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If It's Matzah Balls with Gravy, It Must Be Seder Time Down South

March 2002

This article is reprinted with permission of JTA.

NEW YORK, March 13 (JTA) The buzz of Passover may be a little harder to hear in sleepy Southern towns. But it's not because Jews there are working any less furiously to prepare for the holiday.

Observing Passover in a region where Jews are few and far between means struggling to secure enough resources--both people and products--for the occasion.

Contrary to the perception of persecution in the South, the area has been relatively hospitable to Jews, Southern Jews say. In the Bible Belt, it often matters less which religion one is, as long as one's religious.

For Macy Hart, who grew up in the only Jewish family in Winona, Miss., the second seder was always reserved for ministers and leaders of the community. "People looked forward, from one year to the next, to get the invitation," says Hart, president of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss., who can't recall one incident of anti-Semitism happening to himself, his parents or his three siblings. Now a resident of Jackson, Miss., Hart has continued the tradition of using the seder for interfaith education.

In the southwest corner of Mississippi, in Natchez, the once-thriving Jewish community holds a seder attended by about as many non-Jews as Jews. While a Jewish resident there used to hold model seders for area non-Jews, Natchez native Jerry Krouse described a "reawakening" of interest among non-Jews who have realized "that the Last Supper of Jesus was the seder." And in recent years, the Passover meal has become a hot ticket in Natchez.

Whether or not the seder is the last supper of Jesus is disputed, according to Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, national director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. But the belief is entrenched among Christians worldwide--and the phenomenon is strong in the American South.

At its peak around the turn of the 20th century, Natchez was home to several hundred Jews. But when the boll weevil plague tore through the cotton plants, the Jewish population--most of whom were involved in the cotton business--took a hard hit, according to Krouse.

Now, like so many other small towns that welcomed Jewish immigrants who came through Southern ports, Natchez's community is withering, with only 13 remaining members of its synagogue. Parents describe the bittersweet move of their children to cities with more economic and cultural lures--and more in the way of Jewish life.

Jews came to the South as early as the late 17th century in Charleston, S.C., and settled in Savannah, Ga., soon after.

But the "great migration" of Eastern European Jews, which lasted from 1880 until World War I, heavily shifted the balance of U.S. Jewry to the North.

Now a new immigration pattern has taken hold.

Mirroring the rest of the country, Southern Jews have fled the country for the city.

In 1960, there were 167 Jewish communities in the South, 98 of which had Jewish populations of between 100 and 500 people. By 1997, that number had dropped to 141, with only 62 communities averaging between 100 and 500 Jews.

One of the disappearing communities is Natchez, where Passover has changed its tone over the years, but "it still feels like the seder," says Krouse, who called their service "ultra-Reform."

Sometimes he questions whether the best introduction to Judaism for non-Jews is the Passover seder, with its songs and drinking and games to keep children engaged.

Ruth Adele Lovitt, a non-Jew who's attended the Natchez community seder for at least the last 15 years, loves the festive occasion.

"I enjoy going to services that Jesus went to when he was young," Lovitt says. "To me, the Passover is very symbolic," and said the blood with which Jews marked their doorpost in the Passover story has its own meaning for her. "It is the blood of Jesus that has marked my doorpost. He is the lamb of God," she says.

As far as the children's games go, Lovitt doesn't mind because "Jesus did this as a little boy," she says.

The Christian take on the traditional Jewish meal doesn't offend Krouse, whose concern has more to do with the dwindling Jewish presence. Jewish leaders agree.

"When non-Jewish groups come to our community seders, we look at it as a time for sharing what we have in common. We tend not to see it as a threat," says the president of the Southern Jewish Historical Society, Hollace Ava Weiner, who says small numbers make interfaith dialogue a daily part of small-town Southern Jewish life.

The seder in Natchez carries on its own traditions like matzah balls with gravy, which Krouse says takes on an "unspoken competition" by the attendants who offer their version of the delicacy for the feast.

And like any good Southern seder, the charoset--a sweet melange of nuts, wine and apples--is made with pecans, not walnuts. "Pecans just work better," Krouse says. And, of course, in these parts they're called "pecahnz."

"That would be a dead giveaway if you called it a 'peecan' that you weren't from around here," says Leanne Silverblatt, a fourth-generation resident of Indianola, Miss.--located in the Delta.

There, they've begun holding the second seder at the local "How Joy" Chinese restaurant. "The Jewish people in the Delta love Chinese food, too," Silverblatt joked.

In truth, the aging and diminishing community felt too tired to assemble a second production for the synagogue seder. So the Jewish women handed their traditional recipes over to the restaurant owners, with whom they are friendly, and the nearly 70 attendants luxuriate in being a guest at the second seder.

Meanwhile, in Vidalia, Ga., home of the famous "sweet onion," the community takes great pains to preserve a purely Orthodox seder at their synagogue. In the shape of a perfect Jewish star with its turqoise sanctuary divided by a mechitzah, to separate men from women, Vidalia's Orthodox synagogue boasts the title of one of the smallest in the country.

The community began with 14 members when the synagogue was founded in 1969, through a donation from a visiting New York merchant. Before that, they met at the local women's club, where post-football game dances competed with Friday night services on the other side of the wall.

Now, only seven members remain to carry the heavy load of producing a kosher Passover, which draws about 30 people--many of whom travel in from the neighboring towns.

One of the synagogue's founders and its president Ben Smith and his wife, Sarah, are one of a handful of Jewish families left in Vidalia. On soil famed for growing onions with as much raw sugar as apples, they lived the Southern Jewish tradition of working in the "dry goods" business. Like so many Southern Jews, retail was the natural choice for the many with a peddler's past. In fact, until Wal-Mart opened its doors there in the mid-1980s--and eventually shut those of the small businesses--Vidalia's few Jewish families owned nearly all of the city's major department stores.

For now, the Smiths are preparing for the yearly Passover push. That means driving more than two hours to the kosher butcher in Savannah, Ga., and bringing the meat back for the community seder.

"The fact is that people go all out to try to stay true to that holiday," Hart says. "That's a survival piece-- something Jews don't have to do in places where they're more plentiful."

 

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A divider (such as a curtain or barrier) that separates men and women at prayer. Derived from the Hebrew word "cheres," which means clay, it's a mixture of fruit, nuts, and wine eaten as part of the Passover seder. Symbolizing the mortar that the Hebrew slaves used to build the cities for Pharaoh in Egypt, it's one of the symbolic food items on the seder plate. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Rachel Pomerance

Rachel Pomerance a JTA staff writer based in New York, covers international affairs, college campuses, the United Nations, Israel-Diaspora relations and intergroup relations. She has written for several publications including Reuters, the Atlanta Jewish Times, the Atlanta Business Chronicle and TIME magazine. She has also worked on political campaigns and as a grassroots organizer for a political lobby.

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