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My journey through the Jewish South: always disappearing, never gone

The last time my dad went to his hometown of Martinsville, Virginia, was for his mother’s burial at the Jewish cemetery there two years ago. It had been nearly five decades since he’d moved away from the little industrial town on the Carolina border—part of a mass migration of the South’s small-town Jews to the region’s urban centers—and at least fifteen years since he’d last returned. The main street where his parents had run their department store for thirty years was full of empty storefronts. The thoroughfare had once been lined with shops owned by other Jewish merchants, but Mr. Black’s music store, where my dad had gotten records as a teenager, had long ago shuttered. There was no evidence of cousin Gilmer’s shoe store, where my grandfather used to go smoke cigars with the other shopkeepers to catch a break from his wife, a New Jersey native who thought she could do anything better than you until the day she died.

My grandparents met through correspondence during World War II. Someone had connected the two, thinking they were relatives because they happened to share the same last name. They were pen pals; they were married. My grandmother moved down to Martinsville, where my grandfather grew up. Many years later—after my dad relocated his parents to a nursing home near us in Atlanta, and then after Gramps passed—the rhythm of Nana’s days slowed. She made a ritual of calling us up and asking, again and again: “What’s new and different?”

I missed the funeral. I had just moved to New Orleans to start a new job, and I had decided—now this sounds like such a slippery, no-good reason—that the small ceremony wasn’t worth missing work and driving alone all the way to Virginia. Nana was buried that day in a plain wooden casket, as is Jewish custom. The casket is meant to disintegrate into the soil, returning the body to the earth rather than preserving it in an enclosed box. It’s a ritual of regeneration, and it’s one I find especially beautiful in the Jewish tradition.

The practice has its roots in a quote from Genesis: “For you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” Ancient rabbis, insisting that the ritual of Jewish burial reflect that every human is equal in creation and in death, wrote in the Talmud that all people should be buried on plain biers, even if they could afford more lavish trimmings. This idea of democracy in death—and that death can, and must, beget life—has brought me recently to a poem by New Orleanian writer Clint Smith. In “An Evening at the Louvre,” he writes:

_It would be nice to be
something in a museum one day
because that’s what I’ve been told
means you’ve lived a meaningful life
but I think I might like
to be in a garden
where even after I die the residue
of me can help grow something
more beautiful than I ever was_

The residue of my grandparents lies in the cemetery of a synagogue called Ohev Zion that my great-grandfather helped found in 1927. Today, there’s a will outlining what will happen to the synagogue once membership falls below ten dues-paying families. They haven’t hit that point yet, but they’re close. My grandmother’s burial was officiated by a rabbi who came up from Greensboro, since Ohev Zion can’t support a full-time rabbi anymore. It hasn’t been able to in years, since around the time my dad left Martinsville. After the service, my dad gathered with Martinsville’s remaining Jews for lunch. They traded stories. There was the one about a young rabbi serving Ohev Zion years ago, who had been fresh out of seminary and was “very New York,” my dad told me later; the guy mysteriously fled town in the thick of night. There were the tales of traveling Jewish salesmen coming through Martinsville to hawk their wares, and the impromptu dinners to host them. “What were we going to do, send them to the rib joint downtown?” my dad posed. From down the lunch table, the Globmans piped up: “We’d have them over the next night!” There was goodwill and warmth, my dad told me, but also the sense that, soon enough, the old ladies keeping the lights on at Ohev Zion would finally pass and the synagogue would go along with them. As my dad recounted all this to me, I couldn’t help but wonder how much longer Martinsville would have enough Jews to form a minyan: a gathering of at least ten people needed to say the most sacred prayers, like the mourner’s kaddish.

Small-town Southern Jewish communities are dead or dying. So goes the popular narrative. It’s a story my dad has claimed as his own, watching through his increasingly infrequent visits as the Jews of Martinsville dispersed when the town lost its textile and furniture factories, as Jew stores—as he calls them—gave way to strip malls, and his generation went off to college and never came back. It’s a story I’ve only known secondhand. My parents raised me within the folds of Atlanta Jewish life, where I came of age surrounded by Jews whose families had also come from small towns across the region. Jews with Delta drawls and Tennessee twangs and Lowcountry lilts—my mom’s side of the family hails from Charleston, South Carolina—who frequent the kosher Kroger in Toco Hills and bake the most tender brisket I’ve ever tasted. Jews like my parents, who might’ve been the only Jews in their schools growing up, but could send their kids (me) to Jewish day schools and sleep-away camps near home.

