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Jews get lumped together a lot. Polls refer to “the Jewish vote.” We hear about the “Jewish response.” Labels of Jewish are smacked across everything from “Jewish humor” to “Jewish tradition” with little acknowledgment that Sarah Silverman’s fans aren’t necessarily Mel Brooks enthusiasts, and the traditions found in one Jewish household may vary wildly from the traditions found in a household one state over… or just down the block.
When representing a “Southern Jewish” organization, I’ve been asked frequently what makes “Southern Jews” different from “Northern Jews.” My response keeps evolving, but I do think there’s a difference.
There’s a difference because we are all products of our environment. With the exception of communities that choose to be expressly insular, we are all shaped by multiple forces. The Southern Jewish experience, particularly the small-town Southern Jewish experience, is one shaped by having fewer massive Jewish organizational infrastructure, and more overtly Christian neighbors. It is shaped by the music and the culture of the place, as is any other ethnic or religious group living here. In many ways, Southern Jewry has its own flavor, metaphorically and literally. It is connected to the larger Jewish experience, while being unique.
There’s a difference. But there’s also something more. There’s connection– and there’s conflict.
Ever since Jews started living in different places, we have always had things that have distinguished us. But now, more than ever, we seem to have an increasing number of things that not only distinguish us but also divide us. While the larger world might continue to lump us together, it is harder for many of us individual Jews to do so.
From egalitarianism to the equality movement, interfaith families to Israel, we are a polarized people. And in an era where we out our positions on Facebook, contend with new issues daily, our differences are surfaced quite quickly and clearly. When Jews are united on… well, probably nothing… how do we connect?
How do we remain “a people,” whatever that means?
I don’t know. But I do know this: somehow, we do. Somehow, there is still a Team Jewish affiliation that transcends Just-Southern-Jews or Just-Progressive-Jews or Just-Conservative-Jews. The team spirit doesn’t stop simply at our politics, be they progressive or conservative, or at our address, be it in the American South or South America.
It’s hard to define, this invisible thread. It’s a gut feeling. It’s our hearts twisting when the Holocaust is mentioned, and getting riled when it is invoked unjustly (even if our definitions of “unjust use” vary). It’s our ears perking up when there’s a mention of Something Jewish in the news. It’s feeling deep pride (maybe over different things) and feeling deep guilt (definitely over different things) and it’s wrestling, and wrestling, and wrestling.
Somehow, there still is a Team Jewish. But we sure are passing/throwing/swatting/
We feel it, but we don’t always show it. Or we show it in different ways. And we disagree, more and more heatedly. And there are seismic shifts and growing rifts in what that tricky “Jewish vote” looks like to the rest of the world, too.
What does that mean for the Jewish future?
Well. I don’t know that, either. But I’m pretty sure there will be a Jewish future. So that’s something.
At various times in my life, my own observance, stances, and struggles have varied. So too have the commitments and connections that kept me playing for Team Jewish. This has been one of those years where it’s challenging to define what exactly those “ties that bind” me might be, as the world continually unravels.
But I keep going to the mat.
Or the stadium. Or whatever.
What are your thoughts? From the cultural to the religious and the inane to the innate… what makes or breaks Jewish identity? How much is it shaped by where you live and what you experience?
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“Do you live in the same place where you were raised?”
The ISJL’s founder, Macy B. Hart, likes to ask people that question. He asked it of me, and like so many others, I had to say no.
I was born in Texas and have lived in many different states—California, Virginia, Maine, Michigan, Connecticut, New York, and now, Mississippi. I recently found this New York Times article, which shows where we came from, state by state, since 1900. As a historian, it fascinated me, and I wanted to share it with our readers here.
In 1900, 86% of Mississippians were born in Mississippi. By 2012, that number dropped to 72% — which is still higher than a lot of states, such as Texas, where only 61% of Texans originally hailing from the state.
The number of native born Mississippian Jews has declined precipitously. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews spread themselves throughout the state. In 1937, Jews lived in 107 different Mississippi towns. It reached its peak in 1927, with 6,420 Jews. Since then, it has declined steadily. In 2012, only 1,500 Jews lived in Mississippi, with Jackson having the largest community. The generation of Jewish merchants produced children who became college-educated professionals and had little interest in taking over family businesses. The decline of Mississippi’s rural economy and the rise of national retail chains have also pushed Mississippi Jews to such booming Sunbelt cities as Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston.
I never expected to live in Mississippi, but I am so glad to be here and to call Jackson my home. The Jewish community here has been more than welcoming. It is a testament to the fact that despite their small size, Mississippi Jews continue to identify with their heritage, and have kept Judaism alive in the Magnolia State.
Wherever they may end up living, Southern Jews are proud of their heritage. As a native Southern Jew, I am honored to be able to tell those stories. So what about you? Do you or your other family members have Southern roots? I am curious to hear from all of our readers about their journeys so I can continue to share them on our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish communities.
Y’all don’t be shy now!
I have very fond memories of my first time at Jewish summer camp. It seems like it was only yesterday.
Actually, it kind of was: my first Jewish summer camp experience was this summer, at 23 years old.
That’s right, somehow I made it this far without a Jewish camping experience. I understand that it may shock you that I am a Jewish professional who never went to Jewish summer camp. Please don’t be too upset: I had plenty of Jewish education and lots of fun with my family doing other summertime activities.
Still, I was curious about the Jewish camp experience that so many of my friends and colleagues had growing up, so I jumped at the opportunity to spend a week on faculty at URJ Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas.
Lucky for me I was visiting with two camp veterans, my ISJL coworkers Rachel Stern and Missy Goldstein. Before I even left my apartment they had already imparted great wisdom about how to pack, especially about “camp-propriate” fashion. When I arrived the staff at camp led us on a whirlwind a tour of the grounds, which included a visit to the new eco-village, a view of Lake Jake, and an introduction to the camp llama, Caramel.
On subsequent days I spent most of my mornings at camp leading alternative t’filah (prayers) and short shiurim (classes) in various bunks. One of my favorite t’filah activities was an adaptation of the game Things, in which campers wrote down what they thought of when they thought about God, prayer, or being Jewish. Everyone then had to guess who in their bunk had submitted each answer. It was amazing to see the different responses throughout the groups, and a lot of fun to see how close friends could guess each other’s answers after so much time together at camp!
I also learned a lot of important skills, including how to dodge flying grasshoppers, how to bus tables in the dining hall, and the appropriate Hebrew words for all camp locations.
Reflecting on my visit to camp, I have learned so much about the value of Jewish camp and why it is such a formative experience. At camp, kids get to be themselves. For a lot of Jewish students it is one of only a few opportunities they have to spend time with other Jews their age. They get to just hang out, be friends, and learn through experiences rather than formal education. Interacting with campers also showed me a lot about how to teach students with actions, not just with words.
Whether we are clergy, teachers, volunteers, or just Jews around town, we are all role models for young Jews. We have to take that responsibility seriously, including in informal settings, and realize how life-changing those informal moments can be. I am excited to go forward into my second year as an ISJL Fellow with my new camp experience in mind.