Saturday, December 9, 2017

Being Jewish in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1950s


     The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opens in Jackson today. The president of the United States will not be attending the ceremony.
     For a while it looked he would. The man elected on a platform of naked bigotry, encouraging hatred against people based on their skin color, nationality, and religion, would actually show up and pretend to care about prejudice. As if he belonged at such a museum in any other capacity than a cautionary exhibit.
     But Donald Trump either doesn't know how he is rightly perceived, or doesn't care, and on Monday said he would be going. Only after civil rights icons like Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) and others refused to participate in the opening if Trump were present, did someone on Trump's staff with a capacity for shame decide that the president would not attend the public festivities, but would tour the museum privately, like the scorned pariah he is. 
     Jackson, Mississippi, if you don't know, has an astounding history of racial and religious oppression, as I mention in the column below, reviewing a book about growing up there Jewish in the 1950s. The book is filled with telling, touching details—one that I didn't put into the column, yet stays lodged in mind, is when the Ku Klux Klan marched through Jackson in the 1950s, Edward Cohen's father knew which neighbors were under those sheets because he had sold them their shoes.

     Jews don't believe in heaven. That isn't bandied about much. It seems almost rude. Sincere people are trying to embrace this incredible construct of harps and clouds and halos, and we're not playing along.
     I suppose some Jews believe. But heaven isn't part of the official program. I sure don't buy it, instead keeping the party line: Departed loved ones live in the memory of those who love them.
    For instance: To conjure up my grandfather, Irv, whom I adored, I don't have to speculate about angels. I can see him, in my mind, reclining in his green Barcalounger, sipping a Pabst, smelling of cigarettes and Luden's Cough Drops, watching "The Price Is Right." He loved "The Price Is Right."
     The problem with not having a heaven to safely dispatch departed relatives, like children shipped off to eternal summer camp, is that it places a deep responsibility on you. If they exist only in memory, then you have to remember them. It is your responsibility to rescue them from oblivion.
     Which is one reason I so admire Edward Cohen's new memoir, The Peddler's Grandson (University Press of Mississippi, $25). In fewer than 200 pages, he constructs an ark rescuing not only every relative he ever knew—with their quirks and foibles and eccentricities—but charting their improbable journey from Eastern Europe to Jackson, Miss., of all places, where they dwelled, outsiders, running a clothing shop.
     Jackson in the 1950s and 1960s is sketched through stunning details. When the P.A. system at Chastain Junior High school announces President Kennedy has been slain, the students cheer, wildly. Later, "Sesame Street" debuts nationwide, but not in Jackson, because it shows black and white children playing together.
     Still, Cohen never paints Mississippi in the grim hues we Northerners expect. Despite frequent bigotry, it's a great place for Cohen to grow up. That's perhaps the biggest surprise of the book. Jackson is nice; it's home. He loves it, then and now.
     Cohen's story is the story of anyone set apart for one reason or another. How much do you give up in order to fit in?
     The process began in the late 19th century, with grandfather Moise, fresh off the boat. After his new companions persuade him to take part in a snipe hunt, he reverses the humiliating joke by viewing the whole thing as bonding, certain "that he had undergone some redneck rite of passage."
     Poignance and humor jostle each other, as when the abrasive Rabbi Perry Nussbaum— outspoken enough on civil rights to get his house bombed by the Klu Klux Klan—sends young Cohen out on Halloween to collect, not the usual candy, but pennies for UNICEF.
     "The United Nations was regarded in Mississippi as, at best, a communist lesion on the country's independence, at worst as the nesting place of Satan," he writes. "I set out, wearing my mouse costume, into the heart of John Birch-era Mississippi." The results can be imagined.
     Cohen is at first desperate to fit in with his entirely gentile school. He lobbies his mother for a Christmas tree; she resists, then strikes a compromise—he can have a tree in his bedroom. The image of the little boy shutting his door after supper, plugging in the single strand of lights around this tiny, pathetic branch of a tree, was the most moving image for me in the whole book—a sad, funny encapsulation of yearning and denial.
     Southerness and Jewishness are not often juxtaposed. But, like chocolate and peanut butter, they go well together, especially in the hands of an author who has both love and a clear eye:
     "One can hardly hail from two more historically losing causes than the South and Judaism," he writes. "Both my cultures have long, tragic pasts, and not one jot of it has been forgotten."
     Strong words, and he argues them well in a beautiful book.
            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 28, 1999


