The misadventures of a Jew growing up among southern Christians in the American Bible Belt
Without a doubt, the most boring day of the year in Nashville is Easter Sunday, but the worst is Christmas. This is because in the Bible Belt, Sundays are routinely boring, so Easter isn’t that much worse than any other Sunday. But Christmas stinks, because it might be a Tuesday and you can’t get anything done because everything is closed.
Except bars and movie theaters. And Chinese restaurants.
At this point, I would bet that all Southern Jews are nodding their collective heads. They know what’s coming: the traditional Christmas Day routine of Chinese takeout, a movie, and maybe a beer afterwards. Then back home, to the only unlit house on the block, to watch football or to channel-surf for a Santa-free program.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that I was Jewish, and that it made me a teensy minority in my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Aside from being the capital of country music, Nashville also functions as the unofficial Baptist Vatican.
Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County has more churches per capita than any other city on earth. Nashville has 4 synagogues (1 Orthodox, 1 Conservative, and 2 Reform congregations), 1 mosque, 1 Hindu temple, 1 Ba’hai temple, and 800 churches. It is home to the Baptist Sunday School Board, site of the annual Southern Baptist Youth Convention, site of the annual “March for Jesus” and the epicenter of the Christian music and book industry.
There are at least 31 flavors of Christian churches to choose from, the most popular being Southern Baptist. Other favorites include Free Will Baptist, Missionary Baptist, Evangelical, Church of Christ, Methodist, Southern Methodist, AME, Seventh-Day Adventist, Apostolic, Assembly of God, Church of the Nazarene, Church of God, Pentecostal, Mormon, Unitarian, Presbyterian, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal, and Catholic.
Nashville is also home to that oxymoronic chimera: Jews for Jesus. Messianic Jews, as they call themselves, dress fundamentalist Protestant Christian belief in traditional Jewish practice. They celebrate Jewish holidays, use Hebrew during worship, and worship on Saturday, just like Jews. Except that they believe that Jesus is their Lord and Savior, which makes them Christians. Messianic Jews make it their mission to bring mainstream Jews into their church, but not many mainstream Jews take the bait. Up until recently, the Messianic Jewish congregation in Nashville went by the name “Beit Chaim,” which literally translates as, “House of Life.” Unfortunately for their cause, “house of life” is the ubiquitous Jewish euphemism for “cemetery.”
I was fortunate enough to attend a private school where about 15-20% of the enrollment was Jewish. As a result, USN was often referred to by outsiders as “Jew-SN.” But within USN’s walls, it was safe to be Jewish. The school was very good about educating everyone about religious differences, and I could take my holidays off without having to explain, over and over again, why I wasn’t going to be in school, why I wouldn’t be able to prepare for a test or do homework while I wasn’t in school, or what the holiday meant anyway. USN even offered an elective high school course called “Social Conscience,” which focused on the Holocaust and other historical events precipitated by racial or religious hate. It was a popular class, and not only with the Jewish or black students.
So I was very protected in school, and for that I am grateful. Jewish friends in the public school system or even other private schools were not so fortunate, and had horror stories which ranged from comical, to outrageous, to downright scary. One girl from my synagogue, who didn’t keep kosher (most Jews don’t anymore), had a ham sandwich ripped from her hand by a well-meaning Christian schoolmate shrieking, “You aren’t supposed to eat that!” My sister attended a public high school, and had a young skinhead tell her, “But you CAN’T be Jewish. You’re blonde, and your nose isn’t big enough.” Another Jewish girl, this one a student at an elite girl’s school, found a swastika painted on her locker.
The Baptist Vatican
As for my own personal experience, probably the most worrisome was the time that I went to a Christian friend’s birthday party and one of her friends from church cornered me and hissed, “You know, it’s the Jews that killed Jesus.”
I’ve never been afraid to be Jewish, but I do monitor myself in strange company. I was flying home from college for Passover, which happened to coincide with Easter that year. The cab driver asked me if I was going home for Easter. I said yes.
In the South, “Christian” is synonymous with “good.” I once helped a little old lady retrieve her keys from under her car in a grocery store parking lot. She said, “Bless you, dear. You’re a real Christian girl.” I just said, “Oh, it was nothing.”
It’s not the fear of violence or even a lecture that keeps me quiet. I just have a very conservative view of what constitutes a “teaching moment.” This is where being Southern comes in– like a good Southern girl, I do what I can to make others feel comfortable around me. If I were to check every incorrect, but harmless, assumption about me, I would put people in an awkward position. They’d either become defensive (“Well, you don’t look Jewish to me!”) or feel guilty and, thinking that I am offended, begin to apologize profusely. And I don’t feel I should introduce conflict into a casual interaction when the situation doesn’t permit enough time to resolve it. There’s enough conflict out there without me kicking up more.
