How Did This Nice Northern Catholic Boy Become Part of The Southern Jewish World?

My roommate Peter is neither Southern nor Jewish… and yet he somehow found himself an active part of Mississippi’s Southern and Jewish community.

Peter grew up outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and went to college at the George Washington University in Washington DC. I went to school on the other side of DC at American University, but we did not meet until we both moved to Jackson — me, for the ISJL Education Fellowship, and Peter to work for Teach for America. Over the past two years, Peter has become one of my closest friends, and he recently told me about a professor he had in college who basically predicted our friendship. This gave me an idea for a blog… so enjoy my interview with Peter about how a Nice Northern Catholic Boy found himself in the Southern Jewish community!

Q: Okay. Tell me more about your professor who first told you about Southern Jews.

A: Professor Fran Bundtman is a sociology professor at George Washington University, and she was a reference for me for Teach for America. I went to her office to thank her and to tell her that I did indeed get the job. I told her I was moving to Mississippi and she said, almost immediately, “Oh, you are going to hang out with Jews there!”

READ: The Catholic Mentsch Teaching Jewish Sunday School in the Mississippi Delta

She’s from South Africa and did her graduate work at the University of Texas, and her work took her to places like Waco, you know the very Texas parts of Texas. She said that she interacted a lot on a social level with the Jewish community when she was in these areas. I think it was kind of an implication that the Jews of the South are kind of more open (than the general Southern population). Coming from the North, you feel like a real outsider when you are in the South because the culture is so different. But the Jews of the South, by her postulation, are an easier group to get “in” with. I had no idea just how prescient that prediction of hers would prove to be!

Q: When was your first realization that Professor Bundtman was right?

A: When I got here as Teach for America, there was Institute (initial training and orientation for TFA teachers). Teach for America has a high amount of Jewish corps members, relative to the population of the United States, and my first two roommates were Jewish. It didn’t dawn on me right then but as the year went on I thought ‘Oh my God, Professor Bundtman was right!’ And then the next year I moved to a different house and I have three roommates, all of whom are Jewish… so that means in two years of living in Mississippi, I’ve had five roommates all Jewish, and it’s been great.

Q: Besides your roommates, how else do you interact with the Mississippi Jewish community?

A: I interact with the Mississippi Jewish community mostly through my roommates, that’s my point of entry. I’ve gone to a Hanukkah gathering, (celebrated) a Shabbat, and recently I went up to Greenville for the Delta Jewish Open.

Q: What was your experience like at the Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville when you went up there for the golf open?

A: It was wonderful. Once again, wildly open. Dinner was really the memorable part. When I was sitting in the social hall of the synagogue, surrounded by Delta Jews, I really felt particularly “outside,” but also totally welcome and everyone couldn’t have been kinder. All I could think was “Lord, Professor Bundtman had no idea, just how much she called this one.” At that moment I was waist deep in Southern Jewish culture.

Q: How would you describe Southern and Jewish culture, historically, based on your experiences and conversations?

A: Hearing about the rabbi of the Greenville synagogue who wrote a letter of opposition to Martin Luther King speaking (in the Delta in the 1960s) — I found that really interesting, because it just showed that the South in of itself is this utterly murky sort of convoluted complicated place. Jews were such a presence in social justice and social activism for so long, but not necessarily (local Southern Jews). From that letter, it seems like the rabbi in Greenville was toeing the line. I’m sure there was a self-preservation thing because there is no other culture that understands just how bad things can get when you’re the minority. I remember Richard (a member of the Greenville congregation) telling that story, about the rabbi. He also mentioned that he had family friends who were Freedom Riders who came down for Freedom Summer, but they weren’t allowed at the house; they weren’t allowed to come by.

READ: Jews in the Civil Rights Movement

I’m sure that was out of self-preservation. Just like the South has that murky and complicated history, so do the Southern Jews. In one sense they are very different from the traditional Southerner and in another sense they are just the same.

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