  1. This is a great piece Neil. Your thoughtful insight is always appreciated.

  2. Trump stays away from places that are outside of his comfort zone. If praise isn't going to be heaped on him, he won't show up. He's only interested in being the center of attention when the crowd is gushing. If the crowd is likely to be sneering and booing, he'll take a pass on that venue every time. That's why he won't visit Chicago. His is the Greatest Show on Earth! He's Big Top Trump! Screw it, let's all go to the movies.

  3. Interesting. Randy Newman sings about his Jewish relatives from Jackson in "Dixie Flyer". In couple lines the captures the same longing for assimilation. The topic seems ideal for a more in-depth treatment by Newman, but I don't think he's delved into in it the same way he's explored what sounded like the traditional redneck perspective. Maybe that's his way of assimilating.

  4. I understand your position as the scriptures I refer to as the Old Testament (no insult intended) do seem divided on the afterlife. However, there does seem to a difference of opinion among Jews both today and in history on this subject. I have to wonder if the concentration upon this world is in some way a response to Christianity with its strong emphasis upon the next world. As a Christian who has no pretensions about being a saint, I take comfort in that even if the world forgets me that God will still remember me. I also see a danger in being so heavenly minded that one does not care about what happens on this earth beforehand. Many Christians think that it makes no difference if the environment goes kaput and wars break out because God will return and save us. But, this is akin to putting God to the test and we know what Jesus said about trying to manipulate God.

    1. "Jews don't believe in Heaven." If truth be told, thinking Christians probably also find it hard to hold on to myths we were brought up on, including "this incredible construct of harps and clouds and halos." Thomas Hardy wrote a fine poem about that longing to believe, using a country legend as an example.

      "Christmas eve, and twelve of the clock.
      "Now they are all on their knees,"
      An elder said as we sat in a flock
      By the embers in hearthside ease.

      We pictured the meek and mild creatures where
      They dwelt in their strawy pen,
      Nor did it occur to one of us there
      To doubt they were kneeling then.

      So fair a fancy few would weave
      In these years! Yet I feel
      If someone said on Christmas Eve,
      "Come, see the Oxen kneel

      "In the lonely barton by yonder comb
      Our childhood used to know,"
      I should go with him in the gloom,
      Hoping it might be so.


  5. "....when the Ku Klux Klan marched through Jackson in the 1950s, Edward Cohen's father knew which neighbors were under those sheets because he had sold them their shoes." Haunting.


  6. "But, like chocolate and peanut butter, they go well together."

    An off-the-wall aside to this interesting column...

    Your buddy, 2-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Gene Weingarten, is of the ridiculous, minority opinion that:

    "Peanut M&Ms are horrifying, as are Reese's cups and Snickers. Peanuts and chocolate do not go together."

    and he states that anyone who thinks otherwise has been "hoodwinked by Big Chocolate."

    1. How unfair to blame Big Chocolate when it could just as easily be Big Peanut.
      Try Reese's Sticks. They're outta this world! Like a peanut butter Kit-Kat bar.

    2. Blasphemy! And now I have a craving...

  7. Count me in on that "ridiculous minority opinion."

    Regarding Jews in Mississippi: I remember how, in his memoir "Black Boy," Richard Wright recounts black kids jeering at Jewish shopkeepers. It seems even the most oppressed like having someone to look down on. Explains a lot about modern politics.

  8. After I read this column, I bought Mr. Cohen's book. It was thought provoking and an excellent read. Thanks for the heads up.


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