Jews get lumped together a lot. Polls refer to “the Jewish vote.” We hear about the “Jewish response.” Labels of Jewish are smacked across everything from “Jewish humor” to “Jewish tradition” with little acknowledgment that Sarah Silverman’s fans aren’t necessarily Mel Brooks enthusiasts, and the traditions found in one Jewish household may vary wildly from the traditions found in a household one state over… or just down the block.
When representing a “Southern Jewish” organization, I’ve been asked frequently what makes “Southern Jews” different from “Northern Jews.” My response keeps evolving, but I do think there’s a difference.
There’s a difference because we are all products of our environment. With the exception of communities that choose to be expressly insular, we are all shaped by multiple forces. The Southern Jewish experience, particularly the small-town Southern Jewish experience, is one shaped by having fewer massive Jewish organizational infrastructure, and more overtly Christian neighbors. It is shaped by the music and the culture of the place, as is any other ethnic or religious group living here. In many ways, Southern Jewry has its own flavor, metaphorically and literally. It is connected to the larger Jewish experience, while being unique.
There’s a difference. But there’s also something more. There’s connection– and there’s conflict.
Ever since Jews started living in different places, we have always had things that have distinguished us. But now, more than ever, we seem to have an increasing number of things that not only distinguish us but also divide us. While the larger world might continue to lump us together, it is harder for many of us individual Jews to do so.
From egalitarianism to the equality movement, interfaith families to Israel, we are a polarized people. And in an era where we out our positions on Facebook, contend with new issues daily, our differences are surfaced quite quickly and clearly. When Jews are united on… well, probably nothing… how do we connect?
How do we remain “a people,” whatever that means?
I don’t know. But I do know this: somehow, we do. Somehow, there is still a Team Jewish affiliation that transcends Just-Southern-Jews or Just-Progressive-Jews or Just-Conservative-Jews. The team spirit doesn’t stop simply at our politics, be they progressive or conservative, or at our address, be it in the American South or South America.
It’s hard to define, this invisible thread. It’s a gut feeling. It’s our hearts twisting when the Holocaust is mentioned, and getting riled when it is invoked unjustly (even if our definitions of “unjust use” vary). It’s our ears perking up when there’s a mention of Something Jewish in the news. It’s feeling deep pride (maybe over different things) and feeling deep guilt (definitely over different things) and it’s wrestling, and wrestling, and wrestling.
Somehow, there still is a Team Jewish. But we sure are passing/throwing/swatting/
We feel it, but we don’t always show it. Or we show it in different ways. And we disagree, more and more heatedly. And there are seismic shifts and growing rifts in what that tricky “Jewish vote” looks like to the rest of the world, too.
What does that mean for the Jewish future?
Well. I don’t know that, either. But I’m pretty sure there will be a Jewish future. So that’s something.
At various times in my life, my own observance, stances, and struggles have varied. So too have the commitments and connections that kept me playing for Team Jewish. This has been one of those years where it’s challenging to define what exactly those “ties that bind” me might be, as the world continually unravels.
But I keep going to the mat.
Or the stadium. Or whatever.
What are your thoughts? From the cultural to the religious and the inane to the innate… what makes or breaks Jewish identity? How much is it shaped by where you live and what you experience?
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Below is an excerpt from a recent article in the Jewish Daily Forward entitled “The Best Jewish Film Festivals of 2014”:
The Mobile Jewish Film Festival, Mobile, Ala.
New York, Chicago, Miami, we expect. But Charlotte, N.C.? Baton Rouge, La.? After much deliberation, we finally chose The Mobile Jewish Film Festival, which will feature just seven selections (one of which is still a mystery), but still deserved an award because, well, Alabama.
We don’t know about y’all, but to us, a Jewish film festival in Mobile, Alabama isn’t so stunning. Neither, for that matter, is a Jewish film festival in Charlotte, North Carolina, nor Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (In fact… several of the Southern Jewish film festivals, including the ones in Mobile and Baton Rouge, were started up as part of the ISJL’s Jewish Cinema South regional film festival network.)
In fact, when looking at the communities in-depth, a Jewish film festival in these towns merits more of an “of course.” The Jewish community of Mobile is in fact home to two synagogues (one Reform and one Conservative), a Jewish Family Services, a Jewish Federation, and an excellent Holocaust Library. And then there’s Charlotte, with 12,000 Jews and 26 different Jewish organizations listed in the Jewish community directory. It’s also home to Shalom Park, a 54-acre campus which brings together the entire local Jewish community. Baton Rouge’s community, while small, also has two synagogues, a Federation, and a Hillel located at Louisiana State University.
The two of us writing this post are big-city Yankees in every sense of the term. One of us hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, considerably more well-known for its cheese than its grits. The other one of us is from Baltimore, Maryland, which some might argue has little bits and pieces of Southern character. However, most would agree shares more with Delaware or New Jersey than it does with Louisiana or Tennessee.
We understand the author’s perspective, because at one point each of us shared it with her. Our communities growing up did not discuss the South as a contributor to Jewish life. To be frank, versions of ourselves from a few years ago might not have expected to hear about Southern Jewish Film Festivals, either.
But these feelings of ours were at best sectionalist and at worst ignorant. They failed to recognize the unique and beautiful character of many Southern Jewish communities. They ignored the truth that many of the earliest American Jewish communities sprouted in the South, in locations such as Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. Finally, they create a schism between Jews in the North and those beneath the Mason-Dixon line.
We hope the author will come and visit Mobile, Charlotte, or even us at the ISJL headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi. We’re confident that, if she does, she’ll leave with the knowledge that Jewish life in our region is alive and well. And maybe, just maybe, she won’t be so stunned the next time she learns of a Jewish cultural event in the Deep South.
Today’s blog post was co-authored by Education Fellows Dan Ring and Lex Rofes.
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?