Becoming Southern & Jewish: Part I

Over the course of the next few weeks, I’m going to share a series of posts about my reflection on “becoming Southern and Jewish.” It’s been seven years since I moved to Mississippi, and my time in the South has absolutely shaped my identity today– and continues to shape it, day by day.

When I first moved to Mississippi in 2009, I was operating under a lot of stereotypes. Some of those pre-conceived notions included that Jews were not welcome, have not been welcomed since the Civil Rights era, and that Jewish history in the South was minimal at best.

I remember getting my first apartment in rural Mississippi, and being so afraid of something bad happening that I kept my decorative menorah hidden, along with any other artifacts that would draw attention to Judaism if I had a visitor.  I decided that I would become publicly areligious; I would not attend church services, I would tell those who invited me that I was exploring a new church with a friend at a different location, and I would avoid any discussion of religion.

This worked for me for the bulk of my first year in the Deep South.

One Saturday, towards the end of the spring semester in the school where I worked, I finally took on the daunting task of going through the remainder of my still-unpacked moving-boxes. Halfway through unpacking the boxes, I received a knock at the door; it was a friend, a fellow teacher.  She came in, we got to chatting, and about twenty minutes in she looked over to my disorganized pile of stuff and saw something: My menorah.

She turned and asked me if that was a menorah, and I squeamishly confirmed. She burst out with joy and began an hour long lecture of the history of Jews in Clarksdale, her Jewish friends growing up, people she knows today, and a little motherly guilt about me being so foolish as to hide this for so long. I am sure the look on my face through all of this was of something reflecting bewilderment. I remember wondering if she was just a fluke or if others knew what she knew. No matter what, I felt a massive sigh of relief and belonging.

For the longest time, I felt that I was on the outside of my new community, and frankly the South as a whole. I was the gay, white, Jew that moved to the rural Bible Belt of Mississippi (the trifecta for exclusion – some intentional, some merely statistical, and some circumstantial).  With this wall coming down I felt like I was one step closer to belonging… and I wanted to belong.

I wanted and needed to join the fabric of the place that I lived for professional and personal reasons.  I have never wanted to be the “cool kid” who was okay being non-conformist.  I wanted to fit in, I wanted to be part of the group, and once I was in the group and felt like I belonged I would allow my true self come out (no pun intended) and advocate for specific issues.

Ironically, the more and more I delved into being Jewish and living in the South, openly, the more I discovered a lineage, a presence, and a place for me.  I like to picture it like my sweet dog testing out the water of a pond.  Belle loves the water but is terrified of the world.  So when it comes to the pond at the dog park she has her strategy locked down.  At first she’ll walk up and observe, then she will circle it a few dozen times (sometimes this is where we have to leave because, yes, it can take that long), once she has fully graphed the dangers she will start in with one paw, back away, then put in the other paw, going back and forth over and over again, alternating her two front paws.  As soon as she has concluded that the substance before her is actually water, she will gradually work her way in, never fully comfortable until she has fully been immersed for a substantial amount of time.

The moment my friend took down that wall I began to circle the pond.  I saw buildings named after Jews, cemeteries, pictures, stories began to flood in, and before I knew it I was ready to put my paws in. And so my journey toward building my Southern Jewish life began…

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