Now I live in New Orleans, a city that’s had a vibrant Jewish community since French Colonial times; I’ve enjoyed many Shabbat picnics on Bayou St. John, have an array of synagogue choices for the high holidays, and can watch Krewe de Jieux roll every Carnival season, throwing bagels spray-painted gold. As Jewish communities like mine have gravitated toward the South’s cities, the region’s small-town Jewish life has diminished to a handful of older folks hanging on.

From my dad, I adopted the idea that in Martinsville, and towns like it, there is nothing left for us as Jewish people—that small-town synagogues in the South have become little more than museums to lost communities. Since my grandmother’s funeral, I’ve had an urge to go to these towns, these synagogues, in hopes of witnessing something other than decay. I wanted to question the stories I’ve been told; maybe prove my dad’s thesis wrong. It was this motivation that led me to the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), a Jackson, Mississippi–based organization dedicated to providing education and programming for Jewish communities across the region. “The story of Southern Jewish life is not merely a story of shuttering synagogues and diminishing numbers,” they write in their mission statement. “It’s also a story of growing communities, vibrant congregations, and active Jewish communities of all sizes.”

It was sometime around the anniversary of Nana’s passing that I found the ISJL and their director of rabbinical services, Rabbi Aaron Rozovsky. When I learned that Rozovsky’s job consists of doing one thing—traveling across the South serving small-town synagogues that can no longer sustain a full-time rabbi themselves—I knew I had to join him on his travels.

Congregation Beth Shalom convenes in an old Christian Science church tucked into a wooded neighborhood north of Auburn University. When I arrived there on a Friday evening in January, no one had unlocked the building yet. I had been driving alone all day, tracing I-65 from Mobile to Montgomery; if I’d kept on going two more hours, I could’ve made it to my parents’ Shabbat dinner table in Atlanta just in time for my mom’s challah to come out of the oven. I sat in the car in the dark. The pine trees loomed overhead. I had the admittedly irrational yet familiar thought that some unknown specter, despising my Jewishness, might be lurking in the dark. But it wasn’t long before the first congregants pulled up and let me inside, welcoming me to their weekly service. Soon, people were flitting around the small sanctuary, setting up a couple dozen chairs and just as many miniature Dixie cups of grape juice, readying the space for this Shabbat’s special guest. I felt myself relax. I settled into a seat in the back row to take in the space. The sanctuary was filled with the artifacts of shuttered synagogues from across the state. There were stained-glass windows built into the double doors at the entrance, a gift from Temple Emanu-El in Jasper, Alabama, established in 1922, closed in 2005. There was a tall wooden ark donated by an old Sephardic shul in Montgomery, Congregation Etz Ahayem, that merged with the Ashkenazi synagogue there in 2001. At the top of the ark there were gold Hebrew letters that read: “Know who you stand before.”

A septuagenarian Brooklynite in Merrells approached me. He introduced himself as Mike Friedman, the self-proclaimed “poet laureate” in residence, and gave me an on-the-spot history lesson: A former chemistry professor at the university, he moved to Auburn in 1968 and helped found Beth Shalom in 1989. This congregation is the only one in eastern Alabama and was born out of a potluck dinner for Rosh Hashanah in the early ’80s when a local couple invited four friends over, telling them to extend the invitation to everyone they knew. Eighty people showed up, all surprised at the number of other members of the tribe around them; many had assumed they were one of the only Jewish families around. Mike and his wife, Harriet, had helped gather the pieces I saw in the synagogue from across Alabama: the sanctuary doors, the ark, the Torah from Demopolis. I wondered: What had all of these inherited artifacts witnessed in their former homes? What did they make of their new environs?

Susan Youngblood, co-president of Beth Shalom, weaved between the rows in the sanctuary, making sure that everyone knew their responsibilities for the night: parading the Torah around the room, blessing it before it was read, reciting prayers from the bima. She apologized to me for the small number in attendance; it was Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in a college town. Yet there were still upwards of twenty people present, from kids playing with 3D glasses that turned all lights into stars of David, to Auburn undergrads and professors, to the retired Friedmans down the row.

Rabbi Rozovsky waved to me when he walked in and quickly assumed his position at the lectern. He wore a quarter-zip sweater with a button-down and a tie, paired with his signature camouflage-patterned kippah. He is thirty-four years old, a member of the National Guard, and a recent graduate of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He greeted the gathered with a bright and earnest grin, offered “Shabbat Shalom,” and launched into the hymn Hinei Matov. Some of the congregants around me stumbled through the Hebrew under their breath; others sang it clearly. As we moved through the traditional Friday evening blessings, I thought about the number of times a rabbi must lead a congregation to know which of myriad tunes the laypeople prefer, which of the prayers to skip over; all of the ways to measure a rapport between the leader and the led. I’d been raised in synagogues with longstanding rabbinical appointments, where if the rabbi sang the first note of a song, the congregants could carry the tune seamlessly, hardly needing a leader. Later, when I played back a recording I’d made of the Friday night service in Auburn, I could hardly hear anyone’s singing over my own.

