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Out of Context: A New York Jew in the New South

ISSUE:  Summer 1995

Scooped from the ethnic stew of New York City, I was unprepared for the phenomenon of Southern indirection, unfamiliar with the unmeant gush of Southern speech. Over the years I have grown to recognize and appreciate these qualities, even to admire the quick deployment of pretended enthusiasm so evident in my daughters’ social graces. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that they are capable of an occasional mannered effusion. They are, after all, Southern women, each of them born in Memphis’s Raptist Memorial Hospital, each provided with a photograph, taken a day after their births, on an ersatz certificate that bears the happy announcement, “She’s a Baptist Baby.”

They were really Jewish babies, and I was delighted at that first in a series of amusing incongruities. Perhaps my favorite is the picture of my younger daughter Miriam, who, in her capacity as president of the student body of St. Mary’s Episcopal School, was given the honor of leading the commencement procession in the Church of the Holy Communion. The gigantic school banner she carried displayed an enormous cross, as she was followed down the aisle by the bishop and other dignitaries to the accompaniment of Beethoven’s Ninth, Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” transformed into the Christian “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” What would her grandmother have made of it, she whose world embraced the orthodox Jewish rituals of the East European shtetl, and who dismissed anyone more rigorously observant than she with, “That’s fanatic already”? The Jewish immigrant ambience was about to disappear when I was thrust into it in the Bronx of the late 40’s and early 50’s. Its impact on me was incalculably greater than I was prepared to acknowledge. To the mystification of my sociology instructor at Hunter College, I suggested the Ladies Auxiliary of the Independent Zaliescyker Verein, an immigrant Galician self-help fraternity, as an example of a “primary group.” Ladies auxiliaries are now passe, but they abounded in my formative years. After all, a required rite of passage for young Jewish New Yorkers in the 1950’s was to attend concerts by Pete Seeger at the Society for Ethical Culture, itself an equivocal testimony to Jewish acculturation. As part of his routine, Seeger recounted having been asked by the ladies auxiliary of a labor union to compose a song in its honor, and proceeded to sing to the tune of nothing in particular, “Oh, the Ladies Auxiliary is the best auxiliary of all the auxiliaries in the whole auxiliary.” This redundancy was hardly inappropriate for the lead singer of the Weavers, who had, to my unspoken delight, almost reached the top of the pops in 1951 with their rendition of the Israeli “Tzena, Tzena,” only to have it place behind the flip side of the record, the eminently mainstream “Good Night, Irene” (the second line of which was, predictably, “Irene, Good Night”).

I go through all of this in such tedious detail, not because I have some profound point to make about the clash of cultures, but because it may have some bearing on my encounter with the South and, in particular, with Southern Jewry, a peculiar amalgam of the most unlikely characteristics. In his evocative “personal history” of Jews in the South, The Provincials, Eli Evans considers Southern Jewry as both a part of and apart from the region, a theme he revisits in his more recent anthology, The Lonely Days Were Sundays. Among his reminiscences, Evans recounts an ostensible compliment he once received from a fellow Southerner— “You ain’t like them New York Jews.” I have now spent about as much time in Memphis as Evans has spent in New York. We may unknowingly have crossed paths in Chapel Hill or Durham, North Carolina, where his father was mayor and I was a history graduate student. That his current collection of essays dwells on the South and says relatively little about New York suggests that his odyssey has left him less baffled than mine has me in our respective encounters with the locals.

To be sure, context is everything, and New York oddities are bound to confound the provincial. In what other city is one able to spot a sign that, the last time I looked, still adorned the wall adjacent to the delicatessen counter at Zabar’s, the renowned food emporium on the Upper West Side: “All kosher meats when sliced become non kosher.” When I recited this admonition to an aging logical positivist in my university’s philosophy department, he was not amused and wanted to know, “How do they eat it?” I had to explain what the New York clientele undoubtedly knew, that the slicer, in contact with swine and otherwise acceptable but improperly slaughtered beasts, contaminated the hitherto kosher salami or corned beef, and that the patrons of Zabar’s, knowing this, blithely ate on. The need to expatiate on what would be obvious to the cognoscenti detracts from the immediacy of the encounter. Or, put more simply, the tale loses something in the telling. Rut at least such phenomena are explicable. So are the linguistic acrobatics that New York Jews performed, merrily transforming parts of English speech, as in the mutation of the grocer’s question, “Who’s next?” into the customer’s protest, “Excuse me, it’s my next.”

