An Introduction to the Jews of the South: A Good First Impression
The president of the congregation met me at the airport. It was late summer, 2000, my first visit to Hebrew Union Congregation, my new biweekly student pulpit in Greenville, MS. No sooner had we pulled away from the tiny terminal, past the defunct air force base, onto the access road, than we were pulling off again, into a cotton field in full bloom. I had never seen anything like it. Next thing I knew, I stood waist-deep among gently bobbing plants, an undulating field of white stretching to the horizon, the green leaves beneath like a sea obscured by bright foam.
“Have you ever picked cotton?” he asked.
He urged me to pull one soft boll for myself. I asked if this was his field. He laughed, knowing from a lifetime of Mississippi autumns that soon, during the harvest, the roads would be paved in white, stray cotton blowing along the lane markers, fields still generously tipped with snowy fibers, as if awaiting gleaners.
“It’s okay to pick one,” he assured me. I hoped he at least knew the field’s owner, and followed his instruction.
How do you make a good first impression? Or a powerful one? I’ll never forget my introduction to the Deep South, to the Jews of the south. I got the message loud and clear that cotton was - historically, and still in large part to that day - the lifeblood of the region (and if our “field” trip weren’t enough, my congregational president, a history major in college, had plenty of tales of times past to finish the job). The blood wasn’t pumping as strongly as it once had, and the town was in decline. The synagogue had just said goodbye to their last full-time rabbi. I was their first student rabbi. Nevertheless, in the hearts of many in the Mississippi Delta, cotton was... if no longer king, at least a true royal.
Of course, the legacy of cotton is inextricable from the legacy of slavery, which is one of the factors that set the region up, 100 years after abolition, for its troubled relationship with the African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.
We continued on to the synagogue, a gorgeous domed 1906 structure with enormous stained-glass windows and a full-sized pipe organ. The congregation had once claimed the largest synagogue membership in the state, and the sanctuary seated hundreds of worshipers. The synagogue building had all the amenities you might expect: assembly hall, kitchen, classrooms, board room, and a sizable library. The library had recently seen the installation of an impressive historical exhibit, curated by two congregants.
The president led me to a glass-sided display case, filled with some of the more physically vulnerable artifacts: old snapshots and siddurim, yellowing posters, manuscripts. He opened the case, and pulled out two items.
The first was a pamphlet, published by the Association of Citizens’ Councils of Mississippi, titled “A Jewish View on Segregation.” The anonymous author self-identified only as a “Jewish Southerner,” but was presumed by Jewish locals, based on personal details disclosed in the essay, to be a resident of the Delta.
The second was a letter, dated November 1963, from the president of Greenville’s Hebrew Union Congregation to the Board of Trustees of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, protesting the arrangements for the banquet speaker at the upcoming Biennial Convention. The letter did not report the details, already well-known by the parties involved, and my guide filled them in for me: The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had been invited to speak at the gathering later that month in Detroit. The record shows that he spoke, Greenville’s protest notwithstanding. The letter, however, received a thoughtful, two-page reply from Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, also on display in the library; and the congregational board secretary, a Detroit native, in defiance of her board colleagues, attended.
“Why are you showing me this?” I ventured, hesitantly. The current president did not strike me as the sort who would be proud of this chapter in his congregation’s history. But I wasn’t sure what to expect.
“Can you believe this?” he chortled. “Some folks in the North think this is still who we are. But we’ve changed. It’s pretty amazing how much the South has changed.”
It’s pretty amazing, I thought, that this near-total stranger trusted me to see through the stereotype that the documents present, to perceive whatever reality I might encounter in my own experience here, just now beginning. It reminded me of how we’ve preserved the shame of the golden calf in the Torah, for all to see, like an inoculation, a warning or reminder of what we’ve been, against what we might, but mustn’t, become.
I’m reminded of this now, as we prepare to observe the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, when hundreds of young people, disproportionately Jewish, traveled south to register African-American voters. I’m back in Mississippi, where I have lived full-time for seven of the last 14 years. The cotton still flourishes in the Delta, and the South is still changing.