When we reached the culminating song, Rabbi Rozovsky gestured to the bar mitzvah-to-be in the front row and posed, “Come lead Adon Olam, as part of your training!” The middle-schooler shook his head no. “You can kick me under the bima if you want to!” Still no. “Hate to put you on the spot but—okay, wait ’til May? We can wait ’til May.” The rabbi led the song in a rousing call-and-response rendition, just slightly off-rhythm. Everyone migrated over to the oneg table. We blessed the candles and the grape juice and challah. Folks lingered over a spread of cookies and a liter of ginger ale. Susan Youngblood reminded everyone to come out to a lively Torah study the next morning.

I approached Rabbi Rozovsky, who was chatting animatedly with a professor in the veterinary school about the breadth of Southern synagogues he serves. A century ago, Anshe Chesed in Vicksburg, Mississippi, had more than four hundred members, but today has only eight, all over the age of eighty. But not all the small-town synagogues that Rozovsky visits are disappearing. There’s Beth Ahabah in Richmond, Texas: only four years old with a membership of one hundred and fifty. And there’s Beth Shalom in Auburn, where we stood, which the rabbi liked to call his “bar mitzvah factory.”

Like me, Rabbi Rozovsky anticipated seeing a lot of death and decline as he began traveling around to the South’s Jewish communities. “When I took this job I thought I was going to do a ton of funerals,” he said. But he’s been surprised at the vivacity he’s witnessed. “I’ve only done one funeral in a year and a half,” he told me. By the time he’s finished up in a few months—the traveling rabbi post tends to run for just two to three years—the rabbi said he’ll “have done three or four conversions and four b’nai mitzvot.”

At Torah study the next morning, the congregants set out a basket of sesame bagels with cream cheese and lox. Coffee brewed in the kitchen. Rabbi Rozovsky opted for a bottle of Coke from the refrigerator and a paper plate of leftover off-brand Oreos from last night’s oneg. Ten of us sat in a circle in the sanctuary, and the rabbi passed around printouts with excerpts of the weekly Torah portion. We began with the rape of Dinah and pivoted quickly toward the intricacies of ritual sacrifice. A congregant asked if, in ancient Israel, you wanted to roast a lamb for Sunday dinner, did you need to bring it to the altar in Jerusalem, or could you cook it right there in your field? The rabbi clarified, saying you could roast whatever you pleased in your field (as long as it was kosher), but all sacrifices needed to go through Jerusalem.

“You know who has a society like that?” Mike Friedman posed. “Alabama. The local people do not have jurisdiction.” I wondered if Mike was referring to the way Alabama, like many Southern states, pre-empts local governments from setting many of their own policies, like minimum-wage floors or firearms regulations—it’s a legacy of former slave states wielding power over their constituents. With its congregation made up of university professors, I got the sense that Beth Shalom leaned more liberal than conservative. “They’ve been trying to get that changed,” Mike said. “But the power in Montgomery, they don’t want to give it up. Just like Jerusalem had all the power.”

The rabbi had a penchant for likening biblical passages to contemporary pop dramas (Dinah’s story to Game of Thrones, baby Moses’s choice between riches and coal to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, any anecdote about the Jewish few against the gentile many to Braveheart, which, ironically or not, was produced by Mel Gibson). He explained what a midrash is by telling everyone about a rabbinical school assignment where he was asked to write a commentary on a Talmudic teaching about why we are forbidden to eat shellfish (“It was the only time I got top of the class in seminary,” he said). He peppered his teaching with Hebrew affirmations in an Israeli inflection, favoring “nachon” (yes, correct) with an emphasis on the “ch.”

I had assumed that the small town Jewish communities I’d meet on my travels would lack the sort of robust Jewish education I’d gained in Atlanta as a kid. My dad still stumbles through the Hebrew of Friday night blessings that were drilled into me at school growing up. But around me, many Beth Shalom members followed the text of the Torah portion closely with books perched in their laps, asking the rabbi pointed questions about the ancient census and rights to land ownership and the assimilation of Jewish girls into the Egyptian population after all the Jewish boys were killed on the pharaoh’s edict (the girls were useful as slaves). We veered toward an intimate discussion on how Judaism shifted from patrilineal to matrilineal descent; how Harriet Friedman’s grandmother lost all her gold during a pogrom (it wasn’t so long ago); how Judaism came, at times, to be defined by blood rather than by personal persuasion. Rabbi Rozovsky entertained every tangent with apparent delight.

