We use the phrase “transplants” often down here—referring to the “Yankees” who for one reason or another found themselves down South. (Transplants like… me.)
In the Southern Jewish communities with which I interact, the transplants are often people who, though lacking “deep Southern roots,” have stepped up as local leaders. They step up alongside those with the deep Southern roots, the ones who have been leaders in their communities for multiple generations. Both the transplants and the long-term residents share an appreciation of and dedication to Jewish communal life—but for the transplants, this passion is often newfound. Even if they weren’t as active “Up North,” they end up serving as leaders in their Southern congregation, and ambassadors in their communities.
When I traveled as an Education Fellow, I would hear from moms and dads in small Southern towns who “never in a million years” thought they would be teaching religious school. In New York, New Jersey, California, places with large Jewish populations, there were plenty of people to do all the things that maintain a healthy and thriving congregation. In smaller communities, it’s more do-it-yourself.
So, what was I doing in Tarpon Springs? It began with a phone call from Joel May, a transplant to Tarpon Springs. But he wasn’t the typical “snowbird” retiree most of us picture when we imagine transplant Jews moving to Florida. Joel is originally from Jasper, Alabama. And while he has lived in many places since, he was a born and bred Southern Jew. He contacted me about a loan of an eternal light for their sanctuary, a process we affectionately call “re-planting”. Being from the region, Joel knew of our museum. He made the connection, and I worked with him and his committee to re-plant a beautiful ner tamid from Gemiluth Chassed, a congregation that had closed in Port Gibson, Mississippi, to his congregation in Florida.
For me, the experience of replanting a Southern Jewish artifact rich in value and history (the ner tamid was originally donated to Gemiluth Chassed, the oldest synagogue in Mississippi, built in 1892) was already incredible. Making it even more meaningful was the Southern Jewish congregant, Joel from Jasper, helping to bring this artifact to his new community. His new a community is one full of transplants, from many places outside the South, but all are now connected to the Southern Jewish experience. It is a remarkable testament to the contribution and quality of the small population of Southern Jewish communities.
My time in Tarpon Springs was lovely. Years ago, I was lucky to drop into communities every other weekend, but I had forgotten what a joyful feeling it is to be warmly welcomed into a new group of people. Food, music, gossip, what could be better! What I soon learned is that while the community was made up of transplants, they weren’t the typical New York Jews I was expecting. All the jokes I had written into my talk about Brooklyn were going to fall flat with the people I was meeting from Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota. (Apparently the west coast of Florida attracts Midwesterners—who knew?!) I admit I felt foolish for coming with preconceived assumptions, when most of what I do each day is try to break down stereotypes of Southern communities.
But I was pleasantly surprised that many of the people in the congregation would find it easier to connect to small town congregational life like Port Gibson. I heard from people telling me about their families immigrating to the Midwest, opening stores or becoming fur traders, very similar narratives of the Southern story that I was planning to share. I listened and learned about the natural connections between Midwest and Southern congregations that I hadn’t previously considered before my visit. This made this replanting all the more special.
The night of the dedication, I met a few people who had come because they did have Southern roots. A woman from Atlanta, a family from Brookhaven, Mississippi, a couple from New Orleans. I liked seeing them seated in the congregation, nodding along with my new Midwestern-ex-pat friends as I talked about the connection between the long and rich history of Jewish communities in the Deep South to the larger national Jewish population. Dedicating a piece of the Gemiluth Chassed sanctuary built a special connection through time and space between these two small congregations, a connection that is important for continuing to support the legacy of Jewish communities in the region.
This eternal light, the ner tamid, will be given the opportunity to shine again and serve a congregation, ensuring the ancestors of small town Jewish communities like Port Gibson will not be forgotten… well, I get goosebumps just thinking about it! I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful celebration.
Why did the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) meet in Chicago for its recent board meeting?
Well… why not?
Many of our board members divide their time and attention between both large and small towns in the South. Others share a story similar to my story.
I grew up in Wynne, Arkansas, also known as “The City with a Smile” and home of the Wynne Yellowjackets. I attended synagogue, religious school and youth group events at Temple Israel in Memphis, Tennessee, just a short 60 mile drive east over the Mississippi River. I loved spending my summers going to camp at Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi, where I embraced my Jewish identity and found lifelong Jewish friends. Always, I had my immediate family around me who lovingly taught me how family and Judaism were intertwined and a part of my life and tradition.
For the past 25 years, I have lived in Chicago and its suburbs. I am involved in the Jewish community, ensured my children went to religious school and had their bar and bat mitzvahs, and remain an active member of a congregation. However, I have continued to have a strong connection with my Southern heritage, my Southern Jewish heritage. Visiting my parents when they still lived in Wynne, and now where they live in Hot Springs, Arkansas, is wonderful—but visiting was not enough.
I felt like I wanted and needed to do more to stay involved and be involved. A few years ago, I was approached about serving on the Board of the ISJL, and was asked if I would be interested in working with the group that delivers amazing rabbinic services, educational programming and cultural events to communities throughout the ISJL’s thirteen-state region. I found out more about the history department and preservation initiatives, as well as the cultural tours and travelling exhibitions of the museum department. I was intrigued with the community engagement department, which was newly formed at the time but has now developed into a program which partners with nonprofits, schools and congregations to pursue tikkun olam, repairing our world, in meaningful ways.
I decided that joining the ISJL Board to promote Judaism and our heritage was just what I needed and wanted to do.
Are there others like me in Chicago? Yes, I know there are. There are other similar Southern transplants who would like to reconnect with their roots and be involved with the ISJL and support the ISJL. They are here in Chicago, and they are also in Detroit, Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, Portland, Denver, Des Moines, and New York City. They live all over our country and outside our country.
So, gathering in Chicago made good sense. As will gathering in other cities, and finding other Southern transplants and allies to become friends and active supporters like me of the ISJL. Of course, next time we meet in this part of the world, perhaps we’ll pick our spring board meeting instead of our fall/winter meeting… still, discussing Southern Jewish life as the snow began to fall brought both of my worlds together in a meaningful way.
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One of a Kind.
The very best.
When it comes to my memories of Jack Cristil, who passed away last week, there are simply too many memories to count. Each cherished memory cements this truth: For all of those loyal to our beloved Dawgs (The Mississippi State Bulldogs, for those of you who might unfamiliar), there is and will always be just one Jack Cristil.
For decades, we Dawgs lovers lived to hear “You can wrap this one in Maroon and White!” at the end of a game – that was Jack’s famous ending when the Dawgs were victorious. My family, particularly my father and I, spent many hours listening to Jack Cristil call ballgames on the radio. We did this long before there were so many games on television—the power of his voice made the radio broadcasts as riveting as if we were right there looking at the field with Jack.
Jack always gave details about the players, the coaches, the fans, the atmosphere – he truly had that power to make you feel like you were actually at the game. He could describe everything so vividly that you knew exactly what was going on – the ups, and the downs! We cheered and sighed right along with him. He had a unique gift and skill that put him above other broadcasters. What a voice!
As games became more routinely televised, we would mute the sound while watching the game and listen to Jack call the game on the radio. And we didn’t talk when Jack was talking. Jack was a dedicated ambassador for his community, for Mississippi State University, and for the entire state of Mississippi.
As I came to learn through my work with the ISJL, Jack was also a dedicated community leader. He led services at his home congregation, B’nai Israel in Tupelo, Mississippi. For the Dawgs, for his local civic and Jewish community, and for anyone who ever heard that powerful voice—Jack Cristil will never be forgotten.