“Do you live in the same place where you were raised?”
The ISJL’s founder, Macy B. Hart, likes to ask people that question. He asked it of me, and like so many others, I had to say no.
I was born in Texas and have lived in many different states—California, Virginia, Maine, Michigan, Connecticut, New York, and now, Mississippi. I recently found this New York Times article, which shows where we came from, state by state, since 1900. As a historian, it fascinated me, and I wanted to share it with our readers here.
In 1900, 86% of Mississippians were born in Mississippi. By 2012, that number dropped to 72% — which is still higher than a lot of states, such as Texas, where only 61% of Texans originally hailing from the state.
The number of native born Mississippian Jews has declined precipitously. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews spread themselves throughout the state. In 1937, Jews lived in 107 different Mississippi towns. It reached its peak in 1927, with 6,420 Jews. Since then, it has declined steadily. In 2012, only 1,500 Jews lived in Mississippi, with Jackson having the largest community. The generation of Jewish merchants produced children who became college-educated professionals and had little interest in taking over family businesses. The decline of Mississippi’s rural economy and the rise of national retail chains have also pushed Mississippi Jews to such booming Sunbelt cities as Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston.
I never expected to live in Mississippi, but I am so glad to be here and to call Jackson my home. The Jewish community here has been more than welcoming. It is a testament to the fact that despite their small size, Mississippi Jews continue to identify with their heritage, and have kept Judaism alive in the Magnolia State.
Wherever they may end up living, Southern Jews are proud of their heritage. As a native Southern Jew, I am honored to be able to tell those stories. So what about you? Do you or your other family members have Southern roots? I am curious to hear from all of our readers about their journeys so I can continue to share them on our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish communities.
Y’all don’t be shy now!
When I see the word “Palestine,” a number of images come to mind: questions regarding borders, refugees, the city of Jerusalem, and more Middle Eastern musings. But from now on, when I read or hear the word “Palestine,” I’ll think of something else as well. I’ll think of a small town – Palestine, Texas – and a man named Sam who owns a diner there.
This Friday, I was on my way to Waco, Texas to visit Congregation Agudath Jacob. Around 1:00 or so, my fellow Education Fellow Allison Poirier and I saw the official “Welcome to Palestine” sign on the side of the road! Needless to say, we were quite pleased with the name of this town. We made a few other nerdy Jewish Educator jokes related to the town’s name, but we soon realized that we were quite hungry. We decided to stop at the Dogwood Diner for lunch.
After ordering, a man walked over to our table. As occasionally happens for me, since I wear a kippah every day, he exclaimed: “That’s a Yarmulke, right?”
I replied that indeed it was! I always enjoy interactions like this, where I get to briefly explain why it is meaningful for me to wear this funny-looking Jewish hat, but I was in for a surprise this time around…
This man was Sam, owner of the diner. He explained that his ex-wife was Jewish. Years ago, Sam sent his children to a Jewish school in Dallas. Sam knew all about the Jewish community of Palestine, TX. He told us about a Jewish cemetery located right down the road, explained that there had been a congregation nearby until about a decade ago, and had a number of other interesting stories to share with us.
But Sam left us with more than just stories. He provided us an important insight as well. After a few minutes of conversation, Sam said to us, “Ya know, I grew up Muslim, reading the Qur’an. Then I married a Jew and learned about the Torah. And recently I’ve learned more about Christianity, and I’ve read the Bible. They’re really not so different.”
I did not realize that, upon walking into the Dogwood Diner, I would hear such important words of wisdom. We get bogged down in the differences between some of our religious traditions sometimes. And let’s be clear – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and every other world religion really are unique, and to say simply “they’re all basically the same” would be misguided. But we do share quite a bit in common. Monotheism is a common tenet, and Moshe (or Moses, or Musa) is viewed as a prophet by all three.
It is easy to lose track of our similarities sometimes, as we focus on what separates Jews from other religions – and even what separates one particular group of Jews from another. But we really do possess a number of common characteristics with other world religions. Sometimes we just need someone to remind us of that. Thankfully, I had Sam.
We find wisdom in unexpected places. Of course, somebody had inspired me with their thoughts about religion while I was in Palestine, Texas. With a town-name like that, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.
With residents mostly emigrating from colder climates, my hometown really is a Southern (geographically) and Northern (cultural) fusion. Nicknamed “Paradise,” Sarasota, Florida’s motto boasts “Big City Amenities Meets Small Town Living.”
The town has plenty of personality with its big-meets-small mentality, beaches, and population. If you land in the airport, you’ll find a shark tank to greet you just outside of TSA Security. The “small town living” note on the sign should really say “small beach town living,” since Sarasota boasts one of the USA’s consistently best-rated beaches. Its affluent nature no doubt relates to the culture that John Ringling helped infuse into the society.
While travelling recently to a community on a rabbinic visit, I encountered another city with a very clear, yet completely different identity: Kilgore, Texas.
I had the pleasure of driving over from Longview after my visit had concluded to play a round of golf with some fellow golf-obsessed Nice Jewish Boys. Titled the “city of stars,” it’s not for astronomical or astrological reasons. Instead, it’s due to the discovery of oil in 1930. The “stars” to which it refers are the tops of oil derricks.
Never had I entered a city whose identity is so clearly played out virtually everywhere you go. As you drive in, instead of a shark tank, you are greeted by a giant oil derricks holding up the road sign. Immediately following is another oil derrick with the welcome sign… on which stands yet another oil derrick. I stopped in Circle K to grab a Gatorade to stay hydrated— lo and behold, an oil derrick was a column holding up the front overhang.
When I pumped my gas on the way out of town, I noticed that even the liquor store’s sign was modeled after the oil derrick. There’s something important about a town’s history, identity, and culture from what they make sure you notice while you’re there.
Whether it’s beaches or bohemian flair, olive trees or oil derricks, all towns are built around something. I will certainly pay more attention to the cities I enter from now on, looking for these markers that help explain who they are. It’s all part of hitting the road and really getting to know the communities we visit.
For what is your city best known?
Does it have a slogan?
How does its identity on display as you wander the streets?