“Do you know a rabbi by the name of Abraham Joshua Heschel?”
The question was asked of me by Jean Jackson, a life-long resident of Selma, Alabama.
I was setting up in Selma that hot August Saturday preparing to officiate a Bar Mitzvah, and was a little caught off guard by the inquiry. I replied:
“I didn’t know him personally. But, who doesn’t know his enduring words from this very town, where he marched with Dr. King? In recollecting on that moment, he said his ‘feet were praying.’”
“Well,” Ms. Jackson responded, “when they weren’t praying, they were resting at my home. I hosted him for the night and the next morning I saw one of the most amazing sights these eyes of mine have ever seen.”
I grabbed my colleague Rabbi Matt Dreffin who was on the road with me for that trip, and together we listened to her enthralling tale:
The Rabbi came into my living room, where the Russian Orthodox Priest (also staying at our home) was sitting. They nodded to one another in reverent silence. Then the Rabbi put his prayer book on my mantle and recited his morning prayers. All the while, the Priest listened intently, prayerfully. When the Rabbi finished, he closed his book and took a seat. Then, the Priest stood up, went to the mantle laid out his religious items and opened his prayer book. He too recited his morning prayers, while the Rabbi sat there, intently, prayerfully, taking it all in.
Picturing this historic scene, we were mesmerized by her words. When she went silent for a moment, the real world returned, along with the warm, stiff Southern air in the synagogue building that had no air conditioning.
Then, Ms. Jackson added: “So, don’t tell me religions cant’s get along!”
I assured her I wouldn’t dare. After all, Heschel’s host had just reminded me of the powerful changes that happen when strong interfaith guests, hosts, and partners in progress come together in places like Selma, Alabama.
My name is Ann Zivitz Kimball, and I’m a proud Southern Jew.
Since “Southern & Jewish” is the name of this blog, and also a good description of me, I thought for my first blog post here that I’d share a little of my own story and perspective on the whole “Southern & Jewish” phenomenon.
My Southern roots are in Alabama and Louisiana (though I now live in Mississippi). Both sides of my family are from Mobile, Alabama, where my paternal grandmother was one of 9 children born to Polish/Austrian immigrants, Anne and Isadore Prince. She married my merchant grandfather. My maternal grandmother, a second-generation American born in Memphis, Tennessee, married my German immigrant grandfather who had settled in Alabama. My parents, Harrel & Betty Zivitz, married young at the Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile, had 3 girls, and moved to Metairie, Louisiana.
I grew up in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. The Jewish population of the city was largely concentrated in the Uptown and Lakeview areas, because that is where the synagogues were located. In the suburbs, at that time, almost no one else was Jewish. But most of my parents’ closest friends were from Temple, and our families were often together, so I had Jewish friends. By virtue of my mother, our family was very active at Temple and I ended up involved in youth group and URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp (my home away from home). Friday nights and Sunday mornings during the school year, my family made the “journey” to Temple Sinai in New Orleans. It was only a 20–30 minute trek, but as a kid it seemed like forever. During the week, my two younger sisters and I attended public school just like everyone else in our neighborhoods, other than the Catholic kids. On average, there were only 2 to 4 other Jewish kids in my grade.
As a Southern & Jewish kid, I grew accustomed to answering questions about Judaism, and to having friends “pray for me,” but I very rarely encountered anything that I would call anti-Semitism. The very few times I remember any incidents were pretty minor: kids repeating stuff they heard older folks saying, without any real understanding. Ignorance, but not hatred.
As far as Jewish life in New Orleans, the city has maintained (pre- and post-Katrina) a thriving small/midsized community of about 10,000 Jews. There are 4 Reform, 1 Conservative, 2 Orthodox and 2 Chabad congregations, a small community day school, a large Jewish Community Center in New Orleans proper, and now a medium sized JCC in the suburbs – since, these days, there are more Jewish families living in the suburbs than when I was growing up.
I didn’t always think of New Orleans as “thriving,” though. I attended college at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. I chose it for its dance program. Upon arriving at my dorm, I was greeted by a cadre of girls from small towns in Texas – and for the vast majority of them, I was the first Jewish person they had ever met!
I then realized that New Orleans, a place I had always considered a fairly small Jewish community, is a thriving Jewish metropolis when compared to truly small Southern towns. Beaumont showed me what a small Jewish community really looks like, as I attended the local synagogue and discovered Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews sharing a building.
My work at the ISJL truly goes hand in hand with my personal Southern & Jewish background. I “get it” when a rabbi tells me he is hoping to get a minyan for Shabbat, or a synagogue board member needs guidance on how to make a fundraiser work, or the volunteer spending hours of time promoting an event at Temple needs some extra support. We Southern Jews need to stick together, and support one another – while also maintaining the active role we’ve always played in our larger community.
That’s the Southern & Jewish way.
What do you think? Are you “Southern & Jewish”? Please feel free to share comments and stories about your own experiences. Both identities are so rich, the conversations are always intriguing!