My last year has been full of change: I got married. My husband got a new job, out of state. These two changes led to a third change, as I became… well, whatever the landlocked version of “bi-coastal” might be: we moved, but I kept my job, and now I’m dividing my time between the Midwest and the South.
We’ve had several posts on this blog about what it’s like to come to the South, and be Jewish (like this great guest post about Jewish life in Jonesboro, Arkansas). But now, I have a fresh perspective on the other side of the coin: what it’s like to move to a much bigger, Northern Jewish community… and watch the reactions when you say you came from the South.
Recently, my husband and I began “Shabbat-Shopping” – i.e. checking out synagogues, chavurah groups, and other alternatives in the big city, to see where we might find the right-fit Jewish community. There’s certainly no shortage of options! On our first outing, we went to a progressive service in the heart of the city. At the end of the service, all newcomers were asked to stand up and say their names and where they were from, if visiting or new in town.
When we stood, we said our names, and shared that we were from Mississippi.
There was audible reaction to this statement from the congregants. Two, in particular, stood out.
An older woman, seated in front of us, turned around and said: “Mississippi? Really? Ugh. I’m sorry. I mean, I’m glad for you that you’re not there anymore. I’m sorry you had to live there. I can’t even imagine.”
Meanwhile, a younger woman from the back of the room called out: “I’m from Louisiana! Find me later!”
Both of these folks did indeed find us after the service.
The first woman had her husband in tow. He, too, felt it must be miserable to live in Mississippi: “How’d you wind up there in the first place?” He asked, making a face. “Are you, y’know, real Jews?”
My husband stared at me, clearly wondering—as anyone should—what the heck “real Jews” even meant in that context. (Or, um— ever.)
“Actually,” I said, completely ignoring the ‘real Jews’ part of the question, “I work for a Jewish nonprofit in Jackson. And we love Mississippi.”
“We left because I got a job here,” my husband explained. “But we still have a lot of friends and family there.”
“Oh,” said the woman. “I’m sorry if what we said was rude. We didn’t mean to offend you.”
“No harm done,” I said, smiling. “Have you ever been to Mississippi?”
“No,” she admitted.
“It has its issues. We don’t love it for the politics,” I joked. (Hey, know your audience.) “But there’s a lot to love about it. And the Jewish communities there are great. I’m glad I still get to spend a lot of time there—I miss it when I’m not in Mississippi. It’s home. And it definitely has better winters!”
“That’s true,” the woman’s husband chuckled. We made small talk with them for a few more minutes. Then the young woman from Louisiana found us.
“You’re from Mississippi?” She asked, grinning. “I left Louisiana after high school. Like, more than a decade ago. But I still miss it. I dream about Louisiana a lot of nights. Don’t you just love it?”
My husband (a Louisiana native) and I nodded, and began talking with her about what she loved about life here, and life there. I love the instant kinship you often feel with those who have also lived in the South.
As we left the service, it hit me: how funny it is that when you’re Jewish in the small-town South, you’re explaining Judaism—and when you come from the South to the big-city Jewish world, you’re explaining the South.
William Faulkner said that to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi. Knowing, loving, and wrestling with Mississippi continues to help me understand the world, and also to understand myself. I’m still sometimes taken aback by the visceral reactions people have to the South, and particularly Mississippi, even if they’ve never been – but I’m happy to respond to those reactions. It’s part of the tax we pay, we who call Mississippi home; I’m always happy to share the good stories, acknowledge the difficulties, and maybe even change a few minds… and inspire a few visits.
Have you seen this image yet?
If not, can you guess which state it may be from? Believe it or not, this is a Mississippi initiative.
This glorious logo has been flooding my Facebook feed for weeks and is now getting the great press coverage it deserves – from local news outlets like the Jackson Free Press, and also from the likes of Time Magazine and some Posts—Washington and Huffington.
