It’s something that makes most Jewish people cringe: that moment when, in the midst of some celebrity or political or financial scandal, it’s revealed that there’s a bad guy who happens to be Jewish. And now, quite publicly, this Jewish person has done wrong.
Let’s call them the “Bad News Jews.”
I was pretty young when I first realized that if you’re Jewish, and especially if you’re the only Jewish person someone knows, you will become a go-to-source on All Things Jewish. Not just around holiday times, but also when there’s someone Jewish in the news. Especially when the news is not good, and a fellow known-to-be-Jewish person is getting some bad press.
It was Monica Lewinsky who first taught me this.
I was in high school back when she was in the news. Despite the fact and context of that story, and the whole topic being, y’know, not exactly appropriate conversational material to dive into with a teenager, people would ask me what I thought about that situation. They would ask what I thought about her: Monica Lewinsky, who “sort of looked like me,” as I was told a couple of times. Like maybe, since we were both Jewish, I had some insider info on this hot mess (um, nope!); or I’d be more sympathetic to her plight (um, nope!); or at least I’d be more personally impacted by the story (um… nope… ish?).
That last parenthetical “nope-ish” is where it gets complicated. Because while it doesn’t have anything to do with us, and seems misguided when non-Jewish friends and family ask us specifically about these “Naughty Jews,” well, there is some truth to the fact that we cringe a bit harder when someone Jewish is revealed to be the bad guy in a news story. Even when we have no actual connection to the person, we feel embarrassed. Like it’s making “us” look bad. The same way we take pride in “our” Albert Einsteins, we cringe at “our” Anthony Weiners.
How do we respond to Bad News Jews? When people ask for our opinion, what do we say?
After years of being in this position, my response has become pretty standard. When someone asks me what I think “as a Jewish person,” I try (and sometimes fail) to not roll my eyes, and then lead off by saying that I don’t speak for “the Jews,” I can only speak for myself. A person, who happens to be Jewish, but whose opinions only represent me, and are not representative of all Jewish people. Just like, yes, that schmoe in the news is a person, who happens to be Jewish – but whose actions speak only for him/her, and are not representative of all Jewish people. In a small town, where the Jews are few – like the rural town where I grew up, and the small Southern city where I live now – it somehow seems both more remote and removed, and yet also all the more personal.
It’s a sound basic strategy, but it doesn’t always stop the questions. Or the cringing.
What’s your response when people ask for your “Jewish opinion” on bad news on fellow Jews?
Every few years, national reporters rediscover the phenomenon of the “disappearing southern
Jew.” This week, Seth Berkman of the Forward newspaper published a thoughtful, well-written article headlined “Southern Jews a Dying Breed as Small-Town Communities Dwindle Fast.”
I am quoted in it, and Berkman seems to have also used the ISJL’s online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities as the source for much of his historical background information. We were happy to help him, and appreciate any attention given to the plight of small Jewish communities, especially from the nation’s leading Jewish newspaper.
Synagogue building in Meridian, MS, sold in the 1990s; an ISJL visit in Dothan, AL, 2013
Despite the accuracy and quality of the article, it has admittedly ruffled a few feathers down here. While the decline of the Jewish community in places like Selma and Demopolis, Alabama, and in Lexington and Natchez, Mississippi is undeniable, the state of the Jewish South today is far more complicated than just closing synagogues in small towns coupled with tremendous growth in big cities like Atlanta.
I was just in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the Jewish community has grown by a factor of ten in the past fifty years. Boone, North Carolina recently saw the dedication of its first synagogue. The Jewish community in Dothan, Alabama has created an innovative program that has attracted several new Jewish families to the town, resulting in growth in the local congregation and religious school. Jewish life remains vibrant in medium-sized cities like Jackson, Mississippi; Huntsville, Alabama; Roanoke, Virginia; Macon, Georgia; and many others. The ISJL was founded in 2000 to serve the needs of southern Jewish communities, be they small, medium, large, or nearing extinction. I think it’s fair to say that our efforts have had a significant impact on Jewish life in the region.
