“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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My name is Ann Zivitz Kimball, and I’m a proud Southern Jew.
Since “Southern & Jewish” is the name of this blog, and also a good description of me, I thought for my first blog post here that I’d share a little of my own story and perspective on the whole “Southern & Jewish” phenomenon.
My Southern roots are in Alabama and Louisiana (though I now live in Mississippi). Both sides of my family are from Mobile, Alabama, where my paternal grandmother was one of 9 children born to Polish/Austrian immigrants, Anne and Isadore Prince. She married my merchant grandfather. My maternal grandmother, a second-generation American born in Memphis, Tennessee, married my German immigrant grandfather who had settled in Alabama. My parents, Harrel & Betty Zivitz, married young at the Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile, had 3 girls, and moved to Metairie, Louisiana.
I grew up in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. The Jewish population of the city was largely concentrated in the Uptown and Lakeview areas, because that is where the synagogues were located. In the suburbs, at that time, almost no one else was Jewish. But most of my parents’ closest friends were from Temple, and our families were often together, so I had Jewish friends. By virtue of my mother, our family was very active at Temple and I ended up involved in youth group and URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp (my home away from home). Friday nights and Sunday mornings during the school year, my family made the “journey” to Temple Sinai in New Orleans. It was only a 20–30 minute trek, but as a kid it seemed like forever. During the week, my two younger sisters and I attended public school just like everyone else in our neighborhoods, other than the Catholic kids. On average, there were only 2 to 4 other Jewish kids in my grade.
As a Southern & Jewish kid, I grew accustomed to answering questions about Judaism, and to having friends “pray for me,” but I very rarely encountered anything that I would call anti-Semitism. The very few times I remember any incidents were pretty minor: kids repeating stuff they heard older folks saying, without any real understanding. Ignorance, but not hatred.
As far as Jewish life in New Orleans, the city has maintained (pre- and post-Katrina) a thriving small/midsized community of about 10,000 Jews. There are 4 Reform, 1 Conservative, 2 Orthodox and 2 Chabad congregations, a small community day school, a large Jewish Community Center in New Orleans proper, and now a medium sized JCC in the suburbs – since, these days, there are more Jewish families living in the suburbs than when I was growing up.
I didn’t always think of New Orleans as “thriving,” though. I attended college at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. I chose it for its dance program. Upon arriving at my dorm, I was greeted by a cadre of girls from small towns in Texas – and for the vast majority of them, I was the first Jewish person they had ever met!
I then realized that New Orleans, a place I had always considered a fairly small Jewish community, is a thriving Jewish metropolis when compared to truly small Southern towns. Beaumont showed me what a small Jewish community really looks like, as I attended the local synagogue and discovered Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews sharing a building.
My work at the ISJL truly goes hand in hand with my personal Southern & Jewish background. I “get it” when a rabbi tells me he is hoping to get a minyan for Shabbat, or a synagogue board member needs guidance on how to make a fundraiser work, or the volunteer spending hours of time promoting an event at Temple needs some extra support. We Southern Jews need to stick together, and support one another – while also maintaining the active role we’ve always played in our larger community.
That’s the Southern & Jewish way.
What do you think? Are you “Southern & Jewish”? Please feel free to share comments and stories about your own experiences. Both identities are so rich, the conversations are always intriguing!