I have experienced equivalent moments in the South, where context alters meaning. Recently, in our university’s search for a president, none of the three finalists was sufficiently gauche to list his religion. Rut the more discerning among the faculty, indeed even some among the administration, could reach the appropriate conclusion from the charitable organizations each participated in—the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, the Church of Christ Summer Day Camps, and the Church of Latter Day Saints’ Foreign Missions. So when I heard some of my louder colleagues in Mitchell Hall muttering, “Let’s get the Jew,” it did not sound as ominous a prospect as would otherwise have been the case. A pogrom was not at hand.

A cultural lag obtains at my university, and the trendy relativism of literary theory has not altogether caught on, at least not with the secretarial staff, who proceed under the illusion that language has meaning and that there is a right and wrong even to such matters as pronunciation. Accordingly, I felt—as they say in contemporary parlance— empowered, when my department secretary asked me to serve as sole and final arbiter on the issue of whether a candidate for a Russian history position, one Kupperstein, was right when he pronounced his name Kuppersteen; or was his wife’s insistence on Kupperstine correct? A mixed marriage if ever there was one. The wife’s version was, no doubt, more uptown, but true to my heritage I opted for “steen” over “stine,” a triumph for the proletariat, the inarticulate mass, and for history from below.

Pronunciation, inflection, accent—these are precious to varieties of Southerners, whatever their condition in the current taxonomy of race, class, or gender. For example, the Southerner appears physiologically incapable of rendering the Yiddish epithet, schmuck, as one syllable. Rather, it is strung out to at least two and, in the rendition of remarkably patient Arkansans, three. Let it be understood. This drawl is not a self-important affectation, as in the multisyllabic God invoked by Philip Roth’s rabbi in Portnoy’s Complaint. But the obverse applies as well—polysyllabic words are both conflated and extended, an affliction, moreover, that affects Southern Jews. Accordingly, the Yiddish writer Peretz is painfully elongated as Pe’ehhtz, the letter “r” elided ever so gingerly. This peculiarity attests one of Evans’s observations—that Southern Jewry partakes of the larger culture, which, one infers, invariably makes the whole more than the sum of its phonetic parts.

That “Pe’ehhtz” should have been uttered by an erstwhile working class Jewish Southerner—an Atlanta native who had in his youth been connected with the Socialist Workmen’s

Circle—was, as we academic types say, not altogether without interest. For my own working class origins coupled with my Jewish identity are the cultural boundaries that mark a high point in my Memphis sojourn. As Evans observed some two decades ago, the vestigial prejudice of Jewish exclusion from country clubs remains an irritant to many Southern Jews, who must persevere as outsiders looking in. It is hardly surprising that one of “them New York Jews,” an outsider among the outsiders, should have forced the issue in the case of the St. Mary’s Father-Daughter Dance. This function, a highlight of the social calendar, had traditionally been held at the restricted Memphis Country Club, and I count it among my most formidable triumphs that I should have caused its change of venue to the more egalitarian and commodious Memphis Racquet Club. There it continues annually, notwithstanding the good-natured banter of a school administrator, for whom I caused much grief, that she would have it return to the Country Club once my younger daughter graduated. My achievement may be somewhat less impressive, given that St. Mary’s is among the more enlightened as well as prestigious private institutions in town. Lamentably, such is not the case across the board.

Not to say that there is no snail-like progress. The University Club has recently extended membership to an African-American, albeit one who, to judge by a photograph in the local alternative press, can “pass.” Such publicity attests the remarkable resilience of a culture of exclusion, one that remains all the more entrenched in the enlarged private educational establishment. That exclusion persists is more a matter of amusement than irritation to me, though I can well understand how excluded natives may feel differently. A boys’ equivalent to St. Mary’s, the prestigious and non-denominational Memphis University School, is invariably referred to by its initials, no doubt as testimony to its eminence. Some years ago, a Jewish woman whose son was about to enter high school pondered the relative advantages of enrolling him in MUS or Christian Brothers. She decided on the latter, MUS, as she put it, being “too goyish.” It has recently authenticated that reputation by the school administration’s indifferent response to an audible anti-Semitic slur directed at a Jewish student by a classmate. The student’s father, a prominent businessman, promptly withdrew his son from the School. For MUS, gentility remains the preserve of the gentiles.

