As stated in one of our last posts about the hurricane, we are familiar with what the devastation of hurricanes looks like in the South. But the recent photographs of flooded cities coming out of New York and New Jersey during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy remind me of other stunning photos captured during a massive flood in this region that goes back further than Katrina or Camille.
These images are from a collection of photos and documents that once belonged to Marshall Levitt of Greenwood, MS. They depict the Flood of 1927, a devastating flood on April 21st , caused by a weather system that brought huge amounts of rain to the Upper Mississippi River Region and resulted in the levees breaking. It caused water to cover nearly one million acres of the Mississippi Delta, ten feet deep in ten days, and covered much of the area for months.
While Greenville, MS infamously suffered the worst of the flood, the expansive impact of the water can be seen in these photos which were taken over 50 miles away to the east of the river in Greenwood, MS.
At the time, The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 was the nation’s greatest natural disaster, affecting an estimated population of 185,495. Clearly, the scope of Hurricane Sandy’s damage is much larger. I hope for my friends and family in the Northeast that years from now, after a successful recovery, the photos captured from this storm will seem just as unbelievable as these from Greenwood do today.
So there’s this website called Pork Memoirs.
Dedicated to sharing “personal stories about a complicated meat,” the site explores personal identity relative to the consumption or avoidance of pork.
The site has drawn contributions from Jews who don’t eat pork, Jews who do eat pork, Muslims who don’t eat pork, bacon enthusiasts, vegetarians, those who slaughter pig, those who have pet pigs. It made me start thinking.
What’s with all the pork punditry of late? Especially within the Jewish world, where it’s a traditionally-off-limits nosh? It’s made me think, once again, about this most beloved and forbidden of flesh-foods.
Even if you eat shrimp—even if you love a cheeseburger—there’s just something about pork that seems less kosher than everything else out there. Maybe it’s just because everyone knows it’s not kosher. Maybe it’s because there are other cultures where pig is forbidden, while the shellfish or dairy/meat or other rules aren’t in place. Regardless: it is the pinnacle of treyf.
Forget Mary. There’s something about pork.
Which brings us to my own pork memoir. My own answer to the “Got Bacon?” question.
Which would be “No … ish.”
See, I’ve never eaten pork. Not really. But after a decade of living in the South, I can assure you that it’s hard to over-emphasize how much this region loves its pig products, and how often pork is infused into non-pig-dishes … like, y’know, green beans.
That can make keeping kosher in the Bible Belt a challenge. Doable, certainly, but depending on where in the South you live, it’ll require some thought, planning, and either the willingness to go veg and/or the establishment of a buddy system with folks who travel to places like Atlanta, New Orleans, or Memphis where you can get kosher meat.
I don’t “keep kosher,” but I do aim for ”ethical eating,” and have been some shade of vegetarian since I was 11. So I’ve never really eaten pork … but I know I’ve inadvertently (or even willfully ignorantly) ingested the stuff.
When I first moved to the South, I was a stricter vegetarian, and was taken aback the first time I saw little animal bits floating in my greens at a local buffet. It made me pay more attention, for sure – and being intentional about what we eat and why seems significant.
It became a quandry: should I stop eating all foods that might have hidden hog, likely limiting where I can eat? Always ask the question “is this vegetarian”? Or, especially when invited into someone’s home, do I just not look too closely and eat my delicious greens?
For me, the pig journey became less about the traditional laws of kashrut and more about other Jewish traditions, ones I was raised to value and live out every day. Traditions like hospitality. Being a good host, and also being a good guest. Folks have made me meals in their home, or insisted on taking me to their beloved restaurant to experience their local culinary favorites. Favorites which may or may not have
pork some sort of meat lending flavor to the veggies. So, to question? Or to say thanks, and eat? Ultimately, I adopted a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. Those who know me well avoid serving up the meat they know I don’t eat. But in general, I simply accept hospitality. If I don’t see meat, I eat the meal, and am grateful to whoever prepped the meal for sharing it with me.
That’s my own choice, and certainly not one that works for everyone. But for me, a truly important part of this process was the engagement. The fact that I, like everyone else sharing their pork memoirs, thought about this very deeply – and knowing that all of this, somehow, has something to do with my identity. It wasn’t an easy or thoughtless decision. It was one I had to take seriously, because what we eat does matter, not only for our physical health but also for our mental and spiritual health.
At least, that’s true for me. And wherever you ultimately land on what you will or won’t eat, I think the contemplation-factor resonates for a lot of Jewish folks. We feel a connection to all food, and especially our individual acceptance or rejection of pork. Playing with your food may be rude, but wrestling with it, well – that seems pretty Jewish.
Beth Kander will be just fine in the coming A-Pork-Alypse. Will you? What are your thoughts about this tempting but taboo treyf treat?
There’s an article that’s been going around a lot this past week, about being Jewish in the South.
Naturally, the article (originally written by Chattanooga-based journalist Holly Leber) caught my eye. But what stood out to me even more than the content of the piece was the headline – which varied, depending on where you found the article.
