Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
When I tell people that I live in Jackson, Mississippi, they often remark on how “different” it must be from where I grew up. “Different” in this context is loaded with the implicit understanding that what the word really means is worse; the sentiment being expressed is that Jackson is not a great place to live. People wonder why I would choose to come to a place like Jackson.
But I recently went home to visit my family, and while there I realized that Jackson’s feeling of community and its strong revitalization efforts are actually much more successful than what has been happening in my hometown. I grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania. Our biggest claims to fame include the Reading Railroad on the Monopoly board, being the hometown of Taylor Swift, and being the death place of John Philip Sousa. The most recent census revealed that Reading has the highest share of residents in poverty in the United States.
The most telling part of Reading’s downfall is that the Reading Railroad no longer actually runs; the station has been closed since 1929. Just like Jackson sits halfway between the larger cities of Memphis and New Orleans, Reading is strategically located between New York City and Philadelphia. However, these days no commuter train runs through the city, and the nearest Amtrak station is an hour away.
Jackson and Reading also have similar Jewish communities. Reading’s Reform congregation was founded just four years after Jackson’s synagogue, and Jews are definitely a minority in both places. I grew up being one of the only Jewish kids in my school. I had to write a lot of letters to Santa, and explain to people why I did not go to church. Though I grew up in the north, I have a strong connection with the students I serve in our southern region.
Similarly, I feel a strong connection to the city of Jackson because it is a city down on its luck, just like Reading. The “difference” between these two historically important cities is that Jackson is doing a better job at coming back to life. There is always a new restaurant opening up or a community event to go to. It was recently named one of the nation’s best cities for artists. In Reading, they are trying to have a similar revival, but they seem to be lacking that strong sense of community that you find when you go to Fondren First Thursday, or Screen on the Green at the Mississippi Museum of Art. Reading is trying to rebrand its downtown by bringing in attractions like an ice hockey arena and an IMAX theater. But the reality is that the middle class that left the city has little interest in working to rejuvenate it. There is no neighborhood like Fondren where people have created a place for artists, local businesses, and citizens to coexist.
Nevertheless, I found glimmers of hope for Reading on my last trip home. There was a new local brewery, my mom is going to a yoga class on the top of an old hotel in the city (the same hotel where my parents had their wedding reception AND where John Philip Sousa died), and I heard about a free community theater performance of “Hairspray” that is going to happen in an outside venue this month. While things are looking up for both cities, I hope that people looking to make positive changes in Reading, look to Jackson as an example of how to create local economic change. Because it IS “different” here — different, in a good way.