Perhaps the combination of class and geographical dislocation account for my uncanny consistency in remaining out of step with prevailing local opinion. An outsider among the outsiders, I have been diverted when locals were embarrassed, and only mildly disappointed when others have been outraged. I have not, for example, been caught up in Mem-phis’s preoccupation with gaining recognition. On occasion the efforts succeed, as in the “Wonders” series that has brought to the city exhibitions on ancient Egypt, the Etruscans, the Ottomans and, less successful perhaps, Catherine the Great and Napoleon. But on things that folks really count, such as an NFL franchise, Memphis consistently loses, as it did in a recent competition when Charlotte and Jacksonville were selected as expansion teams.

Oddly enough, the small Jewish community experienced an early triumph in the municipal quest for renown. In 1966, before the ensuing rage for ethnicity, Memphis hosted the annual meeting of the American Jewish Historical Society. Those attending included prominent scholars from a variety of disciplines, for most of whom American Jewish history was necessarily an avocation. As the resident Jews in the local University’s history department, my wife and I attended a banquet that was to be addressed by the keynote speaker, Professor Howard Morley Sachar of George Washington University. The occasion also served as an opportunity for the recently-elected mayor to welcome the group to Memphis. The mayor had been the underdog “liberal” candidate, his unexpected victory attributed by political pundits to the enduring gratitude of a constituency he had cultivated as a lenient traffic court judge. That same generosity of spirit was at work when he welcomed the American Jewish Historical Society to Memphis. The mayor held forth on the significance of Jews throughout history. He had been told that the Old Testament was written by Jews, and he had heard it prated about—though there appeared to be no confirmation for this—that some of the early followers of Jesus himself were Jewish. Moreover, as everyone knew—no qualification here—the first European to set foot in the New World from the gangplank of what the Mayor called Columbus’s Santa Nina was Jewish. Finally, right here on our local circuit court, Judge Rernie Weinman also was Jewish. Notwithstanding the visible uneasiness of his audience, the mayor proceeded to note that the Jews owned all the department stores in Memphis. He then named them—Goldsmith’s, Lowen-stein’s, Gerber’s, Shainberg’s. Finally, the mayor observed, “We don’t have any ghettoes in Memphis,” and concluded with the reassurance, “What’s more, we don’t aim to start any.”

So deft an exhibition of historical abridgement was a rare treat for me. Not so for the locals, whose reaction was not unlike that precious scene in an otherwise tasteless movie, The Producers, wherein an opening-night Broadway audience is aghast at a supposedly satirical number, “Springtime for Hitler and Germany.” I confess that I responded to the mayor’s remarks with uncontrollable laughter, ending only when he departed to inflict his liberality of sentiment on the innocent guests awaiting his appearance at a Greek-Orthodox wedding.

The mayor was defeated in his bid for re-election, a development I would not ordinarily lament but for the tragedy associated with his successor. To the relief of some in the Jewish community, the new mayor, Henry Loeb, was a convert to the Episcopal Church. Mayor Loeb’s obduracy during the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike brought Martin Luther King to the city, where he was assassinated in April, 1968.

For a New Yorker of my generation, Memphis politics was fascinating and strange. While far more conservative politically than I had known Jews to be, the Memphis Jewish community still had a disproportionate number of activists engaged in the civil-rights struggles of the 1960’s. Some of them publicly remonstrated with Mayor Loeb. One, an older woman, participated in a women’s march to protest the administration’s intransigence in refusing to negotiate with the strikers. She upbraided the mayor with an ingenuously withering observation—”What happened to you Henry? You used to be such a nice boy.” To which the mayor, in his typical John Wayne manner, replied, “Ma’am, I do what I think is right.” The other, more celebrated encounter, involved Rabbi James Wax, who served as president of a small Memphis Ministers Association that tried, however unsuccessfully, to avert disaster. After King’s murder, they assembled and marched, belatedly some thought, to City Hall, the dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral seizing the processional cross to lead the entourage. Memphians saw the ministers confront the mayor on network television, Rabbi Wax, like an Old Testament prophet, calling on him to acknowledge, “There are laws greater than the laws of Memphis and Tennessee— the laws of God.”

