The following thoughts come to us from Education Fellow Erin Kahal.
A few weeks ago, another Education Fellow, Sam Kahan, and I were at the end of several back-to-back summer visits that took us on a whirlwind six day trip through Virginia and Arkansas.
We had a blast with each of our congregations, but we were exhausted since this was also the last round of a month of non-stop travel. We were standing in the Atlanta airport when Sam looked at me and asked, “Where are we? What state are we in right now?!”
I looked back at her, unsure, and we both started giggling hysterically. Our laughter continued for several minutes, even as strangers gave us awkward glances. I enjoyed the fact that this moment was a typical event in the life of an ISJL Education Fellow. The embarrassing scene provided me with great relief, but it also reflects my journey toward discovering my own joy working for the ISJL. The fellowship is challenging at times, but I have learned to harness a sense of happiness through laughter.
As soon as I heard of the fellowship, I knew the job was the perfect for me. I did not realize, though, how challenging it would be to jump straight out of school and into the working world. At first, I felt homesick and unsure of my exact role as a part of an amazing staff comprised of outstanding individuals from all over the country. However, as soon as I started going on my visits, I overcame my fears. I discovered just how much I love department brainstorming, leading and writing programs, and interacting with the wonderful people in all of my communities. In turn, my newfound confidence allowed me to discover my own sense of joy in the job.
We take our roles very seriously at the ISJL, but we also laugh together as a way to bond as a team and cope with everyday demands. My supervisor, Education Director Rachel Stern, guided me in this process by helping me to remain positive in the work I was doing. One way that she did that was by encouraging me to create a “Blue Folder” that contains all of my saved emails from communities that reflect my achievements; that way, I have something to cheer me up whenever I needed encouragement. As I began to feel more at ease in my job, I learned that my own happiness has a direct impact on my performance and on my community members. Enthusiasm is contagious, and being around so many different people throughout the South has allowed me to discover the ripple effects of positive thinking.
Earlier this year, Rachel proposed that we create a program dedicated to the joy of teaching, and her thoughts eventually turned into a session for one of the keynotes at our 2012 Education Conference. Afterward, I reformatted the talk as a program that we can take it on the road for summer visits. The lesson provides a serious analysis on joy, but it ends on a comical note, which you can watch below.
Leading this session, I have witnessed firsthand how simple laughter can transform the energy of a room. In Atlanta, it transformed my experience of the airport. Education fellows, like so many people, keep hectic schedules. Airports, roads, and rest stops often blur together, but it helps tremendously to hold fast to our enthusiasm. At times, I may forget my location, but when I stop to laugh and smile, I remember my place: serving the people of our congregations.
As Reb Nahman of Bratslav said: “Mitzvah gedolah lihyot besimchah tamid! (It’s a great mitzvah to be happy always!)”
So, how do you find joy in your daily life?
“a journey to a place associated with someone or something well known or respected”
(The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English)
Over the summer, every ISJL Education Fellow visits each of “our communities” – the 6-7 congregations we each serve, throughout the region. The summer visits are brief, and may take the form of an evening program, or just an hour to meet with the religious school director or synagogue president. Though the meetings are short, they’re often far away – and that means we are in the car quite a bit.
On those long drives, it’s important to take a break now and then. As a history buff, I try to make sure that those breaks include visits to historical sites. On a recent trip, my companions and I (we often travel in groups for summer visits) decided to eat lunch in Selma, Alabama. I didn’t know it then, but the brief stop would turn into my own unexpected, unplanned pilgrimage.
Entering Selma, we drove over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I knew the bridge was famous, so we pulled over to take a picture. I remembered that it had something to do with a march during the Civil Rights Movement, but I wasn’t clear on the specifics. Reading the signs, I learned that the bridge was the scene of the Selma to Montgomery march and “Bloody Sunday.” It dawned on me that Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and Abraham Joshua Heschel had all marched over this bridge in their attempt to create a just and free society in America. It was this bridge Heschel spoke of when he described acts of social justice as “praying with our feet.” I thought about it a little bit, but feeling touristy, I just walked over the bridge, took some photos and moved on.
Over lunch I had the idea to investigate the Selma synagogue. I knew it was there, and, after looking it up, realized it was less than a mile from where we were eating.
After a bit of searching, we spied a circular window with a large Jewish star smack dab in the middle. We parked in the grassy driveway and got out to look around. Once again, we took some pictures, walked around, and got back in the car and left.
Mulling it over later, I realized that visiting these two very different locations made up an unofficial, unplanned pilgrimage. Together, the two sites reflect the spirit of humanity, the power of dedicated people to come together and accomplish big things.
Sure, the synagogue is a beautiful old building constructed in 1899. But it symbolizes something bigger: the power of Jewish community to sustain itself and thrive anywhere. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like for a European Jewish immigrant to arrive and settle in Selma in the 1890s – but I am confident that it must not have been an easy transition. It took courage, chutzpah, dedication, and community, to build and sustain a synagogue like this, especially in the Deep South, far away from much of the Jewish world.
