The only Jewish person I knew of growing up was Jesus, and to be honest I had never thought much about this aspect of his identity until college when a professor described Jesus as a rabbi during a lecture.
I had developed an affinity for Jewish culture as a teenager, much the same way a teenager develops a curious interest in anything their parents haven’t told them much about. When I told my mother of my newfound interest, she bought me a small menorah, sent me a Rosh Hashanah e-card at the appropriate time of year, and told me that it was at least moderately likely that my grandmother’s German ancestors had been Jewish, but left that part of their culture behind when moving to the wild, lawless trapper’s country of South Louisiana.
(It seems that my ancestry is diverse enough to accommodate any passing cultural fancy I’ve had growing up. When I went abroad for a semester in Northern Ireland, my grandfather informed me that his grandfather had been Irish. I found it odd that this had never been mentioned before I brought up the subject.)
The point of these perhaps too-indulgent anecdotes is that any knowledge I’ve had of Jewish culture prior to interning here at the Institute for Southern Jewish Life has been superficial at best. The menorah my mother gave me is tucked away, forgotten in a drawer somewhere (and it uses candles that look suspiciously similar to those found on birthday cakes). I was nineteen years old before I really met and had a conversation with a Jewish person, at least to my knowledge.
At last week’s staff meeting, my first at the ISJL, we had a program on inclusion in honor of MLK Day. It was discussed that the ISJL is in the unique position of being the first Jewish organization that many people in the area will come in contact with. It certainly has been that for me. I couldn’t be more grateful to everyone for how welcoming they’ve been and am so appreciative of everyone’s willingness to explain any term or aspect of Jewish culture that I don’t understand.
My uncle has always said of New Orleans, a place he lived for 11 years, that you “never stop peeling back the onion.” My past week at the institute has taught me the same of the South in general. I’ve lived in the South my entire life and have yet to be involved, or even be in conversation with, the Jewish community here. A community that thrives, perhaps shamefully forgotten by those not a part of it, right in our midst.
I could not be more grateful for the opportunity to peel back and better understand this particular layer of my home.
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Below is an excerpt from a recent article in the Jewish Daily Forward entitled “The Best Jewish Film Festivals of 2014”:
The Mobile Jewish Film Festival, Mobile, Ala.
New York, Chicago, Miami, we expect. But Charlotte, N.C.? Baton Rouge, La.? After much deliberation, we finally chose The Mobile Jewish Film Festival, which will feature just seven selections (one of which is still a mystery), but still deserved an award because, well, Alabama.
We don’t know about y’all, but to us, a Jewish film festival in Mobile, Alabama isn’t so stunning. Neither, for that matter, is a Jewish film festival in Charlotte, North Carolina, nor Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (In fact… several of the Southern Jewish film festivals, including the ones in Mobile and Baton Rouge, were started up as part of the ISJL’s Jewish Cinema South regional film festival network.)
In fact, when looking at the communities in-depth, a Jewish film festival in these towns merits more of an “of course.” The Jewish community of Mobile is in fact home to two synagogues (one Reform and one Conservative), a Jewish Family Services, a Jewish Federation, and an excellent Holocaust Library. And then there’s Charlotte, with 12,000 Jews and 26 different Jewish organizations listed in the Jewish community directory. It’s also home to Shalom Park, a 54-acre campus which brings together the entire local Jewish community. Baton Rouge’s community, while small, also has two synagogues, a Federation, and a Hillel located at Louisiana State University.
The two of us writing this post are big-city Yankees in every sense of the term. One of us hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, considerably more well-known for its cheese than its grits. The other one of us is from Baltimore, Maryland, which some might argue has little bits and pieces of Southern character. However, most would agree shares more with Delaware or New Jersey than it does with Louisiana or Tennessee.
We understand the author’s perspective, because at one point each of us shared it with her. Our communities growing up did not discuss the South as a contributor to Jewish life. To be frank, versions of ourselves from a few years ago might not have expected to hear about Southern Jewish Film Festivals, either.
But these feelings of ours were at best sectionalist and at worst ignorant. They failed to recognize the unique and beautiful character of many Southern Jewish communities. They ignored the truth that many of the earliest American Jewish communities sprouted in the South, in locations such as Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. Finally, they create a schism between Jews in the North and those beneath the Mason-Dixon line.
We hope the author will come and visit Mobile, Charlotte, or even us at the ISJL headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi. We’re confident that, if she does, she’ll leave with the knowledge that Jewish life in our region is alive and well. And maybe, just maybe, she won’t be so stunned the next time she learns of a Jewish cultural event in the Deep South.
Today’s blog post was co-authored by Education Fellows Dan Ring and Lex Rofes.
On Yom Kippur this year, the few remaining families of the 161-year old congregation of B’nai El in St. Louis, Missouri, entered the large sanctuary of Shaare Emeth. All of the members representing Shaare Emeth’s 1600-plus households simultaneously rose to their feet in honor of the Torahs held in the arms of B’nai El’s remaining few members. They, along with the Torahs, were being welcomed into their new spiritual home.
For those who may not know, B’nai El (established circa 1852) was the first Jewish congregation to build its sacred dwelling west of the Mississippi River. After a brief period of existence as an Orthodox congregation, B’nai El joined the Reform Movement, and in 1874 was among the founding congregations of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism.
B’nai El was also my hometown congregation.
I say, “was,” because – as of this year – B’nai El closed its doors, due to a great decline in membership over recent decades. Facing this moment has not been easy for any of us. Yet, thanks to a dedicated board and a compassionate interim rabbi, the congregation of B’nai El made thoughtful, though difficult, decisions that brought great honor to its history, ensuring its lasting legacy.
These brave acts included offering me (as a son of the congregation) the complete contents of their Sisterhood Judaica Shop. As their Sisterhood president Maryellen McSweeny told me: “Just because we are closing doesn’t mean that we can’t still make a difference, an impact in the Jewish world. Please take these items to impact your work with small congregations in the South.”
In B’nai El’s name, I have done just that. During a Bat Mitzvah service in the Mississippi Delta, a brilliant young lady received a beautiful B’nai El tallit. Every time she wraps herself in it, the generations of B’nai El embrace her. During a funeral in Alabama, the mourners received a special yahrzeit candle holder. Every year they light it, memories of both their loved one and the congregation will be illuminated.
And, during a Shabbat service with the small college town congregation of Am Shalom in Bowling Green, Kentucky, I noticed that the Torah was without a yad for reading. Upon my return to the office, I went to the ISJL closet filled with B’nai El’s generous donations. From it, I pulled out a yad. I sent it to Am Shalom with the message, “May it continue to point y’all forward with God’s loving touch in this coming year.”
Am Shalom’s president, Laura Jacobs, wrote the following to Maryellen McSweeny in response:
We very much appreciate you sending us your yad. We are a very small congregation of about 15 families. We meet about one time per month for social and religious events. We are lay-led and so appreciate Rabbi Klaven and all he brings to our small congregation. As you know, he is a special person, making Judaism come alive for the young and old. We are blessed he chose to share your yad with us. Know that we will put it to good use. I’ve attached the pictures of some of our members on Yom Kippur with the yad on our Torah. L’shana tovah to you!
What I have come to appreciate even more through connecting some of the remaining items from my hometown congregation of B’nai El to other Jewish communities in need is that our story does not end when we find a place to call home. Rather, just as it was for our ancestors, coming home marks the next chapter of our development, as we continue to honor our history and live our legacy.
Image above: B’nai El’s Yad brings new blessings to its new home at Am Shalom.