It is hardly surprising that the rabbi’s behavior distressed many in the community who sought peace at any price. Why rock the boat? Ironically the intervening decades appear to have transformed both the local Jewish community and me, so that once again I am out of step, still an outsider among the outsiders, though attitudes appear to be reversed. Those previously accommodating seem to have become needlessly assertive, almost defiant, and I, one of “them New York Jews,” have grown nostalgic for a civility and tolerance that I would once have belittled as obsequious. Perhaps I have unfairly identified some dubious, recent events with the region and have taken on the protective posture of someone embarrassed by developments understandably skirted in public discussion. Weren’t there too many Jews among those prominent inside traders convicted of securities fraud in the eighties? Has the fundamentalist ethos become so pervasive as to be perceived as typically Jewish? Is the Messiah really coming to Roca Raton? Is it wise to put the arm on the university president to change the spring commencement from Saturday to Friday afternoon so that the few Jewish graduates who observe the Sabbath can attend, while inconveniencing a principally working-class constituency whose parents and relatives would have to take a day off from work? Should educational institutions have to offer Judaic studies curricula for which there is no constituency? Did some Jewish religious schools fraudulently obtain federal funds? Has the Holocaust been trivialized?

Still, there’s something to be said for bad taste. It beats victimhood. After all, one of the aspirations of an earlier Zionist generation was to attain “normalcy,” so that in a celebrated story, no doubt apocryphal, the news that a Jew was arrested for theft by the British Mandate authorities in 1930’s Palestine provoked the gratifying observation, “At last, we are a people.” To be sure, there is a price to be paid for normalcy in the loss of sympathy from those in love with victims. One of my colleagues, a burdened, academic misanthrope, cannot forgive individuals or groups that pick themselves up off the floor, so that Israel, the Jews, and now the blacks have betrayed his trust and forfeited his compassion.

Perhaps what I take to be an increasingly jut-jawed defiance of the host culture, as the sociologists call it, is a national phenomenon that is only minimally reflected in my own community. After all, the host culture itself has acquired numerous Jewish associations, if only in a superficial sense. I refer not only to the increasing presence of Yiddishisms in American speech, but to the insinuation of familiarity by the general populace with what was once in itself considered parochial. One can hardly complain about exclusions if the popular culture has absorbed the frame of reference of a hitherto excluded minority. Rut the phenomenon is misleading in its simplification, as in a local newspaper’s summary of a movie to be shown on television some years ago. It was an adaptation of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, a passable novel that addresses the conflict between Chassidic and modern orthodox traditions within Judaism. As the newspaper blurb had it, it was about “two boys from different backgrounds who become friends,” hardly a meaningful description for rural, or even urban, Southerners. The homogenization of popular culture leads to such ambiguous familiarity. How else explain the baffling effort by a freshman on a world history examination, who described Siddhartha Gautama’s teaching of the Middle Path as “an alternative to a Chassidic lifestyle”?

The local Jewish community’s insularity endures, perhaps as a legacy of a time when it was more marginal than it now is. Frequently absorbed by affairs within, it is prone to occasional incidents of ethnocentrism on a par with the old joke about the elephant and the Jewish question. In the winter of 1994, for example, the mid-South, as the region is now known, was hit by a severe storm that knocked out power to the city and surrounding area, in some cases for as much as two weeks. The local Jewish newspaper, anachro-nistically named The Hebrew Watchman, carried the headline, “Brutal Ice Storm Leaves Jewish Community Shivering.”