It came time for me to go. The rabbi had an afternoon full of appointments for bar mitzvah trainings; we would convene at our next stop, Temple B’nai Israel in Columbus, Mississippi, the following evening. On the way there, I drove through stretches of dense forest. At times, the trees lining the state highway felt like a protection, a haven. At others, I imagined what might be looming in the shadows. Through a break in the trees, I spied a pickup truck parked in a driveway, a Confederate battle flag painted across the entirety of its back tailgate. I saw countless crosses planted in front lawns or built up on hillsides for all drivers to see. The only place I spotted a Star of David was in the corner of a billboard near Gordo, Alabama, that read: THE ONLY KEY TO HEAVEN IS JESUS.

The South is the only home I know, and yet I often feel a nebulous threat of anti-Semitism: a thing that tightens my throat, makes me look over my shoulder when I’m alone. Sometimes, the fear feels warranted. I think of my dad as a kid, watching a Klan rally march past his parents’ store (he insists they weren’t rallying against the line of Jewish merchants, but I do wonder)—and how, a hundred miles away and a couple decades later, a crowd with torches descended upon Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us.” It can be easy to assume that anti-Semitism in the South is worse than in the rest of the country.

But then I remember recent acts of violence in the Northeast, and Harriet Friedman telling me about moving to Auburn from Washington, D.C., which had been the home of the American Nazi Party in the 1960s. “For me it was torment living there,” she said. “They used to have arson at various synagogues in the D.C. area. So it was actually nicer here.”

Despite all this—or maybe because of it—whenever I step into a synagogue, I feel immediately safe and at home. Something about showing up to a place I’ve never been, where I don’t know a soul, and realizing: all of us share a root system.

Rabbi Rozovsky and I pulled up in our separate cars outside Temple B’nai Israel in Columbus. The door to the sanctuary was locked. The rabbi suggested we find the nearest McDonald’s. There, he ordered an Oreo McFlurry and we sat in a booth facing a strip of franchises by the highway. He told me his family hails from rural Canada, where, years ago, his grandfather drove his father three hours each way to Montreal every weekend to get a Jewish education. It became a passion of Rozovsky’s to serve small-town Jewish communities, with their “all hands on deck” spirit. “Everyone feels like they’re a stakeholder,” he told me. “You’ll have a lawyer, a doctor, an executive, but they’re there mopping or sweeping. You wouldn’t see that at a big synagogue. There’s an investment. I love it.” He also gets to be closer to his mother in Texas, his fiancée in South Carolina, and his community in Richmond, where he lived from the ages of ten to eighteen. Before that, he came of age in Providence, Rhode Island; he considers himself a New Englander. He likes to tell the congregants that instead of “y’all” he says “yous guys.”

I followed him back to the synagogue. When we arrived, the congregants were setting out a platter of cookies and a pot of coffee in one corner of the sanctuary. Ten of us gathered around a table. The congregation had requested that Rabbi Rozovsky give a presentation on the history of Reform Judaism. He dove in excitedly. “As a history guy I want to go through every day of the last few millennia, but you know, we have to cut it short,” he said.

Here’s what he said about Jews in the South: Jews have lived here since the first white settlers arrived on the land that would become the United States. German and Spanish Jews entered the Americas through Galveston and Charleston and Savannah, establishing both Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues before this country’s founding. A century later, Eastern European Jews fleeing the heightening persecution in their home countries began to join those earlier arrivals, who, by then, knew no other home than the American South. Together they created flourishing Jewish communities in small towns across the region during the first half of the twentieth century. Picture peddlers who’d gained enough capital selling their wares door to door to open brick-and-mortar storefronts that lined main streets in downtowns from Texas to the Carolinas; Jewish mayors in Dumas, Arkansas, and Durham, North Carolina, and Donaldsonville, Louisiana (and Martinsville, Virginia). Yet after the second World War, a generation of Jewish Southerners waved goodbye to their parents, leaving home for the opportunities that only big cities could offer.

The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life grew out of this population shift. It began in 1986 as a response to Jews like my dad leaving the South’s small towns. First, it was a museum housed at a Jewish sleep-away camp in Mississippi: a repository for artifacts and sacred objects that needed a home when synagogues closed across the region. Yet its founders saw a need beyond historic preservation. They recognized a story that exceeded the simple narrative that Jewish communities were dead or dying. So, in 2000, they expanded their operations and began providing educational and rabbinical services to Jewish communities in thirteen states.

