My family lives in Greenwood, Mississippi. Nestled in the heart of the Delta, we are proud of our small-but-vibrant shul; even when only a dozen or so folks fill the pews, time spent in our building is meaningful. However, recently we saw our sanctuary overflowing with guests for the first time in years—and we were honored to host an event that led to powerful connections and conversations with our Delta neighbors.
We had two special visitors drawing the crowd in that night: Dr. Amy-Jill Levine (or AJ, as she prefers), and Rabbi Jeremy Simons of the ISJL. Rabbi Simons led a beautiful Shabbat service, warmly welcoming everyone and putting all attendees at ease immediately. I was so proud to have him representing the Jewish faith and standing up there in front of so many, leading everyone in a shared experience of Sabbath peace.
Then, AJ took the stage. AJ is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Department of Religious Studies, and Graduate Department of Religion. She’s a Jewish woman who studies and teaches about Christianity—and thereby she possesses a rare ability to speak the language of both Christians and Jews. She can represent both viewpoints fairly, and help us understand each other. Her opening line was something like: “Faith is more like love than Sudoku. Sudoku only has one correct solution. Love is subjective rather than right or wrong—you can’t control who you love and different people will have different preferences.”
People came from all over to hear her speak; Christians were challenged and enriched by her teachings on Christianity, and Jewish attendees were similarly riveted by her approach to scholarship and religious studies transcending both religions. Though the program took place in a synagogue, AJ knew her audience was primarily Christian. She addressed all equally, and encouraged all to be open to challenge and new notions. As local bookstore employee and program partner Steve Iwanski noted in his wonderful blog following AJ’s presentation: “…she sought to bring light to the parts of Jewish faith that may be unfamiliar to the typical Christian.
The crowd lingered for a long time afterward, and one could pick up smatterings of conversation that sounded exactly like the kind of interpretive dialogue Dr. Levine had implored us to engage in.” Having Rabbi Simons and Dr. Amy-Jill Levine lead and teach from our synagogue’s pulpit to a completely full house was an incredible delight. Everyone there shared in learning, in listening, in strengthening our own individual understanding and also our collective understanding of one another.
As an Ahavath Rayim member, an ISJL board member, a Greenwood resident—I could not have been more proud. It was not just a night of academics, but of spiritual moments. My 86-year-old mother-in-law, Ilse Goldberg, kindled the Shabbat candles and recited the blessings, which was such a moving moment. A lot of planning goes into bringing an event like this together, but moments like this are so precious that all the planning is worth it.
That night, I felt the pride of our ancestors – Ilse in the room, and others no longer with us. If they could have seen the full pews and felt the support and investment of our neighbors, I know how proud the previous generations of the congregation would be. I’m just honored that I could be part of such a wonderful communal experience, and grateful to see our shul stuffed to the gills with long-time supporters and first-time visitors. I hope to see our friends and neighbors joining us in fellowship many more times in the future.
Why did the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) meet in Chicago for its recent board meeting?
Well… why not?
Many of our board members divide their time and attention between both large and small towns in the South. Others share a story similar to my story.
I grew up in Wynne, Arkansas, also known as “The City with a Smile” and home of the Wynne Yellowjackets. I attended synagogue, religious school and youth group events at Temple Israel in Memphis, Tennessee, just a short 60 mile drive east over the Mississippi River. I loved spending my summers going to camp at Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi, where I embraced my Jewish identity and found lifelong Jewish friends. Always, I had my immediate family around me who lovingly taught me how family and Judaism were intertwined and a part of my life and tradition.
For the past 25 years, I have lived in Chicago and its suburbs. I am involved in the Jewish community, ensured my children went to religious school and had their bar and bat mitzvahs, and remain an active member of a congregation. However, I have continued to have a strong connection with my Southern heritage, my Southern Jewish heritage. Visiting my parents when they still lived in Wynne, and now where they live in Hot Springs, Arkansas, is wonderful—but visiting was not enough.
