporary sacred space that separates the joyful Figment world from the ordinary and mundane.
During the weekend I had a great time watching visitors discover the eruv. They would bend down to read a short description of the project, then stand up, look to the sky and smile and they circled around to see how the string encompassed the area.
I was happy to have brought a secular interpretation of this often obscure religious practice to my neighborhood. Even my friends that have a pretty good Jewish education, probably because of being friends with me, had never heard of an eruv. It was a neat chance to talk with people about the tradition and why it works in this particular occasion.
Because one of the principles of Figment is “Leave No Trace”, on Sunday I pulled most of the string down. A few small pink knots were stuck up on the electric poles, tied around nails and staples. I decided not to worry about it. Much like a Jewish eruv represents the commandment to keep Shabbat, those tiny pink knots will represent the principles of Figment and be a reminder to sneak in just a little bit of that creative Figment spirit into ordinary mundane days.