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Mississippi Kosher


PUBLISHED: May 19, 2015

As you drive in the summer toward Utica, Mississippi, the blacktop’s rising heat waves seem to melt away modernity. Jackson’s derelict retail sprawl ebbs, replaced by Southern countryside tropes—pine groves humming with cicadas, sunlit barns, farmlands dotted with dusty hay bales. And churches—a lot of churches.

There are roughly thirty-one of them serving Utica’s estimated 820 residents—36.4 percent of whom live below the national poverty line. That’s one for every twenty-six people, roughly nine of whom are very, very poor. Places with actual names like Greater Zion Church, New Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, and Mt. Zion Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. Drive farther on, past front lawns peppered with fake deer pockmarked by target practice, and you’ll eventually come upon a no-name dirt road, at the end of which is Henry S. Jacobs Camp, the largest Jewish summer camp in the Deep South.

Utica is no fount of Judaic culture and history. Virtually no Jews lived there until the camp opened in 1970. Its first director, Macy Hart, began his tenure at the age of twenty-two, and would oversee the camp’s growth and transformation for the next three decades. 

“It was going to be a two-year stint for me. I was going to go to law school, come back to Mississippi, and run for governor one day,” he tells me. “And one of the reasons I was able to get that job was because there were a number of people who had been recruited or applied for it, but then they found out it was in Mississippi, so they didn’t take it.”

For many, the proposition sounded like being stranded on an island, the unlucky winner fated to become Robinson Crusoe in a yarmulke staring out at a vast sea of Southern goyim. If you lived somewhere like Hart’s hometown of Winona, Mississippi, where the closest semblance of a congregation was eighty miles away, overseeing an outpost of Southern Jewish youth was a vast improvement.

Under Hart’s direction, Henry S. Jacobs Camp provided a central location for kids from Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama to feel Jewish and normal for the first time in their lives. Hiking, swimming, making out, eating together in a dining hall—normal, summer-camp things. But it was this latter experience that posed a problem.

The Deep South’s emphatically treyf cuisine makes it nearly impossible to keep kosher below the Mason-Dixon Line, and shipping in specially prepared meals was never financially feasible for the new camp. To top it off, there weren’t enough staff to properly run a kitchen, much less ensure everything adhered to kashrut. The dining hall was to be a formative environment for developing a renewed, post-Shoah sense of Judaic pride and culture, but how could that even begin if the menu featured hot dogs and spareribs? Not for the first time, Southern Jews needed to adapt. Help came from a few miles down the road when Hart hired workers under the advisement and direction of the first head cook, Georgia Caldwell, a native Utican.

Caldwell managed the kitchen until her health forced her into a supervisory role, but she still sat on the sidelines, overseeing food preparation until her retirement. During this time, a woman named Allie Mae Steele took over, bringing her seventeen-year-old daughter, Emma, along with her. Emma babysat Macy Hart’s daughter, Leah, until she was asked to join her mother in the kitchen.

“I had went through some cooking classes and stuff, but mostly I learned it from my mom and Mrs. Caldwell. I used to watch them all the time,” Emma Steele Young says from her home in Utica.

“We tried to keep kinda kosher,” she adds with a note of conciliation in her voice.

Hart didn’t need rabbinic rulings for dining; he kept his own strict rules for camp food preparation. Nothing processed, nothing wholesale, and nothing mass produced. Typical meals included dishes like squash casserole, spinach lasagna, roast turkey, and brisket.

“We even made our own bagels for a stretch,” Hart remembers. “I brought in another crew at three in the morning, and they would bake bagels for Saturday morning brunch, which was a big deal.”

The dining hall was to be a major experience in the campers’ religious upbringing, according to Hart. Meals were almost always followed by either educational programming, song sessions, or skits, all located on the small stage in the front of the room.

“All of a sudden, the Jewish world had a self-esteem that it never had before [the 1967 Six-Day War]. You had people protesting about praying in Jesus’ name. It used to be we didn’t make waves,” Hart says.

Hart was determined to instill these ideals before, during, and after meals. The Birkat Hamazon, the Hebrew grace after eating, was brought back and taught to the campers, transformed from the typically liturgical, nasal intonation into a modern sing-along.

“Kids were learning things—the Birkat, the Hamotzi [blessing before eating], how to really do a Shabbat. A lot of this teaching of Hebrew was done in the dining halls with music. The song sessions became major teaching tools,” says Hart.

