Tales of a Professional Canadian Jew in the American Deep South.
I teach Jewish history in a land haunted by Christ. A land notorious for the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, swamps, gators, plantations, the Duke Boys and Roscoe P. Coltrane, mint juleps, critters and grits festivals, possum hunting, grits, legions of sheet-clad wanderers who are not just out on Halloween, grits, and some scenes from Deliverance I would rather not recall.
It is a land where the present is the biblical past; where the Second Coming is apparently coming any moment now. And it is a land of few Jews. If one excludes Florida (i.e. the universe of Seinfeld’s parents playing shuffle board in Century Village), there are only 257,000 Jews in the South – 4.2% of America’s Jewish population, and a mere 0.5% of the South’s population. The average southerner’s encounter with the Jew ended with the crucifixion of Jesus; if we pass through his field of vision and enter his consciousness, then we must be Abraham, Moses, or Isaiah – certainly not Hymie Shloymovitch, whose lineage traces back to the shtetls of Russia, the Lower East Side, or St. Viateur Bagel. We are ghostly incarnations of a biblical past; the original chosen people whose “history” ended on the cross and in the apocalyptic fires of Roman carnage.
The southerner today is a well meaning devout Christian who is eager to share the good news. And that good news is, of course, Jesus, the Lord and Savior. Yet the Jew remains for him a conundrum, and, when Southern Baptist meets Jew, the Southern Baptist seeks to understand this apparition from “Isra-el;” why he has not accepted the Gospel and achieved salvation in the universal heavenly kingdom of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost.
As a professor of Jewish history and a Jew by descent and education (but with little faith in an Almighty who seems to be perpetually out to lunch) I am regularly the object of scrutiny by those who are (and one may even say obsessively) concerned for my Hebrew soul: in the classroom, on the street, and in the steam bath at the YMCA. As the father of four year old twins I must explain to my kids why the bearded fat man isn’t coming down our chimney. And being from Canada further complicates matters; I’m a Canuck in a land of Crackers.
The journal entries that follow document my unexpected encounters in the dark recesses of the Bible Belt:
July 13, 2010
Cycling through the backcountry. Almost took a wrong turn down the “Path to Yeshua.” One small step for the bicycle, one giant leap for a Yid.
August 20, 2010
First day of class teaching in the South. I enter the classroom. Time to talk about the origins of the ancient Hebrews. They already look bored, I’ll inject some humor into the topic.
Me: “Well let’s throw ourselves right into it shall we? I won’t bother covering Adam and Eve. We all know the story. God makes boy. Boy meets girl. Snake seduces girl with apple. Girl and boy eat fruit, discover they’re naked, and life has sucked for all of us ever since…”
Me: “And this is Abraham. He is the forefather of many nations. But before that could happen, he heard a voice in his head telling him to go into the desert, mutilate his body, and then shtup the maid.”
Later, after class:
Student: “As a devout Christian I believe every word in the Bible, I found your presentation to be offensive.”
Me: “I do not mean to challenge your belief system.” [Actually, yes I do. And moreover, the mutilation and shtupping are right there in Genesis; I didn’t make it up.]
Student: “Please be more sensitive. I have to run to my human evolution class.”
Me: “Good luck with that…”
September 13, 2010
The Air conditioner has been broken for 3 days. The repair woman can’t seem to fix it.
Repair Woman: “What does your husband do?”
My Wife: “He teaches Jewish history”
Repair Woman: [bursting into tears] “Oh I love the Jews… Without y’all and Isra-el the Messiah wouldn’t be coming back.”
Me [from the other room]: “will He be returning before or after the air conditioner is fixed? I need to plan my day…”
Repair Woman: “When can we bring you into the faith and assure your salvation?”
Me: “My job contract precludes the conversion of anyone in my family.”
September 22, 2010
I am off to teach that Jesus was a Jew. Bring on the lynch mob.
October 31, 2010
This evening I observed people in ghostly white sheets bearing lanterns and wondered “why is this night not different from all the rest.”
November 19, 2010
I have spent 15 weeks educating southern goys in the vast tapestry of Jewish humor, bringing Woody Allen and Larry David into their lives. I am fairly certain that not one of these Dixie chicks will ever date a Jewish guy again.
November 30, 2010
10am. Sitting in my underwear preparing a lecture. Yet another air conditioner repairman pops in.
Him: “What d’you teach at the college?”
