From Challah to Cornbread: Jewish Identity in the South

By | Feb 17, 2012

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.

16 thoughts on “From Challah to Cornbread: Jewish Identity in the South

  1. Marian Jay says:

    Articulated beautifully!

  2. says:

    Great report well written

  3. says:

    Great informative piece ,well written.

  4. Ellen Markman says:

    You have hit the nail on the head, and also uncovered the up side, the silver lining, which is not always easy to see. Well done, Ms Kidd!

  5. Cindy Pasi says:

    I love the sense of connection you get when you pray, and the way you phrased it. For me, I feel that connection not only with those here and now, but with those who for generations before me said those very same prayers. Thank you for a beautiful article.

  6. Allison Fay says:

    Your expressions are “spot on,” with regards to life in The South. Keep writing. There are many who will listen and learn. All the best in your endeavors to educate and communicate to those willing to learn.

  7. Kelly, You wrote a wonderful article on the Jewish experience in the south from your perspective, and it resonates with truth and emotion. Thank you for sharing and keep on writing!

  8. Anna Waldman says:

    I have felt all this warm at Heska Amuna with Rabbi Ferency as he has a more global view of the world. The Rabbi as well as myself, feels that we must reach out to the community and let them know we are here for eveeryone, not just Jewish People.

    The Jewish Law (our Talmud) requires us to speak out when there are wrongdoings that efffect others.

    Very pleased to see this article.:)

  9. Robin M. says:

    Your comments are so true having lived in Knoxville for a short time. It was difficult to be Jewish and raising kids in the Bible Belt where we are in such a minority.

  10. Vicki says:

    My childhood friend in Knoxville sent me your blog and I enjoyed reading it. Your blog brought back memories of a book I read about 10 years ago called, “The Jew Store” by Stella Suberman. If you haven’t read it, you might enjoy reading about a Jewish family moving to the South to open a dry goods store in 1920. I found it to be a fascinating peek into the past. Your blog gives me a peek into the present. Keep writing!

    1. Jeanne Kidd says:

      Hi Vicki- I love this book also, and found it a great expression of the experience of being Jewish in the south in the 20’s.

  11. Shelley Mangold says:

    So proud of you Kelley! Keep up your insightful writing1

  12. Martha Deaton says:

    As a Southener, Kelley Kidd, I had never noticed the phrase “jew you down” in print. I have to say I had an awakening/awareness for the first time that it had a sematic reference. Due to just plain ignorance I grew up believing it simply meant to “haggle” or “negoiate” for the best price or deal on products or services. Growing up in Southern Baptist Kentucky, I had a religious, respectful understanding of the descendants of Abraham and how they needed to “really be saved” but I recovered from that. Thanks to your writing, I am now more aware of the semantics of my conversation. Well written in every way. Keeping an eye on you and your growth and development.

  13. Susan Shor says:

    Kelley-beautifully written article. I am so impressed. You articulated my feelings about being jewish and living in the south perfectly. Keep writing!

  14. Laurie Fisher says:

    Great piece, Kelley! As your bat mitzvah tutor, I know for a fact you do more than just stumble over your Hebrew. 🙂 Your passion for your Judaism was very apparent then and is still going strong. Todah rabbah for writing about the southern Jewish experience. I look forward to hearing more from you in the future!

  15. “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.”

    So well put. I have many Jewish friends in New York City that seem to have loosened their grip on the benchmarks of their faith. Many of them, to their embarrassment, wish they were challenged more to reconnect with a part of themselves that they lost in the smaller temples of their youth.

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