After the Mississippi House and Senate passed SB 2681—the controversial “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Mitchell Moore, owner of Campbell’s Bakery and a self-proclaimed “white, heterosexual, conservative Christian male,” decided to take a stand.
“The examples people always use (when talking about how businesses could discriminate) always involve weddings and a florist or a baker (refusing service to a gay or lesbian couple), since those are the ones that have probably happened somewhere,” Moore said to the Jackson Free Press. “I thought it was ridiculous, and I wanted to get the message out that we are not discriminatory, and that I want to sell my product to as many people as will buy it.”
Since then, hundreds of stickers have been printed and put up in storefront windows across the state. The campaign is getting so much attention that the American Family Association, a conservative evangelical organization, is fighting back. This article from the Huffington Post quotes the AFA saying this is “not really a buying campaign, but it’s a bully campaign… carried out by radical homosexual activists who intend to trample the freedom of Christians to live according to the dictates of scripture.”
In counterpoint, the Huffington Post author points out that those who agree with the AFA might want to consider this: “…bigots in Mississippi are still free to discriminate, but they do at a disadvantage to competitors who don’t… Profit is a great motivator for tolerance.”
It’s this last line that got me thinking historically about tolerance among merchants. As I’ve written in the past, many Jewish immigrants to Mississippi at the turn of the century worked their way up from peddlers to become merchants in towns across the state. A majority of these merchants differentiated themselves from other businesses through their relationships with the black community. Jewish merchants across the South, especially the ones that owned lower-end dry goods stores (of whom there were many) relied heavily on black customers.
And in this relationship, there was a definite distinction between Jews and other whites. Jewish store owners had the reputation of treating their black customers far better than other white merchants. Jews were more willing to extend credit to blacks, and to use terms of respect when speaking to them. Certainly, there was an economic incentive to treat their customers well, but as one civil rights leader in Mississippi noted, Jewish merchants were considered “the better of the white element that you had dealings with.” In her memoir The Jew Store, Stella Suberman recalls how her father hired the first black store clerk in their small Tennessee town in the 1930s. In the store owned by Edward Cohen’s family in Jackson, clerks called their blacks customers “Mr.” or “Mrs,” which was unusual at the time. As Cohen notes: “We observed blacks’ humanity, if not their equality.”
But years later during the Civil Right Movement of the 1960s, the pressure to conform to segregation laws was more intense. When city leaders were not willing to integrate, Jewish merchants could be caught in the middle between movement sit-ins and white resistance. While they may have held progressive ideals, Jewish merchants were worried about the impact joining the movement would have on their businesses, and how speaking up could potentially endanger them and their families.
Only after integration became inevitable, or the cost of continued segregation became too high, did they change their practices—but they did often take the lead in this process. In Memphis in the 1960s, a handful of Jewish department store owners organized meetings with other merchants to discuss the peaceful integration of their stores. Jack Goldsmith, owner of Goldsmith’s, and Mel Grinspan of the Shainberg’s store chain, led this effort, which was designed to have all the stores integrate together so none of them could be singled out for retribution.
In both instances, profit was a main motivator, but at different points in history a merchant’s practice of discrimination could either be bad or good for business. It’s why I find this “Religious Freedom” bill so dangerous. We’ve seen what happens when discrimination becomes acceptable and profitable, and the situation that it puts merchants in. Taking a look back helps frame the fight we are fighting today as social change threatens the sacred status quo.
The “If You’re Buying, We’re Selling” campaign is trying to point out that in Mississippi, in 2014, discrimination is bad for business. This law is bad for the people in the state and those thinking of doing business in the state. And twisting the logic behind something as important as “religious freedom” of the majority to enforce discrimination against a minority is just another level of how disturbing it is.
Having lived in this state for six years, I’ve learned that the loudest voices are often assumed to be the majority. It was some loud voices who got the “Religious Freedom Bill” passed—but now, some other loud voices are taking the megaphone—loud, proud business owners who will sell to anyone who’s buying, and are taking a bright-stickered-sign against discrimination.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
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!