Me: “History. Jewish History.” [Damn. Damn. Mistake. Mistake. Mistake.]
Him: “So what does it mean to be Jewish?”
Me: “Uh that’s kinda complicated [particularly at 10am in my underwear]. We don’t accept the New Testament.”
Him: “Ah so Jesus hasn’t come yet.”
Me: “In a manner of speaking.”
Him: “So y’all believe in jist the Ol’ Testament.”
Me: “Well some people do. I don’t. We don’t have any evidence, for instance, that Abraham actually lived.”
Him: “Well we don’t have any evidence anyone ever lived. I mean we don’t have evidence if George Washington ever lived.”
Me: “Well we do have his body.”
Him: “When can I bring you to my church?”
Me: “The air conditioner is upstairs.”
December 1, 2010
My Daughter: “I want to be one of the Christmas people.”
Me: “And I want to be American. Tough darts farmer.”
December 17, 2010
My Daughter: “Santa Claus came to school today.”
Daddy: “Did Jesus come to?”
My Daughter: “No.”
Daddy: “OK good, just checking.”
December 19, 2010
Sitting in the YMCA steam room with only one other guy.
Naked Guy: “Y’all ready for Christmas?”
Me: “Pretty much.” [Opting to leave things at that.]
[Three minutes later]
Naked Guy: “I suppose I should be politically correct and say ‘holidays’”
Me: “Well, now that you mention it … I am Jewish”
Naked Guy: “Oh then I should apologize.”
Me: “It’s OK. I’m just tired of hearing ‘I’ve never met a Jew before’”
Naked Guy: “Whad’aya talkin’ about?! I grew up in Statesville. My two best friends were Jewish. Hell, I even walked down the street with Black kids.”
December 24, 2010
I enter a rather empty Indian restaurant for a Christmas Yuletide takeout meal.
Me: “Do you do much business on Christmas?”
Indian: “Not really.”
Me: “Well we’re Jewish, so we’re always on the hunt for takeout food on Christmas.”
Indian: “Jewish? What’s that? You don’t believe in God?
Me: “We believe in the Old Testament. Our tradition is to reject Jesus and to eat Chinese food on Christmas. But we screwed up and had Chinese two days ago. So hence I’m here.”
January 12, 2011
Office phone rings
Caller: “Doctor ____?”
Caller: “My name is ____. I’m a retired professor in the chemistry department. I’m so thrilled our university has hired you.”
Caller: “You see well I’m a Baptist of sorts. I’m actually Hungarian. But I’m going through my Jewish phase now.”
Caller: “I just thought you should know.”
January 19, 2011
Student: “I would like to enroll in your class. I love Jewish culture.”
Me: “Sure. What do you know about Jewish culture?”
Student: “I know the basics. Passover. Anne Frank.”
April 2, 2011
I am manning the History booth at the Freshmen Student Fair. The father of an incoming student sticks around for what appears to be a surreptitious tête-à-tête with me.
Father: “You teach Jewish history? So you Jewish?”
Me: “Indeed I am” [But I am going to quit the club if these encounters keep happening…]
Father: “Wow, never met one-a-youz before. What’s it mean to be Jewish?
Me: “Well it’s complicated” [but many will sum us up as: Christ-killing, shiksa-hunting doctors, lawyers, and accountants.]
Father: “So Jews don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah?”
Me: “That’s the only thing all Jews seem to agree upon.”
Father: “Well what’ll you do if we is right & Jesus comes back.”
Me: “I guess I’m going to hell. But I’m also going to hell if the Rabbis or the Mullahs of Islam turn out to be right.”
Father: “The Muslims ain’t right. They want to destroy Israel and kill the Jews so Jesus can’t ever come back, right?
Me: “Uh, I’m not really qualified to answer that question. But dialogue between religions is essential if there’s to be peace.”
Father: “Well there won’t be time for peace when Jesus returns.”
Me: “Thanks for stopping by.”
To be concluded upon the Second Coming…
Originally from Montreal and trained in the classrooms and cafés of the godless University of California at Berkeley, Dr. Yid in Dixieland is a Professor of Jewish history in the Christ-haunted swamps of the former Confederacy. Despite his superior training in Hegel, E.P. Thompson, and Hannah Arendt from the greatest luminaries in the academy, the author has found Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman to be far more useful for surviving exile among the crackers below the Mason-Dixon line.