My last year has been full of change: I got married. My husband got a new job, out of state. These two changes led to a third change, as I became… well, whatever the landlocked version of “bi-coastal” might be: we moved, but I kept my job, and now I’m dividing my time between the Midwest and the South.
We’ve had several posts on this blog about what it’s like to come to the South, and be Jewish (like this great guest post about Jewish life in Jonesboro, Arkansas). But now, I have a fresh perspective on the other side of the coin: what it’s like to move to a much bigger, Northern Jewish community… and watch the reactions when you say you came from the South.
Recently, my husband and I began “Shabbat-Shopping” – i.e. checking out synagogues, chavurah groups, and other alternatives in the big city, to see where we might find the right-fit Jewish community. There’s certainly no shortage of options! On our first outing, we went to a progressive service in the heart of the city. At the end of the service, all newcomers were asked to stand up and say their names and where they were from, if visiting or new in town.
When we stood, we said our names, and shared that we were from Mississippi.
There was audible reaction to this statement from the congregants. Two, in particular, stood out.
An older woman, seated in front of us, turned around and said: “Mississippi? Really? Ugh. I’m sorry. I mean, I’m glad for you that you’re not there anymore. I’m sorry you had to live there. I can’t even imagine.”
Meanwhile, a younger woman from the back of the room called out: “I’m from Louisiana! Find me later!”
Both of these folks did indeed find us after the service.
The first woman had her husband in tow. He, too, felt it must be miserable to live in Mississippi: “How’d you wind up there in the first place?” He asked, making a face. “Are you, y’know, real Jews?”
My husband stared at me, clearly wondering—as anyone should—what the heck “real Jews” even meant in that context. (Or, um— ever.)
“Actually,” I said, completely ignoring the ‘real Jews’ part of the question, “I work for a Jewish nonprofit in Jackson. And we love Mississippi.”
“We left because I got a job here,” my husband explained. “But we still have a lot of friends and family there.”
“Oh,” said the woman. “I’m sorry if what we said was rude. We didn’t mean to offend you.”
“No harm done,” I said, smiling. “Have you ever been to Mississippi?”
“No,” she admitted.
“It has its issues. We don’t love it for the politics,” I joked. (Hey, know your audience.) “But there’s a lot to love about it. And the Jewish communities there are great. I’m glad I still get to spend a lot of time there—I miss it when I’m not in Mississippi. It’s home. And it definitely has better winters!”
“That’s true,” the woman’s husband chuckled. We made small talk with them for a few more minutes. Then the young woman from Louisiana found us.
“You’re from Mississippi?” She asked, grinning. “I left Louisiana after high school. Like, more than a decade ago. But I still miss it. I dream about Louisiana a lot of nights. Don’t you just love it?”
My husband (a Louisiana native) and I nodded, and began talking with her about what she loved about life here, and life there. I love the instant kinship you often feel with those who have also lived in the South.
As we left the service, it hit me: how funny it is that when you’re Jewish in the small-town South, you’re explaining Judaism—and when you come from the South to the big-city Jewish world, you’re explaining the South.
William Faulkner said that to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi. Knowing, loving, and wrestling with Mississippi continues to help me understand the world, and also to understand myself. I’m still sometimes taken aback by the visceral reactions people have to the South, and particularly Mississippi, even if they’ve never been – but I’m happy to respond to those reactions. It’s part of the tax we pay, we who call Mississippi home; I’m always happy to share the good stories, acknowledge the difficulties, and maybe even change a few minds… and inspire a few visits.
In the early days of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, photographer Bill Aron hit the road, capturing images of life in the Jewish South. These photographs led to a book, Shalom Y’All: Images of Life in the Jewish South, and also became an exhibit, Bagels & Grits, which still finds audiences through the ISJL’s museum department.
This image, Shabbat Cotton, remains one of the most iconic from this photographic series. Taken in Cary, Mississippi, at the home of the Lamensdorf family, the cotton in the background was due to be harvested – and the shot had to be snapped quickly, so the work could go on! The moment was captured, the cotton fields yielded their offering, and as the sun set, another week ended.
Shabbat shalom, y’all!
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is two weeks from today – Monday, January 21, 2013. This year, consider celebrating Dr. King and his universal legacy in a uniquely Jewish context: by hosting an action-oriented Shabbat Supper on Friday, January 18, and inviting guests to come and honor the civil rights leader, and continue his dream.
The ongoing struggle for racial equity is poignant throughout America, and certainly here in the South. As a Repair The World Fellow, and as a Jewish professional living in the South, I am excited to share this initiative with you. Spearheaded by Repair the World, these Shabbat Suppers will explore one of the defining civil rights issues of our time: education inequality.
Repair the World is inviting Jews across the country to host Shabbat Suppers on Friday, January 18th to celebrate the legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. King’s life transformed the lives of many across our country. However, his motivation stemmed from his experiences as a young Black man living in the South, the center of some of his toughest battles. My hope is that Jews, particularly Jews living in the South today, will join Repair the World in its effort to commemorate the life and work of a leader who sacrificed so much to ensure that all people in our region, and our country, are seen as equal and treated with dignity and respect.
Repair The World will help everyone who hosts by:
- Giving them the tools to talk about the tough stuff: Repair will send you a toolkit that includes discussion materials, facts on education inequality in America, and tips on how to facilitate a meaningful conversation around the issue.
- Providing swag: Each group that signs up to host will receive Repair the World swag for your guests and a T-shirt for the individual(s) who lead the event.
- Helping invite local interfaith partners: If you so choose, a Repair staff person will work with you to invite partners from different faith and ethnic groups in your neighborhood. These partners will expand your network, and help to deepen the conversation around education inequality. The potential is endless!
Please click on the following link to register and participate: Shabbat Suppers
If you or your congregation host one of these Shabbat Suppers, we would love to hear about it. Please share your stories with us!