Likewise, it took courage, chutzpah, dedication, and community, for those civil rights activists and ordinary people in the 1960s to march across the bridge, facing armed Alabama lawmen determined to stop them from creating change. Their efforts helped to develop the society we live in today.
Pilgrimages are supposed to inspire us, to help us become better people and to give us goals to strive for. My unexpected pilgrimage did just that. I hope that, perhaps, in my next two years as an ISJL Education Fellow, I can emulate the courage, chutzpah, and dedication of these amazing individuals as I help to maintain and support our Southern Jewish community.
At the little public library in Hartshorne, Oklahoma, I see a man wearing a camouflage-patterned Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. baseball cap and a beat-up t-shirt. This is James Kurilko, and he is about to become our guide. Hearing Stuart, the ISJL historian, asking for scrolls of microfilm, Jim headed our way.
Jim’s the local genealogist, it turns out, born and raised in Hartshorne, a descendent of coal miners who settled in the area about a century ago. His people were Lemkos, not quite Polish and not quite Russian, who fled Galicia because they didn’t fit. His grandparents “came here because they were running from the law;” coal mining is not the kind of work a person chooses.
“They were a minority within a minority,” he said.
Maybe that’s why he was so interested in our work. When we told him we were looking to learn about the Jews of Hartshorne, he started pulling books from the shelves, rattling off names, and dialing the local historian, seemingly all at once.
But there was one thing we couldn’t get at the library: a Jewish star, carved in stone. Abby, the other history intern, and I hopped—okay, scrambled—into the rental car and followed Jim’s pick-up truck to the cemetery. Just past the graves of his grandparents, Asafatha and Rosie Kurilko, and amid Orthodox crosses marked by an extra slash, was the grave of a World War II veteran with the unlikely name Domingo C Lazoya—but the Jewish star was unmistakable.
On the way back to the library Jim took us by the storefront that used to house The New York Store, a name often used by Jewish merchants to evoke urban high fashion, and the house where Rosenbergs, a prominent Jewish family, used to live. Even riddled with rotting boards and peeling paint, the gingerbread fallen, the porch was somehow grand. “There’s a hallway running north-south through the center of the house,” Jim said, “Called a dog-walk. Lots of southern homes have them, to let the wind through in the summertime and keep the house cool.”
A woman walked out onto the porch, face impassive, staring us down. Though we were close enough to hear her, she didn’t move to speak, only waited until we had gone. Strangers stopping in the street to talk over the place where you live, to photograph it, doesn’t happen much in Hartshorne. It’s a city of 2,000 people, so even one strange face is noticeable.
We got back in our cars and returned to the air-conditioned hum of the library, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the woman on the porch. Her physical presence meant nothing to the historical context that had overlayed the house as I looked at it, and she had no way of knowing that I wasn’t peering in at her life, but at what had been. The house’s history was evident in the sag of the porch, and knowing the name of the family who had lived there made it easier for me not to see the people who do now. Jim kept talking about Lemkos—the word is even in his email address—because he’s afraid they’ll be forgotten in the easy melt of history.
That’s what the ISJL’s encyclopedia project is about, of course. Though I’m researching the history of the Southern Jews, the fact is that the lives of Jews have always intersected with those of their neighbors. I’m not part of this place’s history—my people settled up North and stayed there—which makes it easier to forget its present. Peering into people’s lives can look too much like snooping while they’re still alive. When interviewing one family, Stuart, Abby, and I learned things we’d never expected about the loss of their child and great present pain.
For me, the human stories—the vignettes—are what make history readable and compelling, but that family’s story is something I’d never put in the town’s Jewish history. At the same time, I can’t wait to tell about the merchants who lived gloomy, reclusive lives in a hotel room in Ada, or the wife and daughter who were trapped in Russia by the outbreak of World War II. Where’s the distinction? It’s too easy to miss it, to give in to the writer’s or historian’s impulse to value stories above the people who tell them. But the truth is that I’m as foreign to the emotional landscapes of others as I am to the plains of Oklahoma—which even to most Southerners wouldn’t qualify as home— though I can tell you that at least one lies in the liminal space between South and Midwest, history and present.
When we pulled out of the library parking lot in Hartshorne, racing to an interview in another Oklahoma town, Wilburton, Jim shook our hands, urging us to look him up if we ever made it back to Southeastern Oklahoma. I hope I’ll have the chance, though I can’t say it’s likely. But if storytelling is as close to history as I think it to be, I hope telling what he offered is a kind of acceptance; if I could write the story differently, I’d be there right now.
This blog was written by Diana Clarke, who spent this summer as an intern at the ISJL, working in our History Department. Alongside fellow History Intern Abby Klionsky (who took the photographs featured in this blog, other than the one Stuart snapped here of the two of them enjoying some Braum’s ice cream while on the road), she assisted Dr. Stuart Rockoff in researching and writing histories on Jewish communities in Oklahoma. This fall, Diana begins her senior year of studies at Columbia University in New York.