Living in the Baptist Vatican makes all Jews a target for predatory evangelism. Just this year, the Southern Baptist Convention made a plea for all Baptists to pray especially vigorously for the souls of Jews during Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur (the two holiest days on the Jewish liturgical calendar), that we might see the light and decide to become Christians. While it’s very kind of them to show such concern for my soul, the full implication of their mission is for the eradication of Judaism. Which really is only a hair of inference away from the eradication of Jews.
Of course the Southern Baptists don’t want to kill us– at least, that’s not their written policy. But in Judaism, physical and spiritual life are deeply embedded in one another. Jews treat conversion as a kind of death. When someone wants to convert TO Judaism, the rabbi is obligated to attempt three times to persuade them, just to make sure that they are truly making a free, educated decision. Speaking of life before conversion is like speaking of the dead, and it is improper for anyone but close friends and relatives to ask questions or gossip about a convert’s previous life.
And if all the Southern Baptists did was pray, then it wouldn’t be so bad. I can certainly understand their position and would respect that, as thoughtless as it is from my point of view. Unfortunately, the Southern Baptists hold so much power in Nashville that they, and fundamentalist denominations with similar intentions, create a very hospitable breeding ground for more extreme measures.
Praying for Jewish souls is really considered the bare minimum for fulfilling one’s evangelical obligations. Many fundamentalist Protestants actively witness for Jews, using every opportunity to personally introduce a Jew to Jesus. This, again, would okay if that’s as far as they went. But some don’t stop there. They’ll ask Jews to read the New Testament. If that Jew refuses, they’ll be persistent, almost harassing.
If the Jew agrees, reads the New Testament, and says, “Thanks, but no thanks–” that’s where the frustration really sets in, and the same litany erupts:
“How can you not believe that? It’s the word of God. Look, it’s right there in front of you! It’s in the Bible, it’s in God’s book! You’re saying you don’t believe the word of God? That you refuse to believe the word of God? That you refuse to follow the word of God, even after seeing it with your own eyes?”
This is where the Jew stops being an ignorant heathen in the evangelist’s eyes and starts to become a sinner. While memories of the Holocaust stop the evangelists from stating this directly, it’s easy enough to infer from their words about Hindus, whom the Southern Baptists claim in a recent decree to be godless, lacking any moral sense of right and wrong, and steeped in a darkness so profound that there is no lamp bright enough to cast it away.
And if being Hindu, or Jewish, is a sin, well, it’s all to easy to follow that one out to its logical conclusion: hopeless sinners are carriers of evil and have no place in a moral, God-fearing community. Church leaders, either out of ignorance or tacit approval, do not take enough responsibility in reminding their flock to love the sinner while hating the sin. The sinner becomes the sin– and thus a target.
I offer up three incidents that happened at my synagogue within the past nine or ten years. First, the bomb threat called in during Yom Kippur services, forcing us to evacuate and dismiss the congregation early. Second, the red swastikas spray painted all along the sanctuary wall the night before Rosh Hoshanah. Third, the bullet holes in the windows facing the street.
These days, there are about five or six uniformed police officers directing traffic around the synagogue on the high holy days. It’s true that the traffic can be a nightmare on those days, but the cops stay visible on the property during the four or five hours in the middle of the service, when the only people coming or going are the occasional latecomers, or people leaving to take their small children home for naps and lunch. The cops are protecting us from more than gridlock.
After the shooting spree at the Jewish Community Center in California, it was obvious that a fresh wave of fear and worry had washed over my congregation in Nashville. My father attended a daily minyan service to say Kaddish for his deceased mother after the shooting. There is a small but regular group of people who always attend minyan, so everyone was startled to see three strange young men walk into the sanctuary.
On a different day, it might have simply been a pleasant surprise– there aren’t always enough worshipers present to conduct a full service, and it would be nice if more young people got involved. But after the shooting, the startlement almost instantly turned into a gnawing sense of fear.
Being Jews in the South, we’d all felt the subtle pings of being a minority, most of us knew the discomfort of being an outsider, and many had experienced the pain of being an outcast. “Are we next?” they wondered.
It turns out that one of the young men was new to Nashville and had stopped in to say Kaddish for his father, and just brought two of his friends along with him.
Despite all of this, I haven’t burned any bridges between the Christian community and myself. Most of the friction is institutional, not individual, and this is, I think, a uniquely Southern situation. There is an old saying that in the South, the whites love blacks but hate the idea of them; while in the North, whites love the idea of blacks but hate them in person. It is true, although usually surprising to non-native-Southerners, that the South has always been more racially integrated than the North. And just as blacks and whites have practically lived in each others’ laps for centuries, Jews and Christians have always lived and worked beside each other– in fact, the Secretary of State for the Confederacy was a Jewish Congressman from Louisiana.
There is relatively little problem at the “I-You” level of interaction. The trouble starts when people start to think in terms of “Us-Them.” This is the poison that trickles down to the individual, and twists his interaction with other individuals.