In the Jewish South, I learned, necessity has often led to innovation. The ISJL’s creation of Rabbi Rozovsky’s position is a testament to this, and so are many other tales of Jews here seeking leadership wherever they could find it. In his presentation, the rabbi shared that two decades before the first female rabbi was officially ordained in the 1970s, Congregation Beth Israel in Meridian, Mississippi, had named a woman as spiritual leader. In 1950, Beth Israel’s beloved Rabbi Ackerman suddenly passed away. The congregants approached his widow, Paula—a rabbi’s daughter herself, who knew how to lead a service, give a sermon, and conduct marriages and funerals—and appointed her their leader. Her position was harshly opposed by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, but Beth Israel’s membership didn’t care. “This was not in New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco,” Rabbi Rozovsky exclaimed. “This was in Meridian, Mississippi!”

As we wrapped up, Rabbi Rozovsky let the congregants know that he’d be finishing his term with the ISJL in a few months’ time. He had plans to get married and settle down. They thanked him for his time, and insisted he stay the night in Columbus rather than trek to Jackson in the dark, but he swore he could make it back in just a few hours. Everyone began to fold up the tables and put away the snacks and turn off the lights. A white-haired lady in a long red coat approached me. She introduced herself as Emily.

“Are you Jewish?” she asked.

I am, I said. She told me she’s a convert, and pointed to the treasurer holding a coffee cup: “He’s a convert too.” Emily had always been a bit of a doubter, and then one day, at the church here in Columbus where she grew up, she was reciting the creed and thought: I don’t believe this. Everyone was extremely understanding, supportive. “My Catholic relatives in Starkville trooped over to Memphis with me when I went through the beit din,” she said. “Spiritually, it’s been very satisfying. The temple is just like any other church. Ups and downs, advantages and disadvantages, frustrations and so forth. I wish there was a larger community here. There used to be, but they sent their children off to good schools and colleges and they went beyond that. That’s what happens.”

She looked me in the eye. “Jews don’t proselytize, but they can certainly be attractive for a spiritual kind of anchor,” she said. “I always appreciate the opportunity to question and doubt.”

Emily put half a dozen cookies in a Ziploc bag and handed them to me for the road, as if to say: you have a place here. I waved goodbye to her and to Rabbi Rozovsky and left.

When I returned to New Orleans, I met with Anna Tucker, the curator of the soon-to-be-opened Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience. Though the museum is a separate project from the ISJL, the two entities share board members, and the museum bills itself as an expanded vision of the institute’s original repository for the sacred objects left behind when synagogues shuttered across the region. Tucker and I sat in the library of Temple Sinai on St. Charles Avenue with artifacts from Southern Jewish history sprawled on the table in front of us. She presented a wooden tzedakah box with the words social justice affixed to it, and then led me into the sanctuary to show me an identical box sitting atop a pedestal by the door, meant for charitable donations. Tucker thought the older box might have been used in this synagogue during the civil rights era. In 1949, Temple Sinai had housed the first major integrated audience in New Orleans, for a public speech delivered by Ralph Bunche; the next year, Bunche would become the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, which he received for his late 1940s work as a United Nations mediator in Palestine. I imagined those small wooden boxes speaking across generations, signaling that gathering people and resources can bring change.

Back in the library, Tucker brought out a stack of postcards showing the façades of Jewish storefronts across the South, from Levy Bros. in Louisville to Rich’s in Atlanta. I looked for my grandparents’ store in Martinsville, and for my mother’s parents’ store in Charleston, and for the stores that belonged to the ancestors of friends in Knoxville and Cary and Jasper and Swainsboro. I didn’t find any. Many of those stores are likely vacant now, or torn down and remade into something else. I wondered then about tracing the legacies they created, landing me in that synagogue that day, looking back. Tucker told me that the vision for the project is to create a living museum: one that continues to collect, a place where history is built rather than explained. “It should be a space to ask questions,” she said.

After our meeting, I went to sit by the entrance of Audubon Park. On my phone, I pulled up the will for Ohev Zion. When the synagogue closes its doors for good, it will sell its assets—its Torah and ark and stained-glass windows. The profit from the sale will go into a trust, which will be used to ensure maintenance of the cemetery where my grandparents lie, their wooden caskets slowly decomposing, returning them to the earth.

In Judaism, when someone dies, we say, “May their memory be for a blessing.” Sitting in the park, under the shade of a live oak’s winding branches, I considered the empty flower bed around the fountain in front of me. In the spring, it would be bounding with blooms. May their memories be for a garden, I thought. May their stories be ones of regeneration.

This article was originally published in Oxford American and has been reposted with permission.


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