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.
Today’s guest post comes from our friend Andrea Levy, a fairly recent transplant to Jonesboro, Arkansas. Thanks for sharing your lovely words, Andrea!
It is Friday morning. I am sitting at my kitchen table. I have a big smile on my face as I work on my bible study lesson for this coming Wednesday. My mother called this morning to make sure the storm wasn’t too bad last night. After the time we had to run twice to the safe room because of tornadoes, there is constant worry (such is the lot of a Jewish Mother).
The location where these tornadoes threatened? Jonesboro, Arkansas. The bible study I’m preparing to lead? A session on Jewish Holidays for the First Christian Church of Jonesboro this coming Wednesday. How the world turns.
Last Sunday, I led our synagogue service observing Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atz’maut, and sending a wonderful couple off to northwest Arkansas at an evening service followed by an Israeli themed potluck dinner with falafel, hummus, Israeli salad, pita and more. The cake had an Israeli flag on it—I wonder what Kroger thought of that?
And the Monday before that? The President of our synagogue, David Levenbach, and I participated in Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah to us) at the Southwest Church of Christ. The program was so moving, with approximately 20 biographies of people during the time of the Holocaust portrayed by other participants provided by the US Holocaust Museum, and a short film also by the museum. David and I read prayers from Gates of Prayer.
I’m not a rabbi, by the way. I’m just a member of a small Southern congregation, and this is what you do.
So back to the bible study. I was invited to lead the bible study session this week at the First Christian Church, to talk about Jewish Holidays. I have been preparing for this feverishly, as I want to make sure to make this session is engaging and interactive. I am bringing show and tell items and some special foods with me—challah, matzah, and macaroons. I have been learning things about our holidays that I did not know before my preparations—the Torah citations for some of the holidays, the explanations behind the traditions, and most importantly why we know Shabbat falls on Friday night/Saturday.
So the smile on my face? Well, it’s both appreciation and amusement… because if I had stayed where I grew up, this wouldn’t be how I spent my morning.
I grew up in Highland Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago with a large Jewish population. Now, my family and I have meandered our way to a much smaller town of 70,000, with a very small Jewish community (we were so happy to get 25 last Sunday!)—Jonesboro, Arkansas. If we hadn’t, I would not be sitting here working on my bible study lesson for next Wednesday.
Funny, but true: Sometimes when you leave a big Jewish community, Judaism becomes an even bigger part of your life.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. They had arranged a viewing of the College World Series because our very own Mississippi State Bulldogs were playing in the championship.
I must admit that although I was raised an avid Yankees fan and then secretly (well, now not-so-secretly) converted to being a Red Sox fan when I moved to Boston in 2004, I haven’t watched a single baseball game since I moved to the South. Besides a rogue Atlanta Braves fan you might stumble across every now and then, football reigns in these parts. But when your local team makes it to a national championship, you buckle down, eat a hot dog, and show your support.
Typical of a museum nerd, I was wandering through the exhibits during most of the game while my friends gathered around the multiple TV screens. It was the bottom of the 6th inning by the time I sat down, and Mississippi State was behind. The crowd was quiet and the mood was sullen. I looked up at the screen. They were showing aerial views of Omaha, Nebraska, the city where the College World Series had been held for the past 63 years.
“So..why is this in Omaha?” I asked my fellow fans.
“Not sure, it’s just always been there,” one fan answered.
Not sure? Not acceptable. I pulled the internet out of my pocket. I read the information from the College World Series site aloud “The College World Series was first played in Omaha in 1950 and total attendance was 17,805. Although the College World Series is now a profitable event, it lost money for 10 of the first 12 years that it was in Omaha – 1950-1961. Four Omahans who maintained their faith and interest in the College World Series during those lean years are due much of the credit for the tournament’s continued presence in Omaha. They are the late Ed Pettis of the Brandeis Stores, the late Morris Jacobs and the late Byron Reed, both of Bozell & Jacobs, and the late Johnny Rosenblatt, Mayor of Omaha and an avid baseball fan.”
“Jews!” I exclaimed.
“Oh, right. The old stadium was Rosenblatt field,” my fellow fan replied.
I spent the rest of the short and sad innings reading about Johnny Rosenblatt, the mayor of Omaha, Nebraska, from 1954 to 1961. He was one of six children born to Jewish immigrant parents, and played semi professional baseball for 20 years.
My reaction to “Jews in Omaha” is probably pretty similar to the reaction people have when they hear about “Jews in the South.” I don’t know much of anything about Omaha (except something about steaks and that it’s home to one of our favorite scholars, Dr. Ron Wolfson). I would have never guessed it was a hub not only for college baseball, but also for Jewish community involvement.
I look for these instances often. After all, I’ve had to arm myself with similar Southern Jewish trivia bits when I’m asked about Jews in the South. Locally, my favorite response actually involves Mississippi State fans again, when I surprise them that their voice of the Bulldogs local sports announcer Jack Cristil is Jewish and from Tupelo, Mississippi.
Clearly, I enjoy the feeling of discovery – and luckily, we’ve got resources like Wikipedia, Google, and more specifically, for those not familiar with Southern cities, we’ve got the great Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities to help make these discoveries more often.
Living with these resources makes it a great time to be curious, especially during boring sports events. Have to sit through another little league tournament this weekend? Here are a few searches to get you started:
For the music lover- Where was Dinah Shore from and what was her original name?
For the history student- Who was the secretary of state for the Confederacy?
For the traveler- Who came up with these crazy South of the Border signs?
Have fun discovering!