That community is more varied than its members may admit though, to be sure, the old divisions between descendants of German Jewry and the more recent East European are no longer so evident. And yet, the past pulls at us. One need only read the fiction of Steve Stern to discover that Memphis Jews are also imbued with a sense not only of where they are but of what they emerged from. If the vital, timeless East-European Jewish neighborhood Stern creates in Memphis’s Pinch district attests his powerful imagination, it has its roots in a past that belies the prevailing view of a community at once monolithic and homogeneous.

While the larger society is increasingly marked by its mobility and fragmentation, a disproportionate number of Memphis Jews return to the city after college or professional school. Even those who marry in from other sections of the country sometimes find the community, to mix a metaphor, a tough nut to crack. This inbred quality may reflect the proverbial rootedness of Southerners that reinforces a traditional Jewish emphasis on family. It is evident, as well, in the curious phenomenon of “associate membership” in some synagogues, ordinarily signifying that the member belongs elsewhere but in deference to family connection continues on the rolls, albeit in what may be designated a diminished capacity.

A corresponding form of coexistence with the larger community persists in some seemingly innocent accommodations. I recall my very first visit to Memphis’s closest approximation to New York’s Zabar’s, the high society supermarket, Seessel’s. It was there, decades ago, that I discovered “braided egg bread.” Who are you kidding, Mr. Seessel? Your braided egg bread is challah, the traditional loaf associated with the Jewish Sabbath and religious holidays. If God had intended it to be called braided egg bread, He would have called it braided egg bread. A baker’s version of the Mosaic persuasion, braided egg bread survives as a 19th-century euphemism, obsolete under the New Dispensation of Ethnic Pride.

A recent if small migration of Russian Jews to Memphis has restored challah to its proper place. Even before their arrival, braided egg bread was becoming suspect. It must have been objectionable to Herbie who, trained as a lawyer, abandoned the life of the bar to follow his true calling as a baker. While I have never met Herbie, I was a frequent consumer of his challah, which, before Herbie’s departure for Israel, was swiftly becoming a regional delicacy destined to rival Memphis barbecue—as inappropriate a New World combination as one would care to devise. Not only is barbecue non-kosher or trayf, as the Yiddish expression has it—inedible by those who observe the dietary laws—but Memphis barbecue has the added defect of being pork, as opposed to the Texas beef variety.

That I was unconstrained by dietary or other restrictions accounted for my involvement in an episode that restored a sense of mystery to my musings about Southern Jewry. The occasion was Hershel’s marriage to Sarah, a young woman from Birmingham, Alabama. The orthodox wedding was scheduled for a Saturday evening, and Hershel had asked Herbie to bake a challah sufficient for distribution to the five hundred guests at the reception to follow the service. Given the prohibition against travel on the Sabbath, the problem was how to transport the gigantic loaf some two hundred miles to Birmingham after its baking in Memphis on Friday afternoon. I had no such problem, having long since strayed from strict observance. Besides, with the back seat down, my 1977 Plymouth station wagon could just about contain Her-bie’s creation. Before my wife and I left Memphis on Saturday morning, we preserved the event for posterity. We have a photograph of Miriam—the very same younger daughter who was later to lead the commencement procession at St. Mary’s school—stretched out next to Herbie’s challah in the trunk of our open station wagon, the girth and breadth of the challah taking up far more space than she.

The challah bounced around as we drove along U.S. 78, then a two-lane road traversing the dreary terrain from Memphis through northern Mississippi, then past the state line into Alabama. I pulled up next to the new self-service pumps at a gas station in Iuka, Mississippi. A country gospel send-up that I had heard only once before was barely audible from the service bay some thirty yards away. It was Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys’ rendition, “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews like Jesus, Anymore.” As I pumped Good Gulf into the gas tank, one of two mechanics ambled out of the service bay and walked around the perimeter of the wagon, observing Herbie’s odd creation from a variety of perspectives. He then called his partner. “Hey, Jim Bob, get your ass over here.” The two continued staring at Herbie’s work until I finished pumping the gas and handed over a twenty dollar bill in payment. “Thanks,” said Jim Bob, adding, “that’s the damndest challah I’ve ever seen.”

Go figure.


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PghMike4's picture
PghMike4 · 9 years ago

Just stumbled on this, looking to find where I can buy (another) Herbie's challah in Pittsburgh.  Great story, perfect ending!



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