Dreideling Down in Dixie
A friend from Georgia once joked to me, “Everyone down here celebrates Christmas, even if you don’t celebrate Christmas.” The meaning of a Christmas tree in a Jewish home is different in a rural Southern town than it is in a Northern industrialized city. The story of Jewish assimilation and acceptance in the South has always been different than in the North, dating back to the Civil War.
Most people that grow up with any sort of faith in their family are exposed not just to a religion, but a version of that religion. In some faiths, that’s known as a “sect” or “branch.” While the divisions within Judaism aren’t always as clear-cut, there are many that are popularly known and discussed historically and culturally, like Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrahi. In the contemporary American context, the divisions are usually drawn between the levels of observance; Orthodox (which in and of itself can have many further declinations such as Ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Hasidic, etc), Conservative, and Reform, with Reconstructionist usually, and oftentimes unfairly, being bundled into the catch-all Reform category.
While there tends to be some discussion on coastal Jews vs. non-coastal Jews, I always found those distinctions to be a bit too broad. To anyone familiar with both communities, there are certainly enough differences between L.A. and New York/New Jersey to preclude them being casually housed under the same “coastal” label. There’s the ostensibly Sephardic/Mizrahi character of the West Coast vs. the decidedly Ashkenazi cultural dominance in NY/NJ. The community in/around New York City also has a larger percentage of Hasidic Jews, which makes sense given that, among other things, the world headquarters of the Lubavitch sits in Crown Heights. Finally, there has been a significant Jewish presence on the East Coast longer than the West Coast, as New York had been a hub of Jewish immigration for the majority of the 20th century. On the flip side, Jews have made lives for themselves in very different ways in “flyover country” – everywhere from Texas to Illinois.
My family, though entirely made up of Ashkenazi Jews, is still relatively diverse within the faith. My mother was raised Modern Orthodox in Terrytown, New York, and my father was raised Reform in Highland Park, Illinois. My mother’s parents were Holocaust survivors who had grown up in Prague and rural Poland, and spoke Yiddish to one another at home. My father’s parents, on the other hand, were from Rogers Park, Chicago, and Roanoke, Virginia. They spoke no Yiddish, and my father’s Bar Mitzvah picture looks more like a Christian Confirmation than anything I ever saw at my synagogue (down to the white, floor-length gown). Growing up, my family attended a Conservative synagogue as a means of compromise, exposing me early on to a broad spectrum of Judaism; everything from the way the different sides of my family spoke – calling the house of worship “temple” vs. “shul,” to the way that they prayed (English vs. Hebrew, how many prayers were said, etc).
One of the most striking aspects of Jewish diversity within my family would have be the Southern wing, through my paternal grandmother. Hailing from Roanoke, Virginia, where they have resided since the early 20th century, they are an enduring example of Southern Jewry. To a city kid from Chicago, the Old South is a very different way of life. Not just the climate, food, and accent, but also the ways in which people identify themselves and the world around them. The stereotype of the regionally-obsessed Southerner has some grains of truth in it – regionally, Dixie dominates in demographic “stickiness;” a term for the percentage of people who stay in the state they were born in throughout adulthood.
Unsurprisingly then, many Southern Jews are just like other people in the South; in many ways, they are Southern first, everything else second. Even within the South there are stark geographical and cultural divisions, with the divide between western Virginia and West Virginia being particularly important to everyone on both sides of the line. Given the intrinsically Christian history of the Old South, as well as its hyper-localized and small-scale community dimensions, it should come as no surprise to find a Christmas tree in a Jewish family room, facing the window, where there might not be one in a similar Jewish home with the same level of observance up North. The cultural homogeneity down in Dixie means that it’s the Most Wonderful Time of Year for one and all, whether you are celebrating the birth of a nice Jewish boy down in Nazareth or not.
My grandparent’s anniversary falls right after Christmas because that’s when my great-grandfather could take off work (working in the jewelry business, November/December was the busiest time of year), and my grandmother wanted to have the wedding in Roanoke so her family could attend. It also was a prudent measure, as event space was affordable and available in the wake of the Christmas party rush, during that nadir of the winter calendar between December 26 and 31. In addition to the countless travel days and movie theatre marathons, utilizing the last five days in December for functional benefit is one of those dependably, determinedly Jewish wrinkles to life that can be found anywhere in America you find Jews.
These were the thoughts running through my mind as I listened to the soft drawl of my family’s voices as we sang Hanukkah songs together and lit the menorah, all while it was a balmy 65 degrees outside and a handsomely decorated Christmas tree sat in the front room. In the middle of a cultural milieu that was so different from the one I was accustomed to, these little recognizable social distinguishers served to connect and ground the experience in one that I was familiar with, and made me feel at home, in a Jewish home so very different from my own.