Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Feeding the Jewish Soul in the Delta Diaspora

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Feeding the Jewish Soul in the Delta Diaspora

Article excerpt

Mention "The Delta" and vivid images come to mind of a dramatic, flat landscape etched by rows of cotton and bounded by the Mississippi River. One imagines catfish, juke joints, barbecue, and pick-up trucks in a world inhabited by white planters, poor white sharecroppers, and black blues musicians. Although the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta is largely populated by black and white working-class laborers and upper-class white landowners, the region is also shaped by a small group of Jewish southerners, now numbering no more than three hundred, whose families first arrived in the Delta in the late nineteenth century as peddlers and fledgling merchants. (1) Between the Mississippi River levee and Highway 61, amidst the shotgun houses, cotton fields, and Baptist churches of the Delta, are a handful of synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, Jewish-owned clothing stores, and businesses that were central to the economies of small Delta towns prior to the coming of discount stores like Wal-Mart. Less visible but nonetheless present are the adapted folklore and foodways of a transplanted culture, for feeding the Jewish soul, both spiritually and physically, has challenged Delta Jews from their first arrival in the region through today.

In the town of Blytheville in the Arkansas Delta, my family's Jewish identity separated us from our white and black Gentile neighbors. Contrary to popular belief, this division was more respectful than mean-spirited. Biblical identification of Jews as the "chosen people" carries weight in the South; because of our distant lineage to Moses, Jewish families had a special status in the Delta. Although there were violent incidents of antisemitism such as the 1960s temple bombings in Jackson and Meridian, Mississippi, most antisemitic expressions were far more benign actions such as exclusion from debutante parties, garden clubs, country clubs, and occasional comments about Jewish tightfistedness. My family attended synagogue--known to non-Jewish locals as "the Jewish church"--and offered up prayers to a deity, which helped to secure our acceptance in town. More than Judaism, it was the fact that we had not always lived in the community that separated us from the Gentiles. Because generations of history did not intimately link "our people" with "their people," our place in the local hierarchy of white society was never clear. (2)

My Jewish ancestors arrived in the Delta in the early 1920s. We lived within the Delta world of cotton planting, fall ginning, church socials, and football and the Jewish world of weekly Sabbath services, visiting rabbis, and preparation for the Passover seder in the spring and the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the fall. We are between these two worlds in a complicated culinary negotiation of regional, ethnic, and religious identity. Within Jewish homes in the Delta, African American cooks and domestic workers set bountiful tables and prepared the cuisine for which the region is famous. Their meals featured elegant dinners of standing rib roast, as well as down-home southern Gentile meals of barbecue and fried catfish. Less familiar dishes served at Jewish tables in the Delta included matzah balls, kugels (dairy casserole), tortes, and tzimmes (baked sweetened vegetables and fruits), foods that tied Jewish worlds to central and eastern Europe.

Food writer Craig Claiborne was "initiated into the joys" of Jewish foods in the home of Sadie Wolf, who lived across the street from the Claiborne family in Indianola, Mississippi. Claiborne recalls visiting the Wolfs' home one Passover when daughter Anita had eaten her fill of traditional holiday foods. "If somebody feeds me one more matzah ball I'm going to kill them," protested Wolf. As Claiborne recalls in his memoir, it was the "talent and palate" of African American cooks who blended "soul food"--a mix of African and American Indian flavors--with creole cuisine that made the southern kitchen unique. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.