Have Judaica Will Travel — Through Dixie

Rachel Jarman Myers Teaches History of Jews in Deep South

Moving Lesson: Educator Rachel Jarman Myers carries a trove of Judaica that tells the story of Jews in the Deep South.
courtesy of rachel jarman myers
Moving Lesson: Educator Rachel Jarman Myers carries a trove of Judaica that tells the story of Jews in the Deep South.

By Johnna Kaplan

Published August 23, 2013, issue of August 23, 2013.
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While the trunk, with its photographs, maps and educational board games, makes its way to various schools and teachers, Myers sometimes presents a shorter version of the curriculum herself. In those sessions she often finds children are unfamiliar with the topics the Traveling Trunk addresses. She asks them to consider what would compel immigrants to journey to America, a discussion Myers finds especially interesting to have with African-American students, whose ancestors were brought here involuntarily. But while exposing kids to the history of local Jewish life is important, she says, it is also “just fun.” Among the historical details that intrigue the students, she lists period hairstyles and the use of typewriters.

Myers, who grew up in Hamden, Conn., didn’t always plan to work in Jewish education or to live in Jackson. At Brandeis, she majored in religious studies — a longtime interest of hers, though she describes her personal brand of Judaism as a love of “food and festivals” — and dressed up as the university’s mascot, an owl version of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, at sporting events. She jokes that the experience qualified her for an internship at Boston’s New England Aquarium, where she wore a shark costume. It was while leading tours at the Aquarium that Myers discovered she enjoyed informal education.

Myers, now 27, joined the institute as an intern during her junior year of college, and came back after graduation as an education fellow, moving into her current role in 2010. Because the ISJL’s physical museum closed in 2012, much of Myers’s work involves outreach. With Dr. Stuart Rockoff, director of the institute’s history department, she creates itineraries and provides resources for Jewish tour groups visiting cities from Memphis to New Orleans. She also works on exhibits in partnership with other organizations, such as Tougaloo College, a historically African-American university. Additionally, Myers blogs at MyJewishLearning.com, something the ISJL staff began doing to “tell the South’s story,” as she puts it, on wider Jewish platforms.

Beyond her job, Myers has reached out to Jackson itself. She helped bring Figment, a multi-city, participatory arts festival, to the city. She sits on the board and serves as membership chair of Jackson 2000, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving race relations and other social and economic issues. She also performs locally as a singer and dancer.

Jackson is where Myers met her husband, Chris Myers, an architect originally from Batesville, Miss. Chris is not Jewish; his father’s first Jewish acquaintance was the owner of the town’s lone Jewish-owened store — an echo of the Traveling Trunk curriculum and an experience which Myers says is common for Mississippians. Jewish culture was new to her husband when they met, she says, but he liked it. And, she adds, “He likes me!”

The couple host community events in their backyard, some of which have Jewish themes, like a Hanukkah latke competition with four deep fryers going on the back porch. (Chris may not have been acquainted with latkes before, but he assured his wife that, having grown up in the South, he understood fried foods.)

This type of educational social interaction is an everyday opportunity for Myers. Each new person she meets means having the “Jewish conversation,” she says, but most are “interested and excited” to learn more. And her gatherings, including one Passover where 13 of her 30 guests had never been to a Seder before, allow her to “share my favorite parts of my faith.”

Myers, who once assumed she’d eventually move back to the East Coast, now feels at home as a “big fish in a small pond” in Mississippi. “Being Jewish in the South is a great experience,” she says.

Johnna Kaplan writes about travel, history and Jewish issues. She lives in New London, Conn., and blogs at www.thesizeofconnecticut.com


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