The Grand Promenade, Hot Springs, Arkansas. Photo by Nora Katz.

Five Tips for Southern Jewish Travel

Thinking of visiting the Jewish South? Read on.

On Thursday, October 18th, 2018, ISJL Director of Heritage and Interpretation Nora Katz will be delivering a livestreamed talk for the Global Day of Jewish Learning, titled “Travelers, Tourists, Pilgrims: Identity and Place in Journeys to the Jewish South.” In it, she’ll unpack southern Jewish travel experiences through the lens of pilgrimage, using ideas from the fields of public history and memory studies. Tune in for an engaging conversation about what it means to travel, and how visiting historic sites of struggle and resistance can change us and our Jewish communities for the better.

Every day, I get to work with groups who are planning trips to the South. Through the ISJL’s Southern Jewish Heritage Tour program, I develop itineraries, set up meetings with congregations and community leaders, and provide educational resources to groups who are gaining first-hand experiences of life in the Jewish South. Doing this work has taught me so much about the region this transplant is proud to call home. It has also taught me some lessons about how to travel through the Jewish South.

  1. Make thematic (and geographic) decisions. The Jewish South is an enormous place. Covering a bevy of unique states, eight climate zones, countless different landscapes (both physical and social), and a variety of nuanced cultural differences, the region can seem overwhelming. Know that you can’t see it all in one or two trips. Choose to take a Civil Rights pilgrimage in Alabama, or to travel along the Mississippi River from Memphis to New Orleans, or to explore colonial history in Savannah and Charleston. Don’t be overwhelmed – it’s exciting to know there’s so much to discover.
  2. Read up on the places you’ll visit. This is your daily reminder to check out the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, which contains detailed histories of every town in the South that has ever had a Jewish population. The Encyclopedia can give you ideas about places to visit, people to look for, and even street signs to find. Jewish businesses, congregations, and gathering places – it’s all in the Encyclopedia.
  3. Live in the moment. Spontaneity is an amazing asset in our travels. It’s the quality that helps us say yes to new experiences as they arise – going down a new street, walking into an interesting bookstore, joining a new friend for a drink or a meal, lingering in a museum gallery, choosing a new trail… There are experiences that you can’t plan for, no matter how prepared you are. (In Moby-Dick, Ishmael describes the Polynesian island that is home to his new friend Queequeg: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” When we go to new places, there are things that we will experience that are true and real and completely undocumented in the guidebooks we may have read beforehand. There are powerful, life-changing experiences that we’ll never be able to explain to people who did not go through them with us. There are places we’ll visit that are not down on our initial itineraries. Some of the truest places never are.)
  4. Anything can be a Jewish experience. During Rosh Hashanah this year, I traveled to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where I spent three days hiking, cycling, and learning about the history of the city. I reveled in the rolling hills of the National Park – the lush, wooded forest punctuated with Gilded Age architecture. In 1832, Hot Springs became the first piece of American land to be preserved for its landscape. The 19th century’s rich and famous took in the city’s thermal baths, filled with the mineral water that flows from the 47 springs that come out of Hot Springs Mountain. The narratives surrounding the rejuvenating and restorative qualities of the waters of Hot Springs struck me as very similar to the ways in which we use and talk about the mikveh. The Gilded Age elites who flocked to Hot Springs sought desperately to immerse themselves in waters that they thought could cure diseases and heal wounds. Hot Springs also became a community gathering space, in which people developed and deepened social connections, fell in love, and, yes, took respites from lives of crime (the city’s Gangster Museum and the Hot Springs tourist industry’s obsession with Al Capone are testaments to this). The idea of cleansing waters isn’t new, or particularly unique to just one culture or faith tradition. But as we travel Jewishly, it’s worthwhile to think about parallels between uniquely southern experiences and Jewish ones. Emerging from the bath house on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I certainly felt renewed.
  5. Seek out resources before you go. In our increasingly interconnected world, there are few truly untraveled paths. Rather than seeing that reality as a disappointment, let’s see it as an opportunity. We can seek out people who have gone before us, who can share wisdom and experience to guide our own journeys. That’s why ISJL’s Southern Jewish Heritage Tour program exists – it’s an opportunity to have experts on the ground plan your group’s journey, offering ideas and options you might not have considered.

There are even more resources at your fingertips – especially on Thursday, October 18th, at 1 PM Central time. I hope you’ll join me for “Travelers, Tourists, Pilgrims: Identity and Place in Journeys to the Jewish South,” and I especially hope to plan a trip with you soon.

Intrigued? Tune in to “Travelers, Tourists, Pilgrims: Identity and Place in Journeys to the Jewish South” this Thursday, and email Nora anytime to arrange your own Southern Jewish tour experience!

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