I felt like I wanted and needed to do more to stay involved and be involved. A few years ago, I was approached about serving on the Board of the ISJL, and was asked if I would be interested in working with the group that delivers amazing rabbinic services, educational programming and cultural events to communities throughout the ISJL’s thirteen-state region. I found out more about the history department and preservation initiatives, as well as the cultural tours and travelling exhibitions of the museum department. I was intrigued with the community engagement department, which was newly formed at the time but has now developed into a program which partners with nonprofits, schools and congregations to pursue tikkun olam, repairing our world, in meaningful ways.
I decided that joining the ISJL Board to promote Judaism and our heritage was just what I needed and wanted to do.
Are there others like me in Chicago? Yes, I know there are. There are other similar Southern transplants who would like to reconnect with their roots and be involved with the ISJL and support the ISJL. They are here in Chicago, and they are also in Detroit, Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, Portland, Denver, Des Moines, and New York City. They live all over our country and outside our country.
So, gathering in Chicago made good sense. As will gathering in other cities, and finding other Southern transplants and allies to become friends and active supporters like me of the ISJL. Of course, next time we meet in this part of the world, perhaps we’ll pick our spring board meeting instead of our fall/winter meeting… still, discussing Southern Jewish life as the snow began to fall brought both of my worlds together in a meaningful way.
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“Um, Rabbi? Don’t you feel a little bit weird with a cross on the back of your car?”
I fielded this question recently on a jaunt down to New Orleans for a weekend of football and food. The inquiry came when my passenger, an Atlanta Falcons fan, noticed my Mississippi license plate, with its Saints loyalty on proud display. No doubt, my companion was puzzled that a Jew (kal v’chomer a rabbi!) would choose to put something that looks like a cross on his license plate.
But it’s not a cross. It’s a fleur de lis. And while this flower has had some interaction with the cross, that’s not what it represents to me. As I began to explain this, it got me thinking, oh, this is gonna turn into a blog post. And here it is.
The fleur de lis (sometimes spelled fleur de lys) is French in origin. The little symbol decorates flags, yards, jewelry, and crowns. The earliest fleur de lis are thought to be representative of the iris flower. Long adopted by royalty, it’s no surprise that many may associate the fleur de lis with Christianity, because the vast majority of kings and queens who used the symbol on their crests and in their commissioned paintings were of the Christian persuasion. It became Christianized as well when drawn so specifically with the trinity of three leaves, with various interpretations as to what those three things meant symbolically. In addition to the trinity, some ascribe it to the Song of Songs (“lily among thorns?”), while others have associated it with Mary, with the flower representing virginity.
New Orleans, along with many other cities/regions that were under heavy French influence in the New World, adopted this symbol. And when, in 1967 they received their first NFL franchise, they named their team the New Orleans Saints, and adorned them with a fleur de lis where other helmets had lions or stars.
So not only does the fleur de lis have some religious connotation in its past, the name of the football team that now claims the flower is the Saints – yeah, a bit of religion embedded there, too. Their moniker is no doubt an allusion to November 1st, AKA All Saints Day. Also, the jazz hit “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In” came to represent the city. Catholic influence can be seen throughout Louisiana, a state still made up not of counties but of PARISHES.
Hence, my favorite football team is surrounded by symbols with Christian connotations. But, as with any symbol, meaning and interpretation can change. So, too, can our connection to them.
I spent some time in the Superdome under the futile leadership of Aaron Brooks, but it was after Hurricane Katrina that all of a sudden I found myself purchasing shirts, flags, and hats adorned with the fleur de lis symbol. For the longest time, perhaps because they were the Ain’ts, it seemed as if there were more LSU decals than Saints floating around the city. But, as we began to resurge, as the team began to be a symbol for the entire city, the fleur de lis lost its old connotation.
Like the flower it is, the fleur de lis began to unfurl again and show us that spring had sprung. New Orleans would be in full bloom again. The fleur de lis gave hope to all, regardless of their religious affiliation.
After years of trying to figure out how to watch my team play while I was elsewhere, living in this city or that country, I’m proud to have finally returned to the region that I call home. It’s exciting for me to look around and see that I can connect with my neighbors over a symbol and a team, that our faiths and unique backgrounds can come together and be united. We can cheer for touchdowns, or be despondent over the most recent free agent departures. All this is only evident when we display our symbol—on our shirts, on festive game day cookies, and yes, on this rabbi’s license plate.
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