I smile. The man stares back at me and I look away, embarrassed. I feel my ears growing hot and I know my face is turning red, too. I am from here. I should know better.
DO NOT SMILE AT PEOPLE ON THE SUBWAY!
Before I moved to Jackson, I lived in New York City for four years of college. I was a pro at navigating the subway, walking quickly, avoiding obstacles on the sidewalk, and crossing the street irrespective of the traffic signal. I did not let people cut me in line and was very capable of intercepting those who tried. I mastered the art of hailing a cab and absolutely did not tolerate people who tried to steal my taxi by standing up-street from me.
In short, I was an excellent New Yorker.
When I moved to Jackson a year ago, I immediately started worrying that I was accidentally rude to people. I just was not used to making small talk with strangers, and oftentimes I didn’t realize strangers to speaking to me because, well, who talks to strangers? I had to learn to call people “sir” and “ma’am.” Where I come from (Massachusetts, then New York), women especially are very offended when you call them “ma’am.” It makes them feel old, and seems rude. But in the South, it is a much appreciated sign of respect. I quickly learned to love these habits. I think it is adorable when the students I work with call me “Miss Allison” and it is so sweet to see people holding doors open for one another.
I recently returned to NYC to visit my college friends. I landed at La Guardia airport, hopped over to the Upper West Side to visit campus, and then caught a train to Tribeca to meet up with my friends after work. That’s when things started to go wrong. I accidentally bumped into someone in the rush to get on the express train, so I said excuse me and let him go through the door first. He just looked at me and sort of smirked. How rude!
I was fortunate enough to find a seat and, like a true New Yorker, plugged in my headphones. Looking around at the other passengers, I smiled each time I made eye contact with someone. Once again, I must reiterate, this is the WRONG THING TO DO on the New York subway. People stared back or looked away or rolled their eyes. I could almost hear them thinking “where the heck is she from?”
This is not to say that New Yorkers are mean, or that Southerners are all quaint, sweet people. Most New Yorkers often offer subway seats to people who need them, and some Southerners drive like inconsiderate maniacs. Individually, I think we are more alike than we realize. Dan Ring discussed various theories of the difference between North and South, City and Small Town, in his blog post a few weeks ago, so I will direct your attention to that post for more details. What I will say here is that I think my ideal world is a combination of the two.
Without offending anyone, I would like to say that in my experience, people in the South are definitely overtly friendlier, but perhaps also a little less hurried—which can be a wonderful quality, or a frustrating one. Meanwhile, Northerners (specifically, New Yorkers!) might not be as gregarious to strangers, but are also a little more hurried—which can be a wonderful quality, or a frustrating one.
And what’s funny is, I always identified with the pace and attitude of New Yorkers… but after only a year in the South, when I went back up to the big city, I felt like a country mouse. I had begun displaying some outward signs of Southernness… and I’m okay with that. I love New York, I love the South, and having lived in both places I am now hoping to embody the best of both worlds.
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This is my first week as the historian for the ISJL. I’ve been so warmly welcomed here—and am already finding connections between my last phase of life, and this one.
I recently completed my PhD at New York University. My focus was on church-state issues in American history, so I had to read a lot of case law. When the opportunity arose to write Jewish history for the ISJL, I jumped on it. Public history has a particular appeal to me because I feel that studying history is not just about studying the past, but also about understanding trends within current society and searching for ways to make positive change.
I was especially pleased to be given an assignment researching a rabbi by the name of Judah Wechsler for the Meridian/Lauderdale County Tourism Association. The association is interested in documenting the Jewish contribution to the Civil Rights movement in Meridian given the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom summer. Through my research, I discovered that Rabbi Wechsler became heavily involved in the issue of African American education as early as the late 19th century.
Like many small towns across the Reconstructionist South, Meridian, Mississippi, had limited free education offerings for African American children. Prior to 1871, an African American school was housed in the local Methodist church, but one of its teachers, Mr. Warren Tyler, was killed during a riot there in 1871. The other teacher, Mr. Price, was forced to leave town. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Henry McElroy and Rabbi Judah Wechsler, the school survived until 1875. Wechsler and others campaigned for a bond issue to construct the first brick public school building for African Americans.
Rabbi Wechsler actually donated $1,000 (close to $25,000 by today’s standard) of his own personal money toward the expense of the school. When the bond issue passed, Meridian’s black community asked that the new school be named in the rabbi’s honor. The Wechsler School still stands today, and is registered as a historic landmark by the National Register of Historical Places.
