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By Deborah Biskin Levine
What does it say about the resilience of the Jewish people when you can
purchase kosher meat and freshly baked challah at the same place you can buy
a pair of cowboy boots, a rod and reel and a pup tent--the Wal-Mart in
Nashville, Tennessee? Volumes! In a city that is the buckle of the Bible
Belt, otherwise known as the Protestant Vatican and cradle of the Ku Klux
Klan, Jews maintain an identity and a presence.
The vast majority of the American Jewry is clustered in metropolitan
areas. Many urban dwellers are provincial enough to believe that fellow Jews
don't reside in places like Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Elmira, New York or
Provo, Utah and certainly not in southern cities like Nashville or Memphis.
The famous New Yorker cover depicting a New Yorker's view of the world also
captures the sentiments of how Jews living in metropolitan areas view Jews
A local resident of Nashville, Ahron Lucas describes a little joke he
plays every summer on Jewish kids who visit his city on teen tours.
Inevitably, one of them will tell him that they never realized that there
were any Jews in the South with the exception of Florida and Atlanta. Ahron
feigns shock that they had not heard of the famous Jewish Civil War
general from Nashville named Beauregard HaLevi and then instructs them to go
home and reread their American history textbooks. The kids are fascinated as
he regales them with tall tales about this "war hero's" exploits. Then,
Ahron pulls a piece of "Civil War" memorabilia out of his pocket--a kippah
decorated with tiny confederate flags around the border and with the
general's Hebrew name, "Baruch Pesach" woven into the yarn. It's at that
point that most of the kids realize that the joke is on them and that small
town, southern folk can laugh at themselves.
How do Jews survive in "galut" outside of places like New York,
Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles? First of all, some venues may not be
exactly as they seem. Nashville is home to the Grand Old Opry and fried
catfish but it is also the host to Vanderbilt University, the Tennessee
Performing Arts Center and the state government. With a population of around
seven or eight thousand Jews, the city boasts four synagogues and a fledgling
Hebrew Day School. Each of these institutions is housed in beautiful
buildings that don't have mortgages. You can buy kosher meat at Wal-Mart
along with spaghetti sauce, challah and a huge variety of prepared foods.
Tami Peiser, a local resident who complained about the dearth of kosher
products at Wal-Mart was instrumental in getting the food into the store and
now acts as a consultant to the chain. Heddy Bernstein has two big freezers
in her house and sells frozen, kosher chicken and cheese to residents.
According to Susan Lucas, another Nashvillian, "you won't starve keeping
kosher in Nashville".
Residents participate in other types of mitzvot that are primarily
handled by paid professionals in other places. For example, Dr. Kenneth
Jacobs, a distinguished surgeon donates his services to perform all of the
britot in town, Sylvia Ruskin takes it upon herself to call all newcomers
on the telephone and welcomes them to her city. Ahron and Susan Lucas
complete taharot for the local chevra kadisha, and since Nashville is such a
small community, Ahron executed the tahara for his own father and Sylvia for
her mother-in-law. It seems like everyone pitches in.
It might seem easier to let things fall by the wayside. If you didn't
keep kosher in Nashville most people probably wouldn't blame you. After all,
it is pretty difficult. You certainly can't walk out of your door and eat
kosher Chinese, Japanese or Mexican food. This is not the Upper west side,
Brookline or West Rogers Park. It's an effort and you have to plan ahead. The
drive to Wal-Mart is a good distance from where most Jewish folks live and
Heddy Bernstein doesn't get chicken every day. Before there was challah at
Wal-Mart, people baked their own. But, sometimes these little voids help
build community. Susan Lucas says, "if you run out of chicken, and you're
having guests for Shabbat, you can always call on a neighbor and borrow some
poultry because everyone understands."
Living successfully in galut means that sometimes necessity has to be
the mother of invention. If you want a mitzvah to be performed and there is
no one else to do it you just have to step up to the plate and take
responsibility. In that sense, it may be easier to maintain a Jewish
identity, to not allow yourself to get lost in the woodwork because your
body counts for something.
It's an amazing thing to see centuries old Jewish traditions being
carried out in places where logic would dictate that they would die. The take
home message from the good people of Nashville? There are a few. Judaism and
Jews are tough. They survive and bloom almost anywhere with a little
nurturing and ingenuity. It's not the place that makes people Jewish, it's
Judaism. And for those who can too easily get a good pastrami sandwich or a
knish when the urge strikes the truth is that they are still living in galut
even though they may occassionally forget that reality. In order to keep
Jewish life vibrant in any community, each member needs to feel a sense of
responsibility and jump into the fray of performing mitzvot.
Deborah Biskin Levine is a freelance writer living in Albany, New York. Her
first book, Acts of Loving-Kindness (Jewish Publication Society) is due out
in April of 2002.
from the August 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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