With residents mostly emigrating from colder climates, my hometown really is a Southern (geographically) and Northern (cultural) fusion. Nicknamed “Paradise,” Sarasota, Florida’s motto boasts “Big City Amenities Meets Small Town Living.”
The town has plenty of personality with its big-meets-small mentality, beaches, and population. If you land in the airport, you’ll find a shark tank to greet you just outside of TSA Security. The “small town living” note on the sign should really say “small beach town living,” since Sarasota boasts one of the USA’s consistently best-rated beaches. Its affluent nature no doubt relates to the culture that John Ringling helped infuse into the society.
While travelling recently to a community on a rabbinic visit, I encountered another city with a very clear, yet completely different identity: Kilgore, Texas.
I had the pleasure of driving over from Longview after my visit had concluded to play a round of golf with some fellow golf-obsessed Nice Jewish Boys. Titled the “city of stars,” it’s not for astronomical or astrological reasons. Instead, it’s due to the discovery of oil in 1930. The “stars” to which it refers are the tops of oil derricks.
Never had I entered a city whose identity is so clearly played out virtually everywhere you go. As you drive in, instead of a shark tank, you are greeted by a giant oil derricks holding up the road sign. Immediately following is another oil derrick with the welcome sign… on which stands yet another oil derrick. I stopped in Circle K to grab a Gatorade to stay hydrated— lo and behold, an oil derrick was a column holding up the front overhang.
When I pumped my gas on the way out of town, I noticed that even the liquor store’s sign was modeled after the oil derrick. There’s something important about a town’s history, identity, and culture from what they make sure you notice while you’re there.
Whether it’s beaches or bohemian flair, olive trees or oil derricks, all towns are built around something. I will certainly pay more attention to the cities I enter from now on, looking for these markers that help explain who they are. It’s all part of hitting the road and really getting to know the communities we visit.
For what is your city best known?
Does it have a slogan?
How does its identity on display as you wander the streets?
Today’s post is from guest writer Joanna Brichetto, Experiential Educator at Nashville’s West End Synagogue, who also runs the website Bible Belt Balabusta. Her Hanukkah program was so cool, so we were THRILLED she wanted to share this post and her amazing pictures here on our blog!
For too many years, miles and multicolored wax candles separate kids from the “miracle of the oil.” Until now.
This year, students at West End Synagogue Religious School in Nashville, got to make olive oil—shemen zayit—like Maccabees: with a life-size, working replica of a Hellenistic-era olive crushing installation, featuring a crushing wheel, pivot pole, and basin. Kids pushed the pole to rotate the “limestone” wheel over fresh olives, and scooped the mash into sacks for pressing. Meanwhile, costumed interpreters showed posters of the five-step oil production process from tree to Temple Menorah.
Underwhelming it was not!
I dreamed of bringing an olive crusher to our school for years, and looked for synagogues doing something similar, but aside from a handful of churches that host all-out Walk Through Bethlehem events, I found nothing. Chabad has an excellent franchised oil workshop, but it uses modern tools like an electric centrifuge, and I was after an experience as historically authentic as possible. I had to have a big wheel. A friend helped me track down plans for a crusher, and once I showed them to Sharon Paz, our Director of Lifelong Learning, she commissioned a congregant to build it for the school. Our 2nd century BCE replica looks remarkably like stone, and to see it is to want to work it. It is simply irresistible, which is an ideal descriptor for any lesson plan.
The crushing installation was the centerpiece of our Hanukkah “Oil Crush” program, around which rotated complementary oil-themed activities created by Sharon and myself. Students and families practiced brachot and how to light a chanukiyah; made oil-based treats for our homeless program; judged a kosher chanukiyah contest; made and ate latkes; decorated chanukiyot to take home; bobbed for sufganiyot; and nibbled at an olive oil-tasting bar. Even our tzedakah project was oil-based: we collected funds to help local seniors with heating bills.
Honestly, we didn’t end up with enough oil for a single “cruse,” much less enough to fill the Temple Menorah, but this very fact gave students a sense that it was no easy feat for Maccabees to make the massive amount of oil—of any quality—needed in a short time. Our program was more “exploration” than”“demonstration,” and we’ll certainly expand it next time. Meanwhile, a room full of families, volunteers, staff and teachers got a greasy, hands-on reference point to Hanukkah oil that no one is likely to forget.
P.S. Our Oil Crush program was funded by the West End Synagogue Religious School Enrichment Fund and the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee.
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.