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!
On the back wall of M. Judson, a bookstore in Greenville, South Carolina, sit rows of books wrapped in plain brown paper. A sign overhead reads “Blind Date.” As I approach the wall I notice there is writing on each book: three facts about the book inside, nothing more and nothing less. I grab a book that reads, “A second civil war b/w the North + South, but with an entirely different twist. A girl grows up without… and grows into something else. How an empire falls, how an empire is created.” Gripped by my desire to explore this new mystery I embark on finding out what it’s like to truly not judge a book by its cover.
The untold treasures contained in my new book are exemplified in a passage from Chabad.org: “The Torah is always hidden inside [every person’s] soul—like…precious jewels. It is up to us to reveal those hidden treasures within others, and find the positive that lies within.” Just as a person’s beauty is more than skin deep, it is the same with books. It’s important to make an effort to find jewels in the most unexpected places—a short-tempered friend, a browning apple, a book without a cover. Taking time to peel back those layers to discover more is the true treasure.
As I leave the store with my mystery book I am reminded of the story of Esau and Jacob. Before either is born they are already labeled. Just as Esau is predicted to be an idol worshiper due to the ferocity with which he kicked inside his mother’s womb, books are also judged before getting a chance to show us what they hold inside. Rabbi Jonah Layman explores how Esau’s life and legacy may have differed; in a d’var, he reflects on how Esau is marked as a villain in the Torah, and thus his legacy is sealed. He notes that we can learn from this to reinforce the old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover.”
I peel off the tape and pull back the brown paper to reveal a book called American War by Omar El Akkad. The cover is a scene of a single rundown building in a field, and I must admit it would not have caught my attention. Moving past the cover I dive into the pages to discover a gripping story set in the futuristic South during the year 2075, narrated by a northerner who moved South. The United States is no longer, as the country has split between the North, South, Mexico, and unincorporated territories due a war over the use of fossil fuels and renewable energy. A young girl born in Louisiana migrates to a refugee camp on the Mississippi-Tennessee border where she meets an unlikely friend who will change her life.
The irony is not lost on me that I picked a book in which the narrator shares something of my experience. After seven years in the South I can attest that this book shines a light on many of the misconceptions northerners have. Southerners are tied to the land they love, their values are rooted deep and run true, and family is everything. This story exemplifies that fully, while also navigating the ravages of a futuristic war-torn country through its exquisite storytelling.
I cannot fully express my gratitude for this book and the way I came about it. Though its connections to the South I know and love are dark and harrowing (to say the least), I truly found a new connection to and appreciation for my home here in Mississippi. I am grateful that I was unable to judge this book by its cover, because I found wondrous treasures inside.