I will grant that I had an easier time of it than others. My mother was raised Catholic, and converted to Judaism when she married my father, so half of my family is Christian. I didn’t experience the culture shock that many of my Jewish friends did when they left Jewish daycare in order to begin kindergarten. Because my Christian family loved and supported us, I never had a nagging sense that there was a majority out to get us– as huge a shadow as the Southern Baptist Convention is, it can’t compete with the influence that my grandparents, aunts, and uncles have on my life.
So I’ve been more secure in my Jewishness than many Jewish friends. They all went through a hyper-religious phase that I seemed to miss, and actively sought out evidence of discrimination and ignorance in a way that I always found counterproductive. For example, there were four or five Jewish kids in our high school choir at any given time, and I was the only one who never raised an eyebrow or an objection to singing Christmas carols or a selection from a religious oratorio or mass.
To me, it was just music. To them, it was another opportunity to fester over the misunderstandings and insecurities of being a minority. If we had sung a Native American hymn to a sun god, no one would have objected. My fellow co-religionists weren’t having theological qualms about glorifying the name of Christ, they were resentful of the place Christianity holds in the American power structure. I never really felt that resentment.
As a result, almost all of my friends are Christians, as have been all of my boyfriends. The same is true for my sister. While every now and then being Jewish makes us something of a novelty, and sometimes we feel like “pet Jews” or official spokeswomen for the entire Jewish world, this only happens when the subject of religion comes up.
But it rarely does– we’re friends, after all, not delegates to the Rainbow Coalition. Among one another, we are so much more than just Jews or Christians. We are Republicans and Democrats, vegetarians and carnivores, men and women, English majors and computer hackers.
Home Sweet Home
I went to New York City once, and visited the slums on the Lower East Side where my grandparents and great-grandparents once lived, where the paper was printed in Yiddish and there wasn’t a Christmas tree in sight in December. I was envious of those kids who went to public schools that actually cancelled classes on Jewish holidays. It might have been nice to grow up in a neighborhood where everyone else was Jewish, where everyone you knew was Jewish.
But I don’t think I would trade being a Southerner for that.
I love the South. It’s my home, despite those who would wish otherwise. I love the food, I love the culture, the hospitality, the laid-back pace of life, the summer heat, and even some of the music. And the food– did I mention that part? There are places down here where you can get soul food so good it’ll make you believe in God– no matter how you talk to Him.
I’ve had the rare pleasure of hearing Yiddish spoken with a Southern accent. I’ve eaten fried chicken for Hanukkah, and had sweet-potato pie and milk-boiled corn on Rosh Hoshanah. I’ve attended synagogue services where the rabbi greeted the congregation with, “Shalom, y’all.”
Because I never grew up in that all-Jewish neighborhood, I don’t take being Jewish for granted. I think I have a better understanding of what Judaism is and what it means to me because I’ve had to explain it to just about everyone I know. I also never developed that insular, ghetto mentality that sometimes colors the opinions of my Yankee Jewish friends.
I don’t turn Judaism into a cause. There were never enough other Jews around to magnify Judaism beyond the private sphere, so I learned not to rely on external reinforcement for spiritual fulfillment. I am not so quick to cry discrimination when conflict arises, and I tend to be more charitable when I encounter a bad attitude. I can be good friends with a deeply fundamentalist Protestant without reservation or fear. I can move through the Christian world without feeling like a stranger.
A few years ago, my Christian grandparents moved up to Nashville to be near us. None of their Christmas decorations had survived the move, so my father and I went out on a last-minute Christmas-light harvest at the nearby drugstore. Neither of us had ever shopped for Christmas lights before, and we had no idea that they came in so many varieties and sizes. What was the difference between chasers and blinkers? Icicle lights and regular strands? Big bulbs or little bulbs?
Finally we gave up, took our best guess, and grabbed about forty-five feet worth of plain white lights. As we stood in line, looking at our selection, we wondered if it was obvious that we didn’t know what we were doing. We felt like teenage boys buying tampons.
But we paid and got out of the store without incident. Once in the car, my dad and I doubled over in laughter. “Do you think we passed?” My father joked, referring to the practice of light-skinned blacks passing for whites during segregation.
We drove back to my grandparents’ house, where we proceeded to decorate the tree. We arranged the presents underneath and hung around till late at night, visiting with out-of-town relatives and admiring the new baby. We drank mulled wine and hot cider, we ate cookies and candy cane, we called family members long-distance, we wished all a Merry Christmas.
Then, as midnight drew close, we took our leave and went home, back to the only dark house on the block, located the Chinese takeout menu, and decided which movie we would see tomorrow.
Copyright © 2000 by Elizabeth Entman. All rights reserved.
Born in Columbia, South Carolina, Elizabeth Entman spent much of her youth in Nashville, Tennessee. After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, she returned to her beloved South to pursue a writing career in Nashville. She has been published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The preceding post originally appeared in the online multicultural journal New Tribal Dawn, which published essays, fiction and poetry from 1999 to 2007. Although the journal is no longer active, we are preserving its fine literary archive here for posterity.)