From Challah to Cornbread: Jewish Identity in the South
by Kelley Kidd
Sometimes, when I pray in Hebrew, it feels like cheating. I do not speak Hebrew, beyond my ability to clumsily stumble over a few words and chant what I’ve learned through extensive repetition over time. Nonetheless, when I pray in Hebrew, it does bring me a sense of connection to something more than me—God aside, it allows me to share a practice, an experience, and a history with a community that is scattered all over the world. Part what makes me so passionate about Judaism is that sense of community. Jews experience a strength in small numbers on a global scale that I believe gives us the motivation to endure. In the words of Conservative Rabbi Alon Ferency, “the harder you make it for a religious system, the more likely it is to survive.”
My hometown, Knoxville, Tennessee, is a microcosm of this very idea. Jews are few, but the energy and cohesion of the Knoxville Jewish community is outstanding. Despite having been told by other kids that I was going to h-e-double-toothpicks because I didn’t believe in Jesus, I have never been anything but proud of my faith and eager to represent it as best I can. Jewish Southerners have a deep-rooted belief that it is the responsibility of every Jew in the South to represent us well and put forth a good impression to the many Southerners who have long-standing misconceptions and prejudices, some of whom have likely never met a Jew. Being in the minority comes with an acute sense of self-awareness and the need to be strong and confident in the cause you stand for. Knoxville’s Conservative Rabbi Alon Ferency, whose career began in large Jewish communities like Los Angeles and New York, commented that the minority status “brings people in the Jewish community together for a very high degree of community cohesion. You’d be shocked if you saw that in Chicago.” Similarly, Deborah Oleshansky, a major player in the Jewish community in Knoxville, sees the silver lining of the potentially isolating minority status. Having grown up in the Jewish communities of DC and Boston, she is grateful that in such a small community, Jews are “forced to take ownership, rather than take [Judaism] for granted” the way people in other, more significant Jewish populations might be able to. It becomes “important to be around other Jewish people, to know that you’re not the only one” so the community bands together. There is strength and freedom to be found in small numbers—it is a source of pride, solidarity, and opportunities to “be part of efforts to innovate, create, make new things, and have an impact on the topography” of the religious community. Though, as Oleshansky mentioned in her interview, it takes a much greater effort to get numerically the same results as another larger community might—“our 10% is only 40-50 kids” instead of 300—this challenge allows her to truly get to know everyone in the community.
Similarly, just as Oleshansky wishes we had the resources to implement every great idea, Ferency laments the lack of educational and financial resources available. Yet the lack of outside resources means the “level of opportunity is very high.” Ferency has found that social clubs that facilitate Jewish extra-synagogue interaction have blossomed since being implemented. When it comes to Judaism is the South, and Knoxville in particular, what we “lack in numbers and resources [we] make up for in spirit.”
Despite our resilience so far, as a “double minority”—making up less than 1% of the Southern population and less than 5% of the American Jewish population, the Southern Jew could potentially fade away, becoming assimilated into Bible Belt culture until their Judaism wanes into nonexistence. Though anti-Semitsm is less prevalent, and manifests itself differently, than racism, widespread ignorance persists when it comes to Judaism. Jewish Southerners may not face violence but may encounter phrases such as “Jew you down.” Southerners are also often willing to unabashedly announce that they will pray for your lost soul, or even tell you that you need to be saved. There is also a “huge rabbinic shortage in the deep South,” which is challenging but can help lead to the establishment of a personalized, relatable Southern Judaism. The Institute of Southern Jewish Life, whose mission “is to facilitate being Jewish in small Southern towns…in every possible way, from rabbinic services to Jewish education to cultural programs using to cemetery upkeep and preservation to preservation of historic synagogues,” has established a non-denominational Jewish curriculum that Knoxville’s Temple Beth El has implemented to help youth gain an understanding of their faith. Manifesting pride in these youth is at “the heart of Jewish survival.” If they can feel that sense of identity and community, even if they’re a small-town Jew, they can understand their place in the global Jewish communityt.