During the Civil Rights era, there were several instances of Southern and Northern Jews fighting for equal educational rights in Meridian and beyond. For instance, while I was in New York finishing my dissertation, I had the good fortune to get to know Mark Levy. During the summer of 1964, Mark served as a coordinator of the Meridian, MS, Freedom School.
Freedom schools were alternative free schools for African Americans set up by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to mitigate a segregated school system with little resources directed towards African American schools. Many African American children in small towns received little to no education. These schools aimed to empower African Americans in Mississippi to become active citizens and agents of social change. The progressive, experiential curriculum emphasized student-centered teaching and learning by doing.
I spoke with Mark for over three hours. He has devoted his whole life to social justice measures. His passion for tikkun olam is downright contagious. Though I met him first in New York, Mark will be here in Mississippi for the fiftieth anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom summer. This exciting event runs from June 25-29, at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Organizers expect 3,000 activists, elected officials, students, scholars, and veterans of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer to commemorate the achievements of Freedom Summer. This event isn’t just about the past, but will serve as a launching pad for social action focused on four closely-related social issues impacting minorities in Mississippi and beyond: Education, Workers Rights, Healthcare, and Voting Rights within Mississippi and the nation.
(As a further connection, Rabbi Wechsler shares a last name with my dissertation chair, Dr. Harold Wechsler of NYU, who is quite learned and also extremely warm-hearted. I could not trace a blood relationship between the two men, but they share a generous spirit. Just one more way history and community connects to our own stories!)
If you, too, are interested in connecting with living history and making the world better, the ISJL is helping coordinate complimentary special programs focusing on past and potential Jewish contributions to social justice. The event promises to be an enriching and exciting experience and all of us at ISJL encourage you to come. More details are here. I hope to see you in Mississippi!
When you’re not “from” the South, you have to get used to a few things when you move down here. There are the dialect differences, obviously. If you’re Jewish and have only lived up North, you do notice the Bible Belt culture quite a bit, too. And if you’re a sports fan, well – there’s even more culture shock to deal with!
Some people say home is where your heart is, or where your family is, and that may be true – but for me home is also where my teams are. I am a serious Boston sports fan. I am now living outside the area generally defined as “Red Sox Nation,” so there aren’t as many Sox or Pats fans around as I’m used to. During important sporting events, I feel a little far from home.
However, I am still as obnoxious a fan as ever.
I wore my New England Patriots t-shirt all season, and I enact all my game-day superstitions even in this hostile Southern territory. My family has a tradition that when the Patriots are playing badly, we rearrange how we’re sitting in the hopes that the change in our feng shui might positively affect the outcome of the game.
I have not hesitated to continue this practice in sports watching venues here in Mississippi. Much to my surprise, I even persuaded some of my friends to join me on this bandwagon.
One very telling moment was during the October 13th Patriots-Saints game. The New Orleans Saints are the geographically closest NFL team to Jackson, so most people here root for them. I was a lonely island in a sea of New Orleans fans watching this game at our local sports bar. Let me tell you, it’s a little scary to be “that fan” cheering for the team everyone else in the restaurant is rooting against. And I cheer loudly. But everyone still got along nicely. Maybe it’s part of that southern hospitality thing, but people here are still nice to you even when you root against the Saints.
The biggest challenge for me has been surviving in a land that loves Peyton Manning. You might have heard that Archie Manning (Peyton’s father) is from Drew, Mississippi, and this state seems to always root for him and his sons. I am not a fan of the Mannings. They’re probably very nice people and they all seem to be talented athletes but I am on the Tom Brady side of the Manning-Brady rivalry, thank you very much. Our loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship was therefore particularly disappointing.
The Super Bowl presented its own special challenge. After the Patriots lost the AFC championship, I had to decide who to cheer for in the Super Bowl. Since Peyton Manning is the Broncos’ Quarterback, I knew everyone here would root for them. Should I also root for Denver, because the people around me would be and I wanted my friends to be happy? Or should I stay true to my team and root against Peyton? In the end I was pretty happy the Seahawks emerged victorious, but I had a little more empathy for Mr. Manning, too.
Now that football season has drawn to a close, I am looking forward to more Southern Sports Education. It looks like NHL is not as big a deal here as it is back home (shocker!) but I think I will learn a lot about college basketball this season instead. College sports are, in general, a way bigger deal here than up north and I am enjoying gathering new allegiances for teams in the SEC. Rooting for newly discovered teams here has made this feel more like home, and that is something I can definitely cheer for…
But don’t worry, fellow Patriots and citizens of Red Sox Nation: I’m still a Boston fan first, and always!
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