Recently, the Governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, signed the Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act. On Governor Bryant’s website, the student religious liberties bill is described as one that “protects students from being discriminated against in a public school for expressing their religious viewpoints or engaging in religious activities.”
The expressed desire is to ensure that students can express their religious viewpoints. However, when we look at this bill more closely, it seems to be protecting the privileges associated with being part of the dominant Christian faith. As someone who does not subscribe to the dominant religion in Mississippi, Christianity, I found myself wondering whether the state was acting as an entity with privilege and whether my personal response (along with many others) was consistent with the behavioral patters the attached document ascribes to people who are—in the broadest sense—being oppressed. Because essentially, what this bill does is protect SOME students from being discriminated against in public school for expressing their religion.
Last week, I wrote about privilege and oppression. While we might feel privileged in certain areas of our life, we may feel oppressed in other areas of our life. This dynamic is often found when there is a dominant group with power greater than that of a minority group without as much power.
It’s difficult to make the case that in a Mississippi public school, where a significant majority of the students and faculty members are Christian, that a student that is Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, atheist, or any other minority faith (or no faith at all) will feel as though their expression of religion is being protected by this bill. If anything, the message is that to fit in with the other students, their religious expression ought to be diminished and more consistent with the dominant religion.
The tendency to pay most attention to the dominant culture is a phenomenon we see not only in public schools, but also in private institutions – including American synagogues. Ashkenazi, white, straight, able-bodied congregants are part of a dominant culture. They are dominant in numbers and in the power structures of many American synagogues. Is it a stretch to wonder whether people who don’t fit that very precise description are feeling oppressed in any way? In looking at the tendencies associated with people in oppressed positions, I’d like to suggest that there are similarities.
Again, this chart provides some insight into the behavioral tendencies of people in positions of privilege and how it feels to be in a position of oppression—in the broadest sense. My hope is that this insight can lead us to proactively aim to foster a community where everyone is part of the “we” and there isn’t an “us” and “them” that separates the dominant group from one that is less dominant. With this in mind, we can do the difficult work of creating more genuinely inclusive schools, houses of worship, and communities, where everyone is valued.
This week, we have a special “Snapshots from the Southern Jewish Road” collection of pictures to share with you, from last week’s Deli Day at Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville, MS, right in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.
HUC used to be the largest congregation in the state (you can read more about the history of the Greenville Jewish community here). Now, the membership numbers have diminished- but the spirit has not, and that’s never more evident than on the day that HUC invites the rest of Greenville to come to the congregation for a good old fashioned deli lunch, featuring, of course, corned beef sandwiches with all the “fixin’”s.
This tradition has lasted for 130 years – and this year, several of the ISJL Education Fellows went up to the Delta again to help serve the record 2,000 sandwiches sold at the 2013 deli luncheon. They shared these photographs. Enjoy, and Shabbat shalom, y’all!
If you want to learn even more about this community, and the Deli Day in particular, Vox Tablet did a great mini-podcast story on it two years ago – wherein the interviewees talk about the importance of preserving this tradition. What’s a tradition that your community is committed to preserving?
Today’s blog comes to us from Michael Goodman at Goodman Writes, another “Southern & Jewish” voice. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Last week, I made an online and somewhat anonymous contribution to the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. I had heard about the group from a college classmate from Mississippi with whom I shared stories of growing up Jewish in the South. Now, I want to be more outright in my support of the organization’s work because I am sure they will use my money well.
So why is this important to me?
My paternal grandfather came to this country in the early 1900s and settled in the Deep South, traveling across the region from Mississippi, to Louisiana, to Texas, to Arkansas. He was not a deeply religious man, from what I am told, but he had his own way of keeping Judaism alive. He was a peddler and a butcher by trade. He slaughtered and cut up meat for a living, and the meat he used in his own household was slaughtered in a kosher way. It was one important vestige of Judaism that he tried to maintain.
He eventually settled with his wife and most of his 12 children in the tiny town of Calion, Arkansas, not far from the semi-booming metropolis of El Dorado, probably in the mid to late 1920s. According to the entry on El Dorado in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, the city became a boom town in the 1920s when oil was discovered there. The boom led a number of Jewish merchants to come to El Dorado to open stores, deal in real estate, and establish oil-related businesses.
Now, it is important to know the luck of my family when it comes to oil. I can remember visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousins in the late 1950s in the unlikely-named town of Oil City, Louisiana, near Shreveport. Looking out from their backyard I could see oil well, oil well, oil well, then my uncle’s property, then oil well, oil well. What’s wrong with this picture? I am told that if I had visited my Aunt Libby in Kilgore, Texas, I would have seen a similar plethora of oil wells with a blank space on her property. And my mother says my grandfather suffered a similar plight on his land near El Dorado. It seems that we Goodmans were destined not to get rich quick (or even rich at all).
While he failed to prosper, my grandfather did continue to practice his brand of Judaism. He must have had a decent voice because he often served as Cantor for the High Holidays in El Dorado’s Ohev Zedek congregation. Sadly, that congregation slowly died out and was disbanded for good in 1936. My grandmother died in 1937, and my father left the El Dorado area to move in with his brother in OilCity. Three years later, he arrived as a serviceman in Savannah, where he met my mother and settled down. Like his father, my father was not a religious man, but he always hosted a Friday night dinner, observed the holidays, and supported my mother in establishing and maintaining a kosher home all of his adult life.
My father’s story was not typical of his siblings. Only two other children in his family married Jewish spouses and only one other—that uncle in Oil City—brought up his children as Jews. Intermarriage and the malaise of Judaism in the Delta took their toll. Other small branches of my father’s family in the Greenville,Mississippi, area did manage to keep Judaism alive. And there is a family legend told of my Aunt Fannie Schwartz who used to invite Jewish servicemen in the Greenville area during World War II to come to Friday night dinner, often entertaining as many as 20 for a mostly kosher meal. (My aunt always brought her own kosher plate and kosher food to luncheons in Greenville and went to Memphis periodically to get the kosher meat she kept in her own personal deep freezer.)
Which brings me back to the ISJL and its mission. There are still a large number of very small Jewish communities spread out in small and large towns in the Deep South. Providing support to these communities for simchas and sad occasions, offering information on Jewish history and learning, and providing a means to store elements of our own history is so very important. So I decided to make a small monetary contribution, and to write this blog post to perhaps stir others to find out more about the organization, and to continue my efforts to learn and write more about my family’s Jewish roots so my children can have something to hold on to and something important to add to their own foundation.