There’s a common stereotype about the American South. A nice one: people here are friendlier when compared to the rest of the country.
On the way out of Jackson, I joked around with some folks also waiting in the unusually long security line. We discussed the length of our wait, the Jackson airport, and our time in Mississippi. One of the men was on my flight to DC, and we continued chatting as we disembarked the flight.
Upon arrival in DC, I sensed a different vibe. Strolling through the area, I found myself nodding and saying hello to many random strangers I passed, just as I do when strolling through Jackson. In Jackson, people respond, smiling back, saying hello, asking how you’re doing. In the DC suburbs, I got a few nods and smiles, and also had my brother telling me to “stop being weird, Daniel. You’ve been in Mississippi too long!”
Naturally, as younger siblings are supposed to do, I did it more, just to irritate him.
Still, however, I did not get the results to which I’ve become accustomed.
After a wonderful weekend, on the way back to the airport, I spent several hours commuting to DCA by MARC train and then two separate DC metro lines. Throughout the entire ride, I only encountered a handful of smiles, nods, or friendly remarks. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only people who I had a conversation with were my friends I visited in DC. And while they might be strange, they’re not strangers to me.
However, once the airport attendant called for all the passengers going to Jackson, and we all crammed into the bus which would take us to our tiny plane, everything changed. One person made a silly comment about Mississippi rather loudly, and suddenly everyone began laughing, smiling, and chatting with random strangers. I conversed with a woman heading down to assist the Red Cross disaster relief efforts following the tornadoes. Two strangers were swapping stories about their respective trips. I made funny faces at a baby in front of me, and chatted with his mother. I’m absolutely certain that I spoke to more people on the 20 minute bus ride to the train on the tarmac than I did during the 2 hours I spent in transit to the airport.
One of the former Education Fellows, originally from New York City, had a theory: people are friendlier in Mississippi because there are simply fewer people down here. In big, busy, cities, if you stopped to chat with (or even just nod to and acknowledge!) every single person you saw while walking down the street, you would never get anywhere. In Mississippi, there are fewer people, so you can afford to take time to talk to the people you meet, you can afford to get to know them, and you can still get where you’re going a little bit early.
Alternatively, people might be friendlier because of a shared culture in Mississippi and the American South. Perhaps this shared culture brings people together and makes them friendlier. Maybe it’s just good ole’ fashioned southern hospitality. Of course, in the Jewish world, Shammai said in Pirkei Avot: “Hevei m’kabeil et kol ha-adam b’seiver panim yafot.” Receive every person with a cheerful countenance.
Sounds like Southern friendliness to me.
In any case, it’s not that big city folks are necessarily rude, but “Southern Hospitality” and general friendliness remains a true legacy…and I know for certain that I will definitely miss it when I leave, and plan to take it with me!
In the late 1970s, my Uncle Eric Rofes marched in a gay pride parade in the Boston area with a paper bag over his head.
Why would he do this? What reason did he have to hide his identity as he sought to make equal rights for LGBT individuals a reality?
His reasons were practical, and heartbreaking. He was a teacher, and at the time, it was completely within the realm of acceptable activity to fire teachers if they were “discovered” to be homosexual. Allowing his face to be seen could have consequences.
Later in the year, he decided that he no longer could hide this aspect of his identity. He decided he would inform the school that he was gay. He would no longer bring fake “girlfriends” to school functions, and, if asked by his students, he would talk with them honestly about the fact that he is attracted to men and not women.
Upon learning this, the school fired my Uncle Eric.
My uncle went on to become an accomplished activist, working tirelessly for equal rights for all, regardless of sexuality. He made a lot of headway. But what is clear to me today is this: there is so much work left to be done, and for me it starts right now here in Mississippi.
Today, a vote on Senate Bill 2681 will likely occur in Mississippi. If passed, it would give businesses the right to deny service to individuals if their reason for doing so stems from a “sincerely held religious belief.” This would give businesses the right to deny service to LGBT individuals without any consequence. A classic example is that of a gay couple going to a bakery to purchase a cake, perhaps celebrating the anniversary of their first date (or of their wedding, if they traveled outside of Mississippi to a state where there is marriage equality). This law would mean that businesses could kick those individuals out of the store. It is the equivalent of a “straights only” sign in the window, reminiscent of a Civil Rights era that I had hoped we had moved past.
This bill (popular because it would also add “In God We Trust” to the state seal) would formalize that someone can be turned away/denied service based on a “deeply held religious belief,” and these days that’s often veiled language for LGBT, though clearly it can extend to discrimination among many other groups, and smacks of segregation language pre-civil rights, using religion to justify discrimination.
As a Mississippian, as a human being, and, for me, as a Jew, I must stand up and do what I can to defeat this bill. I refuse to sit back when a law may pass tomorrow that would mean citizens of my state, today, would have to hide their sexuality just as my uncle did decades ago.
For those looking for a “sincerely held religious belief” in opposition to this bill, I have a very simple one. It is, perhaps unexpectedly, from Shammai, a man noted for being significantly less open-minded than his counterpart, Hillel the Elder. He states, in Pirkei Avot, a Jewish ethical tractate:
“Hevei m’kabeil et kol ha-adam b’seiver panim yafot.” Receive every person with a cheerful countenance.
It doesn’t say receive some people with a cheerful countenance. It doesn’t say, accept some people cheerfully, but those others, well, you can give them the cold shoulder if you don’t agree with them.
Our society will suffer greatly if we do not live up to those words. For my sake, for your sake, for my Uncle Eric’s sake, and for the future of Mississippi – let us fight against discrimination, and embrace the “sincerely held religious belief” that we should receive everyone with a pleasant face, an open door, a cheerful countenance.
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