The best was the reprint in The Forward, where the article was simply called “Jewish in the Bible Belt,” with the positive, almost triumphant sub-headline Tiny Communities Manage To Thrive in Christian Heartland.
But the original publisher of the piece, JTA, chose something quite different: “Jews in the Bible Belt’s small towns face curiosity, ignorance.” Similar headlines ran when the piece was reprinted in Ha’aretz, the Jerusalem Post, and elsewhere.
It’s the same article. But in the headline alone, it tells a very different story.
If you Google the article, most of the other news outlets that have picked up the story went with the headline language including “curiosity and ignorance.” Why? Because it’s more accurate – or because it’s more sensational? Because, just maybe, it appeals to a confirmation bias about being Jewish in the South?
Let me tell you my own little story.
I was ten years old, volunteering one rainy weekday at my local public library. Community service was always emphasized in my house. As my mom liked to say: “You know the saying ‘it’s the thought that counts’? Well, that’s not a Jewish saying! We believe it’s the action that counts!” Thus, we raised Leader Dog puppies, volunteered at nursing homes and soup kitchens, and yes, spent many afternoons shelving books at the local public library.
So there I am, ten years old and shelving some cheap paperback romance novels, making an effort not to stare at the Harlequin covers because OMG that long-haired man is almost naked, when suddenly I felt a hand on my head.
Startled, I turned around, and saw a middle aged woman. The raincoat she was wearing was still damp from her walk from the car to the warm library foyer. Her expression was hard to read, and her hand was still on my noggin. She was sort of rubbing my head, and seemed confused – although I’m willing to bet I was even more confused than she was.
“Can I … help you?” I asked. (Meanwhile, I tried to make sense of the situation: Maybe she doesn’t realize she’s grabbing my head. She looks like the type who might read these romances. Maybe she had bad eye sight and was trying to grab for a book. Maybe she’s just
lost crazy confusing me for her long-lost niece.)
“No, I just – ” She hesitated. “One of the librarians told me you were Jewish, so I wanted to see if your horns had come in yet.”
I stared at her. I was ten. I had never even heard that there was some crazy old false rumor about Jews having horns. I thought for sure I must have heard her wrong. I finally managed to stutter: “I – we – Jews don’t have horns.”
“Oh,” she said, probably unconvinced, and walked away.
A typical Southern Jewish experience?
Not exactly. Because my family was living in Michigan at the time.
That’s right: that charming little childhood memory comes from when I was living not in the Bible Belt, but rather in a tiny town in the rural Midwest. Having spent most of my childhood living in rural Midwestern towns and most of my adult life living in the buckle of the Bible Belt, I have a lot of opinions around things like the “curiosity and ignorance” that surrounds you when you’re the only Jewish family or one of a small handful of Jewish citizens.
Yes, there is a pervasive Christianity in the Deep South; it’s called the Bible Belt for a reason. I’m not disputing that. In fact, when I first moved down here, I was told that there were two dominant religions in the South: Christianity, and Football.
But the truth is, I find it no harder to be Jewish here than to be Jewish in any small town. Yes, it would be difficult to live a traditionally observant life in Mississippi, where there are not any kosher butchers, and no community eruv. (And I freely admit that ‘traditional’ is rarely a word used to describe my own practice.) But there are actually plenty of relatively small Jewish communities where traditional observance is completely supported – Memphis, New Orleans, the list goes on.
Beyond that, being any minority, anywhere, can be pretty tough. There are assumptions made by the majority, accommodations made for the majority, curiosity, and yes, even ignorance that members of the majority might have when it comes to their friendly local minorities. But that’s not a phenomenon reserved only for those of us living South of the Mason-Dixon.
So, is the original headline true? Do “Jews in the Bible Belt’s small towns face curiosity, ignorance”?
Absolutely – but it’s not uniquely true.
Anywhere that you’re a minority, you’re going to encounter people who don’t know much about you. You will be The First and/or The Only Jewish (or Insert Your Minority Here) Person Someone Knows. You will have plenty of what my educator friends would call “teachable moments.” That’s what it’s like to be a minority, anywhere – not just in the South.
That’s why I prefer the modified headline – the one without the word ‘ignorance’ featured so prominently. Because it opens up the conversation (what’s it like to be Jewish in the Bible Belt?) without imposing a verdict (if you’re Jewish in the Bible Belt, prepare for prejudice unlike anywhere else!).
There are plenty of things, good and bad, that are uniquely Southern and Jewish – and I’m not just talking about matzoh ball gumbo! If you made it past the headline, some of those realities were indeed reflected in this week’s article. The challenge of being “the only”, but also the pride of being active in your local community. The passion that comes with preserving a particular legacy in a particular place. The close-knit, higher-attendance-rates at Southern congregations, and the interesting conversation around whether affiliation is more important to Southern Jews, as with Southern Christians, because of the importance of religion to the region as a whole.
Those are the stories we try to share. They’re the actual experiences that those of us living here experience firsthand. It’s very true that since moving to Mississippi in 2003, I’ve had to answer a lot of questions about being Jewish – but for the record?
No one down here has ever tried to check my head for horns.