Down South: A Catholic, a Jew, and an Episcopalian Walk Into a Bar…

As I’ve written about before, music has been a huge part of my life and my Judaism ever since I was a kid. When I moved to Jackson, Mississippi, one of my goals was to get involved in the local music scene, and I’m proud to say I’ve succeeded. In addition to regularly playing at local bars, I performed at a festival in Greenville, MS (home of the blues) and at the Mississippi Pride Celebration. Through performing, I have met fascinating people, including some I might have little in common with other than our love of music, and some for whom I am the first Jewish person they ever met.

The questions people ask me when they meet me and make their “first Jewish friend” have given me the opportunity to reflect upon the relationship between myself as an artist and as a Jew.

Onstage, I always mention that I moved to Mississippi from California. As soon as I finish my set, people ask for more details. The conversation generally follows a predictable pattern: I say, “I work for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, which 1) exists, and 2) is based in Jackson, Mississippi.”

They laugh, and I continue to explain that as a part of my job, I get to travel around the South, learning about a part of the country about which I previously knew next to nothing, through a Jewish lens. I tell them that we write Sunday School curriculum and work with synagogues to help them implement it. They then either tell me they didn’t know Jews live in Mississippi or ask if I know their one Jewish friend in Mississippi (at this point, I usually do; quite often, it’s a co-worker). They ask if I’m Jewish, to which I nonchalantly say yes, while assuring them that I’m not evangelical; that’s not a Jewish practice.

Then they usually pause, not knowing what to ask or say next. 

Sometimes at that point I jump in and tell them about the history of Jewish immigration to the South, or name the communities I travel to for Education Visits, sharing funny stories from the road. More often than not, the conversation naturally moves on to a different topic, because religion is on the list of topics to avoid when talking to strangers at a bar. Sometimes, though, the religion conversation continues, leading to among the most meaningful interactions and friendships I’ve had since moving to the South.

As an artist, I have no obligation to tell a room full of strangers that I am Jewish. As a Jew in a predominantly Christian place, though, I feel a duty to make my Judaism visible. I have an opportunity to remind Mississippians about the religious diversity in Mississippi and the South as a whole. Why not take it?

Last winter, right around Christmas, one of my friends threw the melody of “Jingle Bells” into a guitar solo.  So in my solo on the next song, I played the melody of “Hanukkah O Hanukkah.” Sure enough, he wished me a Happy Hanukkah as soon as I got off stage. At a band rehearsal during Passover, I politely declined a beer and opted for a glass of wine instead–Passover, I explained, is my “wine week.” I cherish these simple moments as opportunities to remind people that when done right, religion and music are not so different: both bring people from different walks of life together and help us make sense and meaning out of the chaos in our world.

I play in a trio that includes myself and two other women–one Catholic, one Episcopalian. We love introducing ourselves with a joke: “A Catholic, a Jew, and an Episcopalian walk into a bar… and we are THRILLED to be here this evening.”

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