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!
“I am in awe of Southern Jews,” Anne Gregory Teicher said, her gentle Georgia twang lilting through the computer speakers.
Raised Baptist by church-going parents, it took Anne a long time to officially join the Jewish people, but after college and divinity school, along with years of living Jewishly and plenty of study, she formally converted to Judaism. Now, Anne and her “Yankee husband” Zach live in Raleigh, North Carolina— where they moved specifically because it was a smaller Jewish community than Durham.
Raleigh was a city where Anne knew that she could make a difference. She wanted to be in a smaller community, where her presence would be even more vital. As she put it, “I’m used to being a minority, but boldly so; not a shrinking violet.”
I know Anne’s story because I had the opportunity to interview her for my podcast, “Jew Too? Tales of the Mixed Multitude”. Since starting the podcast last summer while on break from rabbinical school, I’ve aimed to amplify the voices of American Judaism’s silent majority: Jews who have family members who are not Jewish. I give my guests space to tell their stories without judgement, sharing the positive influences that friends and family of many backgrounds have on their Jewish journeys.
Each month, I pick a theme and find Jews who map onto it. While I’ve had a number of guests on the show who converted to Judaism, it wasn’t until this month that I made an episode focusing specifically on their experiences. My goal was to make an episode about Jews, who weren’t raised Jewish, and the constellation of Jews and people of other traditions who supported them through conversion and into their Jewish lives.
I didn’t set out to make an episode specifically about Southern Jews by Choice, but I got lucky.
After first interviewing Chris, a teacher from southwest Louisiana who attends Temple Sinai in Lake Charles, I happened to have my next interview with Stefano, a cantorial student originally from San Antonio. Hearing the degree to which geography impacted both of their Jewish journeys, I knew the universe was trying to tell me something, so I made a conscious effort to seek out as my third guest someone else from the south: Anne.
In each interview, I draw out Jewish stories and pose questions along the way about upbringing and practice. Then, I get to knit narratives together, listening for shared themes, for unique flourishes, for moments that will stick. It’s an intensely Jewish exercise, an oral text study of sorts, culminating in a half-hour episode that offers a small window into a few Jewish lives.
The three southern-raised Jews in this episode have never met, and it’s possible that they never will. Their stories run on similar tracks but are certainly different trains. Nonetheless, for these 40 minutes, they form part of the same exploration of the southern and Jewish experience.
The podcast has actually helped Chris to feel more tied to the Jewish community, a world from which he is largely isolated in day-to-day life, when the nearest synagogue is an hour’s drive. He spoke about feeling as though, through hearing the stories of Jews from the tapestry of families represented on the podcast, his own Jewish life has started to feel more authentic.
Now, lest you think that I am a Yankee rabbinical student who has no idea what southern Jewish life is about, let me throw down my sweet tea-sipping gauntlet: I grew up mostly in Richmond, Virginia, and spent a stint in Columbus, GA. For two summers, I worked for a Jewish camp leading wilderness treks in North Carolina and Tennessee. I can say “Shalom, y’all” without a trace of irony (although “y’all” does sometimes earn me some weird looks up here in Philly, where I now live). Making this episode was for me a labor of love, a return to the sorts of communities that raised me.
Because here’s what I know about southern Jews: their numbers may not match those of the northeast or the west coast, but their commitment is fierce, their ability to welcome anyone who walks in the shul door is unrivaled, and they are not going anywhere.