Jackson, Mississippi has one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parades in the country. This Saturday, 70,000(!) people will line the streets downtown, cheering for beads and dancing to the sounds of marching bands as dozens of floats ride down the streets.
What is inspiring all the hoopla? Well, it isn’t a large Irish population. I mean, I’ve been to the Southie parade in Boston, I’ve seen a lot of Irish people with a lot of Irish pride. Jackson isn’t Boston. Don’t get me wrong, there is a wonderful Irish community in Mississippi that puts on a world-class Celtic Fest every fall, and Fenian’s, the local Irish pub, it a main spot for St. Patty’s celebrations after the parade, but the size of the parade is not representative of the size of the community.
The Jackson parade is not an specifically ethnic celebration, but 30 years ago a small caravan of revelers were inspired by the American tradition of marking this particular holiday with public festivity. They started a small parade, which has grown more into Jackson’s own version of Mardi Gras than a genuine St. Patrick’s celebration… BUT it’s scheduled to fall on St. Pat’s weekend, NOT Mardi Gras, and thus voila: I can totally use it for my segue into Irish immigrants in the mid 19th century… and some Jewish connections!
The O’Tux Society,
Being Irish in America wasn’t always so festive. Irish immigrants were once one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the country when the Irish famine in the 1850s sent a massive wave of immigrants into Northern cities. In her chapter in Ethnic Heritage of Mississippi, Celeste Ray writes, “Whereas in northern cities large numbers of Irish immigrants faced discrimination and banded together into their own communities, Irish immigrants to Mississippi came in smaller numbers and assimilated into southern culture.”
Sound familiar? It’s important to note that like Jewish immigrants, through assimilation the Irish were able to build successful relationships and businesses in the area. By the time Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With The Wind in 1936, the Irish had become such an accepted part of the American South that it was not considered unusual for plantation owner Gerald O’Hara to be an Irish Catholic. Their traditions, like St. Patrick’s Day, became a part of American popular culture.
I’ve written a lot about cultural connections and Jewish outreach in the blog. Many of the communities in the South sponsor events that invite their neighborhoods to join in Jewish celebrations like a Hannukah party, Passover Seder, Sisterhood Bazzar or Deli Luncheon. Everyone who comes gets a positive, and usually delicious, Jewish cultural experience and makes connections to their own heritage. Even the best of Purim parties don’t get quite as rowdy at a St. Patty’s parade, but the sentiment is similar.
So this Saturday, with my green bows, beads, and beers, I will be reminded of the Irish community who found a home in this country and show my appreciation for the culture they brought with them that inspires these types of community celebrations today.
I love getting to share my Jewish traditions with friends here – but this Nice Jewish Girl also loves getting to share in other cultural traditions, and be part of celebrating the glorious fusion of cultures coming together. And there’s just nothing quite like St. Patrick’s Day in Jackson, Mississippi.
Happy St. Patty’s Day, y’all!
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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The parades of Mardi Gras are a communal event. It isn’t unusual for folks to begin gathering in their favorite spot a couple of hours before the parades begin. There are two highly identifiable sides that one stands on: the neutral ground side (otherwise known as the median) and the sidewalk side. Each swells with people as the natural socialization begins and it is a sweet time for everyone.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what color or religion you are, what you drive or what you do for a living, or where you went to school, or any of the normal social barriers that keep us apart. We are all there for the same joyous reason, to celebrate and enjoy.
It is near impossible to talk on a cell phone and hear because of the noise. The internet is painfully slow, with thousands of people in a small, dense area. And anyway, if you look down to text, you are going to miss something. So, miracle of miracles – most of us put it all away and live in that moment, which is a rare privilege these days!
I could say that the “sacred time” notion, away from phones and fully present, is enough of a Jewish moment at Mardi Gras. But there’s so much more. In fact, Mardi Gras makes me think each year of my favorite Torah portion, Nitzavim, and these words in particular:
“ You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer — to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day….”
I imagine each year, that this is the closest that I will get to feeling that kind of diversity, all standing together for a common gift! No, the gift itself isn’t as formally holy as the gift in Nitzavim. Of course not. But what could be more holy than brothers and sisters standing together as equals in peace, love and joy?
By the way, yes, we all know that the roots of Mardi Gras are Catholic, with this celebration emerging as the last hurrah after Lent before the Easter holiday. But culturally, as a New Orleanian, I know well that contemporary Mardi Gras celebrations are truly for everyone to enjoy. Did you know that the first King of Rex (King of Mardi Gras), Louis Soloman, was Jewish? And that there’s a full-blown Jewish Mardi Gras Krewe?
So maybe your Mardi Gras experience could be a bit more Jewish than you think. Mine certainly is, year after year.
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