In the late 1970s, my Uncle Eric Rofes marched in a gay pride parade in the Boston area with a paper bag over his head.
Why would he do this? What reason did he have to hide his identity as he sought to make equal rights for LGBT individuals a reality?
His reasons were practical, and heartbreaking. He was a teacher, and at the time, it was completely within the realm of acceptable activity to fire teachers if they were “discovered” to be homosexual. Allowing his face to be seen could have consequences.
Later in the year, he decided that he no longer could hide this aspect of his identity. He decided he would inform the school that he was gay. He would no longer bring fake “girlfriends” to school functions, and, if asked by his students, he would talk with them honestly about the fact that he is attracted to men and not women.
Upon learning this, the school fired my Uncle Eric.
My uncle went on to become an accomplished activist, working tirelessly for equal rights for all, regardless of sexuality. He made a lot of headway. But what is clear to me today is this: there is so much work left to be done, and for me it starts right now here in Mississippi.
Today, a vote on Senate Bill 2681 will likely occur in Mississippi. If passed, it would give businesses the right to deny service to individuals if their reason for doing so stems from a “sincerely held religious belief.” This would give businesses the right to deny service to LGBT individuals without any consequence. A classic example is that of a gay couple going to a bakery to purchase a cake, perhaps celebrating the anniversary of their first date (or of their wedding, if they traveled outside of Mississippi to a state where there is marriage equality). This law would mean that businesses could kick those individuals out of the store. It is the equivalent of a “straights only” sign in the window, reminiscent of a Civil Rights era that I had hoped we had moved past.
This bill (popular because it would also add “In God We Trust” to the state seal) would formalize that someone can be turned away/denied service based on a “deeply held religious belief,” and these days that’s often veiled language for LGBT, though clearly it can extend to discrimination among many other groups, and smacks of segregation language pre-civil rights, using religion to justify discrimination.
As a Mississippian, as a human being, and, for me, as a Jew, I must stand up and do what I can to defeat this bill. I refuse to sit back when a law may pass tomorrow that would mean citizens of my state, today, would have to hide their sexuality just as my uncle did decades ago.
For those looking for a “sincerely held religious belief” in opposition to this bill, I have a very simple one. It is, perhaps unexpectedly, from Shammai, a man noted for being significantly less open-minded than his counterpart, Hillel the Elder. He states, in Pirkei Avot, a Jewish ethical tractate:
“Hevei m’kabeil et kol ha-adam b’seiver panim yafot.” Receive every person with a cheerful countenance.
It doesn’t say receive some people with a cheerful countenance. It doesn’t say, accept some people cheerfully, but those others, well, you can give them the cold shoulder if you don’t agree with them.
Our society will suffer greatly if we do not live up to those words. For my sake, for your sake, for my Uncle Eric’s sake, and for the future of Mississippi – let us fight against discrimination, and embrace the “sincerely held religious belief” that we should receive everyone with a pleasant face, an open door, a cheerful countenance.
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When you’re not “from” the South, you have to get used to a few things when you move down here. There are the dialect differences, obviously. If you’re Jewish and have only lived up North, you do notice the Bible Belt culture quite a bit, too. And if you’re a sports fan, well – there’s even more culture shock to deal with!
Some people say home is where your heart is, or where your family is, and that may be true – but for me home is also where my teams are. I am a serious Boston sports fan. I am now living outside the area generally defined as “Red Sox Nation,” so there aren’t as many Sox or Pats fans around as I’m used to. During important sporting events, I feel a little far from home.
However, I am still as obnoxious a fan as ever.
I wore my New England Patriots t-shirt all season, and I enact all my game-day superstitions even in this hostile Southern territory. My family has a tradition that when the Patriots are playing badly, we rearrange how we’re sitting in the hopes that the change in our feng shui might positively affect the outcome of the game.
I have not hesitated to continue this practice in sports watching venues here in Mississippi. Much to my surprise, I even persuaded some of my friends to join me on this bandwagon.
One very telling moment was during the October 13th Patriots-Saints game. The New Orleans Saints are the geographically closest NFL team to Jackson, so most people here root for them. I was a lonely island in a sea of New Orleans fans watching this game at our local sports bar. Let me tell you, it’s a little scary to be “that fan” cheering for the team everyone else in the restaurant is rooting against. And I cheer loudly. But everyone still got along nicely. Maybe it’s part of that southern hospitality thing, but people here are still nice to you even when you root against the Saints.
The biggest challenge for me has been surviving in a land that loves Peyton Manning. You might have heard that Archie Manning (Peyton’s father) is from Drew, Mississippi, and this state seems to always root for him and his sons. I am not a fan of the Mannings. They’re probably very nice people and they all seem to be talented athletes but I am on the Tom Brady side of the Manning-Brady rivalry, thank you very much. Our loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship was therefore particularly disappointing.
The Super Bowl presented its own special challenge. After the Patriots lost the AFC championship, I had to decide who to cheer for in the Super Bowl. Since Peyton Manning is the Broncos’ Quarterback, I knew everyone here would root for them. Should I also root for Denver, because the people around me would be and I wanted my friends to be happy? Or should I stay true to my team and root against Peyton? In the end I was pretty happy the Seahawks emerged victorious, but I had a little more empathy for Mr. Manning, too.
Now that football season has drawn to a close, I am looking forward to more Southern Sports Education. It looks like NHL is not as big a deal here as it is back home (shocker!) but I think I will learn a lot about college basketball this season instead. College sports are, in general, a way bigger deal here than up north and I am enjoying gathering new allegiances for teams in the SEC. Rooting for newly discovered teams here has made this feel more like home, and that is something I can definitely cheer for…
But don’t worry, fellow Patriots and citizens of Red Sox Nation: I’m still a Boston fan first, and always!
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I recently solved a history mystery, and it started with a tiny pencil.
I was looking through a box of old minutes from Congregation Beth Israel in Meridian, Mississippi, when the smallest, most dainty pencil, attached to a small ribbon, fell from a folder. It looked like something that would be found with an old fashioned dance card, or some an extravagant wedding idea found on Pinterest.
It was attached to a program from the 1927 convention of the Mississippi Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, which had been held in Meridian that year. But then, moving my attention past the dainty pencil, I noticed that the pencil had been used to scratch out the April date and replace it with November. Clearly, the women in Meridian had spent a lot of time and money on putting together such a large gathering. I was curious as to why they postponed the conference till later in the year. After all, they had already printed programs! Why the date change?
It was a mystery!
Luckily, we have all the minutes from the Meridian sisterhood in our collection, so I was able to find the notes from 1927 to try to see what had transpired. It didn’t take long for all the light bulbs to go off in my head. You’ll notice in the page from the meeting on May 2nd that Miss Sarah Marks, President of the State Federation, announced that “the Executive board rules to postpone the State Convention until fall due to the disastrous flood conditions.”
The Flood! Of course!
The flood of 1927, which I have written about before on this very blog, had stuck again. In another letter, Miss Marks continues: “Due to the flood condition that prevented a large number of delegates and visitors from attending the convention and out of sympathy and respect due those vitally interested in Sisterhood work, we deemed it wise to postpone our convention until the fall.”
For those of you who have been involved with conference planning, you only imagine the expletives that didn’t make it into these minutes. But you’ll be happy to know that a few pages into the future, on the meeting of December 7th, 1927, the committee reported that the conference was a major success and that everyone was pleased with Meridian’s beautiful hospitality.