Whenever I get ready to go on a long research trip, I put together a detailed itinerary, listing each library, synagogue, and cemetery I plan to visit, as well as the people I will interview or with whom I plan to meet. I make sure to add addresses, contact numbers, and hotel and rental car confirmation numbers. Once all this information is compiled, I start working on my favorite part of the trip: figuring out where I am going to eat each day.
It’s not unusual for me to spend twice as much time combing through reviews on Urbanspoon or Roadfood.com than reading through libraries’ online catalogs. Of course, I spend far more time in the archives than in restaurants, but one of the perks of my job is the chance to become an expert on regional southern cuisine. For me, this opportunity has become a serious responsibility!
Whenever I’m on the road, I try to find out about the unique regional specialties, from hot tamales in the Mississippi Delta or dry rubbed beef brisket in central Texas, to burgoo in western Kentucky. Once, when I was visiting Laredo and other Jewish communities along the Texas-Mexico border, I spent hours figuring out precisely which Mexican restaurants offered the most authentic and tastiest version of the local cuisine. I would hate to visit a town and miss the best place to eat.
But sometimes, I must take into account other considerations. When I recently traveled to western Kentucky, I was faced with the prospect of eating mutton barbecue for three days straight. Since I’ve entered my 40s, I knew that such a schedule would wreak havoc on my archive productivity (not to mention my digestive system!). So I mixed in an occasional salad and bought fruit at a local grocery store for healthy snacks. Finding green things to eat can be a challenge on the road.
One of the effects of the Immigration Act of 1965 – the most underrated federal law of the past 50 years, if you ask me – is the spread of Asian immigrants to cities and towns around the country. I have learned to scout out Asian restaurants in unusual places. I have had amazing Vietnamese pho in Oklahoma City and great pad thai in Paducah, Kentucky.
In preparation for a trip to Virginia two weeks ago, I was most excited to eat at Peter Chang’s, a new restaurant recently opened by the famous peripatetic master of Chinese cuisine, whose sudden disappearances and movements have been tracked by foodies across the country, including Calvin Trillin in the New Yorker magazine. Chang has recently opened restaurants in Charlottesville, Richmond, and Williamsburg – three cities I just happened to be visiting.
While I can assure you this was a coincidence, I’ll happily admit that his restaurants graced my itinerary three times over a four day stretch.
What are your favorite Southern specialties? What about out-of-region surprises?
On a recent pit stop I made in a rural part of Tennessee, I found an unexpected statement. There, in the “middle-of-somewhere,” I came across a plastic toilet-paper dispenser with the words “The Jew Was Here” scrawled across it. Seeing this scrawl, a question barked at me.
But “ Why in the world…?!” was not the question I heard.
After all, when you see a simple message like that, why ask why? It seems human enough to want to leave a lasting mark on this world, so that when our finite lives come to their inescapable end, something of us will remain, something that says: “I was here. I mattered.”
However, a statement like “The Jew Was Here,” left on a roadside toilet-paper dispenser may not be the lasting message we desire. Those who come later will undoubtedly question: “What does it say about the person who was here, some person now gone?”
Does it say that his/her life was as fragile as single-ply or simply went round and round until it finally went down?
Clearly, not! And the reason I’m dead certain of this is because the entirety of anyone’s life cannot be captured in such a quick scribble as “I was here.” Rather, to adequately gain a glimpse of our existence, one must look to things more lasting. We must look to the children we teach, and the love we share, and the lessons we impart. We must look to our communities strengthened and our contributions made. Those places are where the impression of us remains, and will – God willing – continue to be seen for generations to come.
So, in the public restroom in Tennessee, the question I walked out of the stall with was not “why” but “what?”
What shall be the mark we will leave? Shall it be a scrawled graffiti scar, which time (and a little elbow-grease) will eventually erase? Or, will it be a work of art, celebrated throughout the ages?
That is up to you. After all, your life is a pen, moving over the living, breathing text known as the world. So, please, step right up and leave your mark, because you are here… and you matter!
Over the last few months, I had the pleasure of working to put together a Southern Jewish Heritage tour for a group of Prozdor high school students from the Boston area. Using our resources and contacts in the region, we were able to create an itinerary through Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham that introduced these students not only to the South, but also to the role that Jewish communities played in this region’s history, particularly during the Civil Rights Movement. Below is a story written by one of the trip participants, re-posted from Prozdor Heads South, a blog that the students collaboratively maintained during their trip.
Yesterday we visited Auburn, Alabama, and Beth Shalom – the only temple in east Alabama. We were greeted by Mike Friedman, who immediately offered us food, and lots of it. He then began to speak to us about the history of the temple, his life, and the Auburn Jewish community.
Mike repeatedly mentioned that his story was also the synagogue’s story. He is originally from New York, but throughout his life, he and his wife moved around a lot, eventually ending up in Alabama.
My favorite part of the visit was hearing about his leadership skills. The Auburn Jewish community consists of about 35 families. He was the one that got the synagogue started, but more importantly, he was the one who kept it going. He is not a “certified” rabbi, but he explained that in the sense of teaching a community, he is a rabbi.
Beth Shalom is a Reform temple, which runs services weekly. The fact that he has kept the synagogue going for years is inspirational. They hold high holiday services, Passover Seders, Purim parties, and much more.
This experience left me with a new sense of profound appreciation for the Jewish community I am surrounded by in Needham. I find that often it is easy to take advantage of the fact that we all have close knit and supportive Jewish communities back in Boston. Mike had the courage to get one going and recruit others to keep the sense of community alive.
Just before leaving, he said, and I quote, “Someone has got to lead.”
This resonated strongly with me. I often feel this way about different aspects of my life, especially USY. My chapter started out small, but we have grown into a strong and great chapter with great leaders. There is still room to grow, but the fact that we have come so far is amazing.
Personally, this was the highlight of my trip and I am grateful that Prozdor has given me this opportunity.
We are so glad that this group was able to receive true Southern hospitality from a variety of hosts along the way, and we hope they will value their experiences here for years to come. If your group is interested in creating a similar trip, you can find more information on the ISJL website.