The sociopolitical dynamics of African-American women working in the kitchen for a predominantly white clientele was not lost on Hart, or Young.

“If one of our campers were to say, ‘I wonder what the maids are gonna cook tonight?’ they were always corrected,” Hart recalls. “These ladies are professional cooks. We made statements about [equality], and give dignity in the eyes of others.”

“They treated us the way they treated everybody else,” remembers Young. “They was nice, they was sweet, they was kind.” 

Macy Hart left his position as director in 2000, when the Reform movement was beginning to show signs of significant change and restructuring. A new generation of Jews are affiliating themselves less with actual synagogues and theology, and more with culture and tradition, if anything at all. A 2013 Pew study found that only 68 percent of Jews born after 1980 consider themselves religious, compared to a full 93 percent born in the early to mid-twentieth century. Add a crippling national recession on top of that, and institutional Judaism loses not only followers, but funding, as well.

“We hoped to be able to run Jacobs Camp as a year-round facility, there just wasn’t the business there to justify it, and we had to adjust it to a summer-only facility,” says Mark J. Pelavin, spokesperson for the Union for Reform Judaism. “It became impossible to sustain a full-time kitchen staff. It was difficult, but we have to make the decisions for the good of the camp.”

He spells it out more simply.

“We’re not in the food business. We’re in the creating Jewish experience business, and as we think about how to make the best use of our resources, it makes more sense for us to focus on the things that we do uniquely well.”

“What was your name again?” Young says when asked about the end of her Jacobs Camp career. Her tone shifts abruptly—quieter now, slower and more deliberate. “To be honest, it was devastating. I went to work one morning at eight, and fifteen minutes later, I didn’t have a job.”

Young, along with almost the entirety of the full-time kitchen and maintenance staff, was let go due to budgetary constraints in October 2013. Since then, HSJ has contracted its kitchen work to larger companies specializing in food services, statewide groups that staff places like school lunchrooms.

“I don’t know necessarily if they’re from Utica as opposed to, say, Jackson, or someplace else nearby. But I think that they’re overwhelmingly local people,” says Pelavin.

When asked what she is doing now, Young doesn’t hesitate.

“Actually, I haven’t found anything. I’m still unemployed,” she says. “Macy had heard of a couple jobs that were hiring in the area, but mostly my concern was that, in 2012, my husband had a major stroke, and so he is really unable to take care of himself.”

Young doesn’t like dwelling on the hurt from the past. Instead, she talks about how life at Jacobs continues to affect her and those she loves, even after her career at the camp.

“Actually, my family and I had accustomed to eating, if you wanted to say Jewish food. We came to love that kind of food. It’s good to us. That’s how I cook here at home,” Young says. “And it’s helped me out, because my husband can’t eat fried food anyway. Sometimes, you can’t see things when it happens, you don’t know why they happen, but farther on down the line you find out it came in handy.”

The current HSJ staff wouldn’t comment on the current status of kitchen workers due to contractual negotiations for the upcoming summer session, but Pelavin knows how important this particular camp’s survival is for the Reform movement.

“It’s something we’re quite proud of, the unique, indispensable role Jacobs Camp plays for the Southern Jewish community. It’s just a different place.”

Pelavin pauses, recalling a board meeting he attended at HSJ last year.

“I was really struck by everyone going around the table and introducing themselves by explaining that they met their wives at Jacobs, and that their children met their spouses at Jacobs, and their brother met his spouse at Jacobs. You know, not just one or two of them, but pretty much every one of them, it was central to their lives.”

Asked if she still is hurt by what happened, Young pauses.

“[For] people thinking about going to Jacobs Camp, I mean, I don’t know anything about the cooking over there now,” she says, laughing, “but it’s still a terrific place to go…It’s a beautiful facility. It was a great workplace. I would recommend it to anybody. I knew [the current camp director], she was one of the children there under me that I watched grow up. She had spoken to me and asked if I was doing okay.”

The summers in Utica can be brutal, and the heat waves rising from the roads seem to have an opposite effect as you drive away from Jacobs Camp, back toward the cities, suburbs, and strip malls. The stories aren’t much different there, either. People try to adapt to uncertainty, compromise when they can, and rely on faith when they can’t.

 

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