The key to understanding the Jewish South today is a central trend: the movement of Jews out of the retail industry into corporate America and the professions. A new Jewish community recently sprouted in Bentonville, Arkansas because it is the corporate headquarters of Wal-Mart. Much of the growth in the Jewish communities of places like Charlottesville, or Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is due to the increasing number of Jewish faculty and administrators associated with the large universities there. Jackson has become the largest Jewish community in Mississippi in recent decades because it is the medical and legal center for the state. The Jewish dry goods merchants who once populated these southern communities have been replaced by executives, doctors, lawyers, and professors.
The dying out of southern Jewish communities is not a new phenomenon. I’ve written the histories of many southern congregations that closed over a century ago. It’s a trend that is neither uniquely southern, nor uniquely Jewish. Small town Jewish communities across the country have declined for similar reasons to the ones described in the Forward article. I recall reading a New York Times article several years ago about Lutheran churches in North Dakota that closed because their membership had dwindled.
Throughout its history, America has never stood still. Towns and regions have boomed and crashed. Jewish communities have been established and died out, usually tied to national trends. As ISJL president Macy B. Hart is fond of saying, “change is neither good nor bad, change is change.” My job as the historian of the ISJL is to ensure that despite these changes, these communities are not forgotten, that their part in the tapestry of American Jewish life is preserved for all to see and appreciate. We are grateful that the Forward has recognized their significance, and helped us in this endeavor.
There it was, in the news, soon after the results of the November 6 election were announced: bigotry in the spotlight, here in Mississippi, again. Headlines declaring a “riot” on the campus of the University of Mississippi (more often referred to as Ole Miss), with white Southern students shouting racial slurs and burning an Obama/Biden campaign poster. Black vs. white. Racial tension in the Bible Belt.
How do we encounter that experience?
There’s a long and complex history of civil rights in the South, and Jewish involvement in civil rights. Luckily, at the ISJL, in addition to studying and sharing the histories, we consider it an honor to have seen and participated in the great work of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation (WWIRR) in action. The WWIRR is located on the campus of Ole Miss, right in the center of the recent controversy.
This whole incident is in “our neighborhood,” but all the more so in the WWIRR’s neighborhood. And community reaction and engagement around this is in my wheelhouse, and something I – and hopefully, the readers of this blog – care about. So I reached out to Dr. Susan Glisson, Executive Director of the WWIRR, to ask her about the situation that has caught national attention, the realities, and responses.
Here’s what she had to say.
Malkie: The WWIRR’s Position on Racial Reconciliation includes an emphasis on the importance of language and “how it is often unintentionally used to blur, divide, and polarize what are essentially similar efforts”. As I was thinking about the ways in which to describe what happened on the evening of November 6th, I considered my choice of words. (Do I call it an occurrence? No, that sounds unintentional. I guess I should call it a riot, but was it a riot? Does the word “protest” capture what took place?) Each word seems blurry in its own way. How might you describe what took place on the Ole Miss campus?
Dr. Glisson: I can only say now that one of the participants described his participation in the event as “defending his beliefs” in “the Republican side of campus, the Confederate side of campus.” So, I think it is clear that racial fears underlie what happened Tuesday night.
Malkie: You informed us that a walk took place on campus called We Are One Mississippi Candlelight Walk. Were you able to attend? What was the tone and message of this walk?
Dr. Glisson: I was there. It was serious and reflective, resolved and hopeful. The message is that love is greater than hate and that we refuse to go back to any old regime of bigotry.
Malkie: For some, these events will serve as an indicator that racism in Mississippi is pervasive. How would you respond to an individual who draws this conclusion?
Dr. Glisson: The results of the election clearly show that we are the most racially polarized we have ever been. Racism is pervasive throughout the country and I think the only question may be about degrees. We ALL have much work to do.
Malkie: Our blog is called “Southern and Jewish.” What would you like Jews in the South to know about the work of the Winter Institute?
Dr. Glisson: The Winter Institute works in communities and classrooms, in Mississippi and beyond, to support a movement of racial equity and wholeness as a pathway to ending and transcending all division and discrimination based on difference.
Malkie: Can you share ways in which you think Jews in the South can play a role in advancing racial reconciliation?
Dr. Glisson: There is a rich history of collaboration between Jews and civil rights activists; I hope we can rekindle that connection through dialogue and community building to repair the wounds of the past.
What are your thoughts on this incident? What do you think is the most constructive way for communities to come together to “repair the wounds of the past”?