Hospitality is a Southern tradition, but apparently only one that anticipates fellow Christian guests. When Lylah, my fabulous feminist Muslim friend, came down to Mississippi to be my maid of honor last winter, I went looking for things to cook for her.
You see, Lylah practices Halal, the muslim dietary laws, outlawing pork but also outlawing certain forms of cruelty to animals in butchery. Observers of Halal are free to eat not only things produced by Muslim butchers but also kosher ones, as the same butchering practices are observed in both Islamic and Jewish traditions.
Near my home in Vicksburg, there is a large Kroger supermarket. It is stocked with numerous international foods. I can get cornichons and wasabi there. However, we went all over the store, to the fresh and frozen meat sections, and the only thing that Lylah could eat that was a dead land animal was found in a Hebrew National hot dog package. I asked the manager of the store where he kept the Kosher products, certainly thinking that Halal was out of the question in the middle of the deep South but that Kosher products must certainly be available. He asked me to repeat the question. I did, and then he told me he had never heard of Kosher meat — what was it?
As a New Yorker, I had never once imagined that Kashrut would not be practiced by somebody in my community. Here is a picture of a man from my old neighborhood, the Seagate section of Coney Island, standing near a plastic palm tree on the beach. Brooklyn is a thriving and diverse place, but Jews are particularly numerous in the population.
When I visited Israel, I ended up touring the various sites with a British photographer. People would stop us and ask us where we were from. When he said he was from the UK, they nodded politely, but when I said I was from Brooklyn, over and over again, the response was, “Brooklyn! Maybe you know my cousin!” Truthfully, maybe I did. Maybe, even if I didn’t know the individual’s Jewish cousin, I had ridden the same trains, eaten in the same restaurants, bought meat at the same counters. Kosher meat is clean meat. I often bought Kosher chickens because they are less bloody.
Jews are part of the fabric of New York to the point where the mainstream culture gets a lot of its slang from Yiddish – plotz, schmuck, schlep, kibbutz, shmear, and schmooze are all words used by people from every ethnicity in town. When I use those words here, I have a fifty-fifty chance of being understood. Antisemitism, while it exists to some small degree in New York City, is a form of anti-New York self-loathing. If a New Yorker happens to say he hates Jews, whether he is Jewish or not, he is really saying he hates himself and his whole community, because the town includes most distinctly all that is wonderful about Jewish culture and tradition — a profound commitment to commonweal and social justice for the poor, a raucous sense of humor that defies every hardship, a respect for learning as something sacred and inviolate, a complex system of negotiating shared space between diverse peoples who get along for the most part without any violence, a profound sense of busy and vivacious commerce that is supple and willing to negotiate to fit the needs of the customer — all these New York things are also first and foremost Jewish things, and anybody who doesn’t think so has simply not done his homework. Likewise, New York foods are often Kosher foods — I spent months when I first arrived here salivating at the memory of a chopped liver bagel from the Second Avenue Deli, of their Kasha Varnishkes, of their soul-affirming chicken soup.
When Lylah first arrived here, I honestly thought it would be no problem to find her some meat, especially since I knew that Vicksburg had a history of having a certain number of Jewish residents. One of the grandest buildings in town where one can host a wedding used to belong to the local B’nai B’rith. One day, when we were driving through a town that is absolutely lovely and not far from where we live, I saw a synagogue of messianic Jews. I heard that there was another one in town as well. I have only recently discovered that these are supersessionist Zionist Christians, most of them people of African-American descent who have converted to a false Judaism layered with an odd, legalistic Christianity.
The Jews have mostly left Vicksburg. They were there largely before the Civil War, back when Mississippi had more millionaires in it than New York did, and while there is no evidence to suggest that the Jews of Vicksburg numbered among those richest people of the nation, they were often engaged in an international commerce of cotton, one where Vicksburg was a hub. However, today there are few Jews in town. Most have moved elsewhere. To the best of my ability to see it, I find no particular incidents of antisemitic discrimination drove them away, only the same forces of commerce that compelled lots of people to leave the South in the early part of the twentieth century.
That said, the Jews are missing. Lylah is coming to spend Christmas with us. I need a Kosher butcher. According to Superpages.com, there is not one Kosher butcher listed within hundreds of miles from my town. The Jews are missing.
This makes me sad. It explains the total lack of Kafkaesque irony in humor around here. It explains the total lack of haggling. It explains the work ethic, which is, let us say, moderated by a sense that if one moves too fast one might bust a button of one’s work shirt. No one would ever say, as one hears fairly frequently in New York in business, “You pay me enough, I’ll finish the job yesterday.” This is a New York sentiment, one entirely compatible with Jewish business practices. The Jews are missing, and commerce runs, to borrow a phrase from Scarlett O’Hara, “as slow as molasses in January.” The Jews are missing, which means that any notion of commonweal is subsumed under what Republicans tout as Christian family values — one that forgets the Bible’s admonition to care for the stranger in the land, something, according to my reading of the Bible, a nation does at its own peril, for God judges the nations, per my reading of all the prophets, according to the way it treats widows, orphans, strangers, and whoever else is vulnerable. I am very sorry the Jews left Vicksburg, whatever it was that took them away.
When Lylah comes, I’ll have Kosher meat flown in from Long Island — Kosher.com has a site that will FedEx me some good chicken, lamb sausages, and beef good for stewing. Then, she’ll go back, and ham will again be on my table. When I want a certain kind of ironic humor, I’ll watch The Daily Show. When I want things done more quickly, I’ll have to take a breath and remember that a New York minute is something I left above the Mason-Dixon Line. When I want justice redolent with mercy, I’ll pray. I pray for the peace of Jerusalem, just as the Bible instructs us to do — all of us, Jew and gentile alike. I pray for peace. Lots of families around here have young people in the military sent overseas to Afghanistan. I pray for peace. As for any complex negotiation with other peoples of shared space — not a problem in a black-or-white-divided community where people stick to themselves. No space needs sharing — we all have room. My husband and I integrate an otherwise black church. I pray for peace. I miss the Jews.